Wyatt Durrette's father "could do most anything" and worked in road-building and construction all over the country, ending up when Wyatt was 7 as a maintenance foreman at the Union Camp paper mill in Franklin, a town on the hot, flat peanut lands of Southside Virginia between Richmond and Norfolk. "A paper mill smells terrible, but when you're growing up, you get used to it," and he grew up happily despite the smell and the fierce summertime heat. He was a star quarterback and got top grades as well in high school and at Woodberry Forest, a private school in Orange County that he attended for two years. He had been impressed, on a trip to see a football game with his father, by "how much spirit there was at VMI" -- Virginia Military Institute. A cousin and someone else from Franklin had gone there, and so did Wyatt Durrette, on scholarship.
"I matriculated with an Honorable Mention All-American quarterback," he says, and so he shifted to halfback and finally end; after an injury, he ran the 440 in track, a race that requires all-out effort for a quarter-mile. These were just the first of many changes in course in his career. He majored in math, "well beyond calculus," but decided "it wasn't quite my thing"; he gave up on being a pilot "because I didn't have the ability to conceptualize in three dimensions." On graduation in 1961, though he had a military obligation he would eventually have to fulfill, he went to law school at Washington and Lee; there he got interested in political philosophy and earned a Gilman Fellowship to graduate school at Johns Hopkins, where he wrote a master's thesis on Justice Byron White; then, from 1966 to 1969, service in the Air Force Judge Advocates' Corps in Thailand, Vietnam and California.
This was not all. He met his wife, Cheryn, just after graduation from college and married her in 1962; their oldest child graduated from college this year, and they're expecting their seventh child around election time. To support his growing family, law/graduate student Durrette taught part-time, sold Fuller brushes and worked for a Republican state senator in Maryland. For Wyatt Durrette had taken an interest in politics. "In law school I got interested in political philosophy," he says, after reading Barry Goldwater's "Conscience of a Conservative." He founded a W&L Conservative Society and in 1964 was active in Youth For Goldwater in Maryland.
Amid all this he and Cheryn have set down roots in various suburbs. First in Glen Burnie, Md. -- because it was halfway between Hopkins and the State House. Then, when Wyatt went to Southeast Asia, in Vienna, Va. -- because a widowed friend of Cheryn's had settled there. More recently, in 1983, they left Vienna for Chesterfield County outside Richmond -- so he could be home evenings after campaigning.
In Vienna, somehow both Durrettes found time for church and volunteer activities, and for politics. Years before in Roanoke Cheryn baby-sat for Linwood Holton, who was elected governor in 1969, and both Cheryn and Wyatt knew Republican Chairman Bob Glenn from school. Wyatt was active in the Jaycees, started Walk for Mankind (to benefit Project Concern), coached his children's teams, and "we got to meet lots of people in the Fairfax Republican party." When redistricting gave western Fairfax two new House of Delegates seats in 1971, Durrette ran and won (and kept on practicing law full-time). Reelected in 1973 and 1975, he ran for attorney general in 1977, when he was edged out at the state convention by Marshall Coleman, and again in 1981, when he lost narrowly to Gerald Baliles.
In the legislature and on the campaign trail, he is prone to standard conservative rhetoric; as a legislator, he took the lead on setting up a governor's commission on voluntarism and a victims' compensation fund. He got a ceiling on medical malpractice judgments, and the death penalty for killers of law enforcement officers. The student of local government and the active suburban volunteer seem more his model than the Goldwater activist or the conservative student of political theory. Through his career in government as in his own path through life, he seems drawn almost unpredictably to one interest and then -- or at the same time -- to something quite different.