Two Old Country families formed an entrepreneurial clan when they united in 1940s Morgantown.
More than a century ago in a Catholic parish in Clarksburg, Old Country family connections were rekindled—from Beit Mery, in Lebanon. Among the results would be generations of Morgantown entrepreneurs. Kay Michael Alexander—he’s the family historian—and his sister Barbara represent one part of the sprawling clan.
The Alexander and Saab families both came over around the turn of the 20th century. They felt at home in the hills of north central West Virginia, and they found livelihoods amidst the region’s oil and gas boom. The Alexanders made their way to Shinnston, in Harrison County, and they worked as peddlers. The Saabs settled in Mannington and sold door-to-door, too—and, with savvy, turned that into hardware, furniture, and general stores in nearby Wallace in the 1920s.
Both families thrived and had many children. But oil production eventually headed for easier drilling in Texas and, by mid-century, the families sought new opportunities in Morgantown. The Saabs set up Saab Brothers Department Store in Evansdale. And the Alexander brothers created several businesses, including Mike Alexander & Sons, a wholesaler located first on High Street and later in Westover. Mike Alexander ran it with his three sons, John, George, and Emil.
The two families merged when Cecilia Saab and John Alexander married in 1944 to have their own big family. Their three boys and four girls, including Kay Michael and Barbara, grew up in Westover in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.
Mike Alexander & Sons provided dry goods, candy, and tobacco to retail outlets around town. The business played a big role in the lives of the seven Alexander children. “We all had to do our tour of duty,” Barbara laughs. “The school bus would drop us off literally right in front of the store. We’d have to put tax stamps on cigarettes and fill the shelves with candy. For payment, we could get a candy bar.”
As the youngest kids grew more independent, Cecilia worked at the store, too. And over the years, the Alexander brothers invested in commercial and residential rental properties to create a retirement income. “So, growing up, we would help take care of the properties,” Kay Michael recalls, “whether it was painting or helping the electrician or the plumber.”
Giving back was important. “We would hear stories from other people how our grandfather would help them when they were in a bad situation—he would buy groceries for people and things of that nature,” Kay Michael says. That ethic was passed on. John and his siblings had attended St. Francis de Sales, and he and Cecilia supported the school even before their own kids were old enough to go. “They supported the athletic program at St. Francis for over 40 years,” Kay Michael says. “They brought merchandise from their wholesale business, ran a concession stand, and gave the proceeds to the school. So they raised us with that background of being grateful for what we had and to help others.”
In college, Barbara was headed for a career in fashion merchandising and, likely, New York. But as events unfolded, a position she took around 1980 at Petroplus and Associates real estate office led her to get her real estate and broker’s licenses. By 1999 she was running her own shop, and it’s going strong today: Howard Hanna Premier Properties by Barbara Alexander. Kay Michael is a sales associate and manages the commercial division. The office employs several other family members as well, extending to a fourth generation of Alexanders in family enterprises.
The entrepreneurial impulse passed from the family patriarchs to quite a few of their many descendants, some of them familiar names in the Morgantown business community: Barbara and Kay Michael’s cousins Michael Alexander, Pat Alexander and his son Chris and wife Caitlyn, Paulette Culton and her sons Grant and Garrett, David Liberatore, Zip Shearer, and Steve Solomon.
The service ethic has passed down, too. Both Barbara and Kay Michael have served on numerous boards supporting real estate locally and nationally and supporting the Morgantown community. Kay Michael served on the board of the WV Teaming to Win economic development conference and devoted himself to his church and its youth group. He also worked with Barbara on a cause that’s especially meaningful to her: the WVU Cancer Institute and Betty Puskar Breast Care Center. “Betty was one of my very dearest friends,” Barbara says. “I became very active in breast cancer because of her and currently serve as chair of the Leadership Council for the Cancer Institute.” She also sits on the board at WVU Medicine Children’s.
Barbara feels fortunate, family-wise, and Kay Michael echoes that. “Strong family, strong faith, supporting each other, and caring for others—those are things that our grandparents and parents instilled in us and that we strive to do,” he says. “Our family was grateful for the opportunities here. I would hope that we gave as good as we got.”