The first of two candidate profiles By Molly Moore Washington Post Staff Writer
RICHMOND -- It had been a whirlwind summer romance for Virginia's first Junior Miss and the young Virginia Military Institute graduate. What began with a chance meeting at Virginia Beach was still blossoming weeks later when he left for an Air Force training camp.
Wyatt B. Durrette's first letter to his summer sweetheart in 1961, however, was filled with the passion of another discovery.
On the trip to the New England training camp, a New York City bookseller gave him a book that would change his political outlook as much as the beauty queen from Roanoke would change his life.
"I don't know what it is, but it's a beginning," Durrette wrote after he began reading the book, Sen. Barry Goldwater's "The Conscience of a Conservative."
Cheryn Coller -- who less than a year later would become Cheryn Durrette -- said the statement, coming from a man who had displayed little or no interest in politics, startled her. "That was the awakening for him."
Since then, his evolution from Wyatt Beazley Durrette Jr., a youthful academician preaching Goldwater conservatism, to Wyatt Durrette, the 47-year-old Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, has been a complex and sometimes tortuous process.
He has had to juggle his textbook idealism against pragmatic politicking. He has been forced to tame the rebellious streak that agitated high school coaches and military superiors and conform to the customs of a state that reveres tradition. He has struggled to be "captain of his ship" in the face of what some describe as his strong dislike of conflict.
And Durrette, described by a friend as "extremely competitive by nature," has had to accept defeat in his two previous campaigns for statewide office. Now a Richmond lawyer, the former Fairfax County legislator and father of seven children is locked in an uphill battle against Democrat Gerald L. Baliles, the man who narrowly defeated him in 1981 for state attorney general.
After almost four years of meticulously building a campaign and moving his family from the Washington suburbs to Richmond, so he could be closer to them while campaigning, Durrette has been slowed by a campaign plagued by quarreling among his advisers. Both Republican polls and newspaper polls show him trailing Baliles.
A lean, balding man with a round face and wide grin, Durrette said the internal disagreements amount to no more than the tension found in all campaigns. "You can always have people around you who will tell you what you want to hear," he said last week. "I want strong, independent-minded people in my administration who will disagree with me . . .but I make the decisions."
Many moderate Republicans have expressed private consternation over the influence Durrette has allowed former Gov. Mills E. Godwin -- a one-time segregationist who has urged this year's GOP ticket to run a more negative and aggressive campaign against the Democrats. Durrette repeatedly has defended Godwin and his associates, saying that their views on racial issues are not as extreme as their critics claim.
While neither Durrette nor Baliles has been able to arouse the voters to a great degree, Durrette is generally said to have succeeded in projecting a warmer, friendlier image.
"He's the nicest guy in the world," said Fairfax County prosecutor Robert F. Horan Jr., a Democrat who frequently tangled with Durrette over criminal legislation when Durrette was in the Virginia General Assembly. "He was frustrating to deal with because he was such a nice fellow."
Faced with the immense popularity of Democratic Gov. Charles S. Robb, Durrette has sought to run a traditional Republican campaign, stressing many of the issues that have bolstered President Reagan and previous GOP campaigns in Virginia.
Durrette has wrapped his campaign in the "value of family values" and talks of making "Virginia first again." While his stands on many issues, such as education, prisons and roads, are similar to those of Baliles, Durrette has said he can accomplish his programs without new taxes or a larger state government.
Still, his campaign has failed to excite his supporters. "It's one of the most boring races we've had in a long time," said Fairfax County Supervisor Thomas M. Davis III, one of Durrette's Northern Virginia campaign coordinators. "These guys are not ideological firebrands."
Durrette says he is a native son of four sections of Virginia: the tiny Southside paper mill town of Franklin, where he spent his youth; the Shenandoah Valley town of Staunton, where he lived with aunts and cousins while his father was building plants for the E.I. duPont de Nemours chemical company; Northern Virginia, where he set up his first law practice, and Richmond.
In Franklin, he is remembered as a mischievous, headstrong youngster who quickly emerged as a leader and visionary at the town's all-white, segregated high school.
Relatives recall that he told them "when he grew up, he was gonna be governor of Virginia," said his cousin, Betsy Allport. "He was just as sincere; he wasn't being flip."
Durrette, flashing one of his quick grins when the story is retold, said he does not remember the statement, but he recounted that it was a pretty heady experience for a boy growing up in a small town to be captain of all three high school teams -- basketball, baseball and football.
One of the things he remembers most clearly from those years, however, was the day the coach kicked him off the basketball squad. There he was, the captain and the leading scorer, benched for spending the afternoon before the game working in a clothing store.
Durrette said he was so outraged -- the coach had given him permission to take the job -- that he stormed into the locker room, dressed and then spent the rest of the game in the stands. The coach, as Durrette tells the story, dropped him from the team and said he could rejoin only if he would apologize in front of the entire team. Durrette refused.
"I just didn't accept authority very well," said Durrette. "If somebody tried to make me do something, I tended to go in the opposite direction."
That rebellious streak prompted Durrette's father to steer his only son toward VMI, the state-supported military college in Lexington.
VMI did not cure young Durrette of disdain for authority. He earned the rank of corporal in his second year, but was demoted to private and never rose higher. Despite serving as president of his VMI class for three years, "I got a lot of demerits," Durrette said, noting that his infractions were for wearing his hair too long and not shining his shoes.
After graduation Durrette entered Washington and Lee University's law school, also in Lexington. There he helped found the Washington and Lee Conservative Society and served as editor of a small newspaper called The Southern Conservative, which operated on a shoestring budget and appeared irregularly.
Throughout law school, Durrette said, he never thought he would emerge as a lawyer or a politician, but instead assumed that his interest in political philosophy would lead him to the classroom as a political science professor.
He received a master's degree in political science at Johns Hopkins University, but his plans to pursue a doctorate were disrupted when the Vietnam War escalated and he was called into service as an Air Force lawyer.
While he was in Southeast Asia, his wife and children were in California. But when a test pilot, the husband of Cheryn Durrette's best friend, was killed in a plane crash, they followed the grieving woman back to her home town: Vienna, Va. Cheryn Durrette quickly became enamored of the Washington suburbs, and she persuaded her husband to open a law practice there after he left active duty.
In Vienna, the young couple poured themselves into community activities -- serving as temporary foster parents for juvenile delinquents when correctional facilities became crowded, helping causes for retarded children, working in the church and the Jaycees, coaching football leagues for boys and softball teams for girls. Durrette began delving into politics, working in Republican Linwood Holton's successful 1969 campaign for governor.
That activity won the attention of Fairfax Republican leaders who began talking about running Durrette for an open seat in the House of Delegates in a five-member district that encompassed northern Fairfax County.
They sent him to Richmond for three two-year terms as a member of a minority party. There colleagues said he was forced to compromise some of his stringent conservative philosophy with the demands of his more moderate electorate.
"I've always been philosophically conservative," Durrette has said repeatedly during the campaign. "But I've also always been interested in solving problems." And that, he said, may not be "characteristic of the image that many people have of conservatives. I think it's accurate to say that I chaired more commissions, subcommittees, major items than anybody else of either party . . . and that I had more legislative accomplishments."
Some of the votes and legislation have returned to nag him in the gubernatorial campaign. "Back in those days he was a big liberal," said prosecutor Horan. "He was very wimpy on law enforcement bills."
Durrette rejects those charges as inaccurate and political rhetoric, but he concedes he changed his stance on two major issues nearly 10 years ago.
He had supported the Equal Rights Amendment but now believes it is unnecessary. He also had supported but now opposes a restricted form of collective bargaining for public employes. "Part of being a leader is acknowledging that change of position," he said.
Baliles, however, has hammered at the changes as products of the "old Wyatt," "the new Wyatt" and "classic Wyatt."
Durrette, who has supported a constitutional amendment that would allow prayer in public schools, says that he has a deep belief in God. His campaign has the endorsement of one of the state's best-known ministers, television evangelist Jerry Falwell of Lynchburg.
Durrette has practiced three religions -- growing up with strict Baptist parents, later associating with a Protestant church, and eventually attending Catholic services with his wife. However, Durrette belongs to no church. His wife says he is still "searching."
Having twice lost bids for the attorney general's office, in 1976 to J. Marshall Coleman and in 1981 to Baliles, Durrette said this election is likely to be his last hurrah, if he loses.
Even now, his interests go beyond politics. He is vice president and part owner of American Defense Systems Inc., a Northern Virginia high-technology firm that he said will do $5 million in business this year, most of it involving Navy contracts for "sophisticated weaponry." He has a law office here and in Fairfax City and is vice president of a property management company that owns a newly refurbished Richmond hotel.
And then there is the family: Cheryn and the seven children, who range in age from 22-year-old Debbie to eight-week-old Zachary, and includes an adopted Korean daughter, not to mention the three dogs and eight cats.
"It's become normal for him not to be around," Cheryn Durrette said, balancing Zachary on her knee.
Debbie, a Radford University graduate campaigning full time for her father, said, "He's always found time for us . . . . We're very close."
Debbie recalled a story she heard her mother tell. Cheryn and Wyatt Durrette were climbing into the car, en route to a political event during the 1981 campaign, when Cheryn looked back and spotted 7-year-old Wyatt III, standing in the door, tears streaming down his face. She turned to her husband and asked: "Is this worth it?"
Cheryn Durrette paused when reminded of the question. "Yes, it really is," she said the other day. "He believes he can make a difference for the better."