The Buffalo Soldiers of West Virginia

Part Three: “Ranger Bob”

by Avery Lyons, Maxwell Shavers, and Rob Rago

Photo by Maxwell Shavers | Jerome Hairston in the midst of at-home art workshop.
Photo by Maxwell Shavers

Jerome Hairston has worn many hats in his life, but he sums himself up in three sentences:

“I’m black. I’m a biker. And I’ve seen more bullshit than you could ever imagine.”

A drag racer on his motorcycle at 14, he grew up to compete as a category three cyclist in road races later on in life.

At 18, he graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in Beckley and went on to West Virginia Institute of Technology until he ran out of money and joined the Air Force. After three years, he returned to college, and then a series of jobs across five companies and four towns.

Now, at 65 years old, he enjoys retired life by riding in Buffalo Soldiers M.C., as well as volunteering through other service organizations, including the Boy Scouts, Habitat for Humanity, Lion’s Club, and his church. In whatever free time he has left, he models the planes he used to work on as an equipment repairman in the Air Force.

“You always hear people say, ‘how’d you get in there? You must be smart,’” Hairston said about his time in the service. “Well, I was smart enough to get in the Air Force, but not enough to get an indoor job.”

Photo by Maxwell Shavers

Jerome and his wife Gretta, an associate member, joined the Buffalo Soldiers in 2014, when the Charleston chapter was only a year old. Jerome recounts that he was “pleasantly shocked to see there were other black riders” but the element of the club that really drew him was getting to share his life-long commitment to service with a community.

Photo by Rob Rago | Jerome and Gretta Hairston riding in the Charleston Veteran’s Day Parade

Hairston’s workbench is “just about as neat as it ever gets,” littered in tools and in-progress projects, an easel and paint. Above him hangs a field of model-military planes.

“These planes you see flying around here, they were sitting on the ground. None of ’em could move unless I was the guy who gave the crew the power, air conditioning, heat, whatever they needed to support that aircraft.”

He points out one in particular, his “primary bird.”

“The KC 135. I saw it every day. Only thing it do is go up and come down.”

Photos by Maxwell Shavers

When it comes to modeling, Hairston breaks the mold of the stereotypical grump who keeps his toys in pristine condition. In another room, a train set has been graffitied by friends and family, a tradition started by a young granddaughter who drew on a freight car one day. Ever since, visitors sign their names and leave nods to their memories with Jerome in the form of doodles.

In certain places, the graffiti acts as a biography of Hairston’s life, from the water tower in the corner, vandalized by the WWHS class of ’71 to a specific junction before a bridge, apparently recognizable to residents of Little Rock, Arkansas. In other places, signatures and notes left behind by lost loved ones serve as a memorial.

Photo by Maxwell Shavers | Jerome sits in the center of his model train community.

Plagued by recent health issues, Hairston has spent retirement at his in-laws’ old house in Montgomery, WV, a sleepy town just under an hour outside of Charleston.

“Jerome is not a sane person if he’s not riding a motorcycle,” said Gretta about Jerome’s confinement following surgery earlier this year. “If he kills himself on it, you know what, he died happy.”

Hairston’s yard buts right against the Kanawha River. The remnants of a coal camp can be seen on the opposite bank.

“Some days, the hardest thing I do is get up in the morning and look down at the river and the river is flowing downhill, all by itself. No help from me,” Hairston muses. “And sometimes the hardest thing I do in the day is put my teeth in.”

Photos by Maxwell Shavers

Between riding and and Hairston’s other community service projects, most recently reenacting famous black men in history for local schools and education programs, it’s unlikely he gets too many days off. But the Hairstons seem to prefer to keep busy.

“Everything the Buffalo Soldiers is involved in, my husband and I are usually involved in. Community service is second nature to me and my family,” said Gretta. “The club was appealing to [Jerome] because he enjoys doing things with other veterans. Sometimes [veterans] tend to reflect on their time in the military and there may be emotional issues associated with that… my husband is the type of person who likes to be there when someone has a need to talk.”