SHINNSTON — After growing up in the Northern Panhandle, Kathleen Panek couldn’t get out of West Virginia fast enough.
Now she spends her days introducing the beauty of the state to all types of travelers.
As the co-owner of Gillum House Bed & Breakfast in Shinnston, she aims to showcase Shinnston while providing the comforts of home, at least for one night.
Panek grew up in Brooke County before moving to Chicago for work.
“I got to Shinnston as fast as I could by way of what I call a 24-year sentence in Illinois,” she said. “Like many young people in West Virginia, I could not wait to get out of town.”
It didn’t take her long to learn her lesson, and the mountains started beckoning.
“After three years, I decided I’m going home,” she said. “A week later, I met my husband.”
She ended up staying in Illinois with husband John Panek, a Chicago native, but always had West Virginia in the back of her mind.
But every year, they visited West Virginia for at least a long weekend.
If they were traveling anywhere within a few hours, they would pick a route going through the state.
“West Virginia gets in your blood,” she said. “It’s home. The hills are there to say, ‘That’s OK, honey. I’ll take care of you.’”
Panek worked in data processing in Illinois, but spent weekends as a night auditor at a hotel.
While she spent each night reconciling financial records, she was also familiarizing herself with the hospitality industry.
Then in the late 1980s, the Paneks stayed at a bed and breakfast in Pennsylvania.
The stay inspired her to fantasize about spending her retirement in West Virginia.
“I thought, ‘I could do that,’ which is a statement many people make stupidly,” she said. “What people don’t realize is what all it entails. They think it’s going to be ‘Newhart.’ ... There’s a lot more to it than that.”
After raising six children, the Paneks were ready to move to West Virginia for retirement.
They looked at several homes, but Shinnston proved to be the perfect fit.
They opened the bed and breakfast at 35 Walnut St. in July of 1996.
Since then, countless visitors have experienced different sides of life in Appalachia — from the small businesses and historic shops to the winding roads and the West Fork River Trail.
The Paneks said guests come for a variety of reasons.
History buffs can tour Levi Shinn’s log house, built in 1778.
Horseback riders appreciate having the rail trail nearby, as well as an arrangement allowing them to stable horses at a local farm.
Motorcyclists are especially at home.
John Panek, who was an avid motorcyclist before an injury, has covered the walls with his paintings of vintage motorcycles.
He enjoys a camaraderie with many motorcyclists who stay at the inn, drawn to the mountainous terrain.
Topics of conversation can be endless, from racing to touring to motorcycle models, according to Panek.
“It’s the learning of the various facets of the motorcycle world,” he said. “I have a great memory of the racing that went on, especially in the ’50s and ’60s.”
He has sold paintings throughout the United States to fans of antique motorcycles.
The couple have grown to feel at home in the town of Shinnston as they have introduced it to new people.
“I really like living in West Virginia,” John Panek said. “It’s the (rural nature) of it. I’ve met a lot of interesting people.”
He said he doesn’t miss the crime and pollution of a bigger city.
But he wouldn’t have been convinced to come to the state without that urging from his wife.
“People that live in West Virginia seem to have this thing about going back,” he said.
Staff writer Erin Beck can be reached at (304)626-1439 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.