WHEELING - Sen. Jay Rockefeller announced Friday that after nearly 30 years in the Senate, he will wind down his career and not seek re-election in 2014.
Rockefeller, D-W.Va., told a gathering in Washington his decision was "not a political one," and it has not been easy.
"As I approach 50 years of public service in West Virginia - 50 years of non-stop public life, 50 years of fighting for our people - and I consider seriously the other ways I want to contribute in life and look at my incredible family, I know deep within me that the end of this term (in 2014) is the right time to recalibrate," he said.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller announces that he will not seek a sixth term in Washington on Friday.
Rockefeller, 75, added he wanted to find a new balance for the "things I love - public service and family."
He spoke of how he first came to Emmons, W.Va., as a volunteer in a federal program in 1964. He described West Virginians as hard-working people, "never shying away from any physical task or uphill battle."
"That's what I found in Emmons - real people," Rockefeller continued. They are "tough, resolute and giving - even when they were the ones in need. Truthfully, they gave me more than I ever could have given them.
"Every day and in every minute since, West Virginia has been my home, and the people of West Virginia have been my life's work."
Rockefeller was elected to the Senate in 1984. He is now chairman of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and he has served as chairman of the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Committee on Veterans Affairs.
Rockefeller was first elected to the House of Delegates in 1966. He was elected West Virginia secretary of state in 1968 and served that office until 1973. After a failed bid for the governor's office in 1972, he became president of West Virginia Wesleyan College through 1976.
Rockefeller was elected governor in 1976 and held that job until moving to the U.S. Senate in January 1985.
West Virginia's junior senator, Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., thanked Rockefeller for "representing our state for more than 40 years."
"When I first arrived in Washington two-and-a-half years ago, I couldn't have received a warmer welcome from Jay and his staff, and I am so personally grateful for all their help," Manchin said. "More importantly, in all his decades of public service, Jay has followed one guiding principle: to improve the lives of West Virginians."
Karen Steakem of Wheeling worked as an intern in Rockefeller's office while completing her master's degree at West Virginia University. She was hired as a staff assistant in August 1994.
"It was a great opportunity to work on economic development, and I also worked on fundraising for his 1996 re-election campaign," she said. "I was saddened by his announcement. He is such a champion for the people of West Virginia."
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin lauded Rockefeller's efforts on behalf of children and coal miners.
"As an original sponsor of the Children's Health Insurance Program, he made it possible for more than 143,000 of West Virginia's youngest citizens to receive the quality health care they deserve," Tomblin said. "Sen. Rockefeller also has maintained a legacy of improving mine safety by putting the safety and security of our miners first. Following the mining tragedies of Sago and Aracoma, he spearheaded an effort resulting in some of the most sweeping federal mine safety changes in a generation, including longer-lasting self-rescuers, quicker incident notification and stricter fines. Thousands of military veterans now have access to benefits, a state nursing home and home health care because Sen. Rockefeller led the charge on these and many other important veterans' issues, including the establishment of our state's veterans cemetery, the Donel C. Kinnard Memorial State Veterans Cemetery in Institute, W.Va."
Ohio County Democrat Party Co-Chairman John Saunders said Friday was an emotional day for him after Rockefeller's announcement.
"I'm happy for the senator," Saunders said. "He has made a decision to spend more time with Sharon and his family, but I'm disappointed politically. We have had a long-running relationship that goes back to when he was secretary of state."
Mary Hamm of Wheeling also has been a friend of the Rockefellers for many years, and she said that on her last birthday the senator sent her a bouquet of flowers.
"It doesn't surprise me he made the decision not to run for re-election," she said. "He knows he had a good, long run, and that he did what he could for West Virginia."
Wheeling lawyer William Wilmoth was appointed U.S. attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia under Bill Clinton after being recommended for the job by Rockefeller and the late Sen. Robert Byrd.
"Sen. Rockefeller has had a long, long record of service to West Virginia, and he will be sorely missed," Wilmoth said.
West Virginia Democrat Party Chairman Larry Puccio said "thank you" does not go far enough "to express the gratitude we have for Jay Rockefeller."
"He dedicated his life to public service, and all West Virginians and Americans have benefited from his efforts," he said. "Many children in West Virginia are living better lives because of Jay, our veterans are getting the respect they so deserve because of Jay, and our seniors feel more secure because of Jay."
Kathy Stalnaker, chairwoman of the Marshall County Democrat Party, said Rockefeller "has been wonderful for our state."
"It will be a sad loss for West Virginia," she said. "I figured he would be there forever."
G. Randolph Worls, chairman of the Oglebay Foundation, agreed West Virginia will miss Rockefeller as senator.
"He brought immediate name recognition to the position on a national basis," Worls said. "He actively tried to serve constituents through the various committees he was on, and he did a conscientious job as senator. He deserves praise and was long-serving."
Ohio County commissioners also thanked Rockefeller for his years of service.
"I'm a huge fan of his," Commissioner Orphy Klempa said. "He has represented the people of our great state like no other. He has the pulse of West Virginia, and I'm going to miss him. He understood the needs of the state and acted always in the best interest of West Virginia.
"We've now lost two great senators - Sen. Byrd and now Sen. Rockefeller," Klempa said. "It takes not just all that experience, but seniority. We had quite a bit of clout at one time."
Commissioner Randy Wharton said he has known Rockefeller since 1976.
"He has served our state and our country and he deserves to retire," Wharton said. "He is a very nice guy, a great family man and father. I'm glad I've had a good relationship with him. I respect him and wish him the best."
Commissioner Tim McCormick said Rockefeller was instrumental in bringing the AT&T call center to The Highlands in Ohio County, and that 350 people now work at the center. He added that Rockefeller also was a huge champion for Medicare and veterans-related issues.
"It's going to be a tough position to fill," McCormick said. "Those are huge shoes to fill."