Betsy Israel
December 05, 1994 12:00 PM

IT’S AN UNLIKELY DUET. GASTON CAPERTON, 6’3″ and silvery, is the Democratic governor of West Virginia, a patrician millionaire rarely seen out of a conservative suit. Rachael Worby, a New Yorker and one of only several professional women conductors in the country, is 5’2″ and given to ponytails, multiple ear-studs and all-black clothes.

It may look like a mismatch, but the two, wed since 1990, seem ecstatically happy—known for nuzzling in the back of the governor’s limo, for flying around the map to meet each other, and for seeming, in all this, a bit too eccentric for some West Virginians. “I wonder if Hillary Clinton and Rachaei aren’t soul-mates,” says David McKinley, former head of the state’s Republican party. But even he admits the governor’s wife “has been a positive force for the arts.”

She certainly has been a busy one. Worby, 45, divides her time between the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra, of which she has been musical director since 1986, and New York City, where for 10 years she has conducted children’s concerts at Carnegie Hall. In between, she says, she spends a lot of time “by myself, studying and memorizing scores.”

Worby’s career has “presented a challenge,” she says, to many old-school constituents who believe that first ladies should be planting trees. But the governor, 54, says she’s doing just fine. “It’s more important for Rachael to be giving a concert than to have a tea,” he says in his West Virginian drawl. “That’s uncomfortable for some people, but that’s the contribution she’ll make.”

The social logistics of this love affair have always been a bit difficult. The two met at a 1989 fund-raising ball for Worby’s symphony. Caperton says he was “overwhelmed with her energy and spirit.” Worby was less sure about him. “I couldn’t get past the fact he was a governor,” she explains. “Why would I want to go out with a governor? I hadn’t imagined we’d find common ground.” But this governor was “very persistent,” she says. He wrote notes and sent flowers, and a year after their first meeting, she at last agreed to dinner. At his place.

“We went upstairs to the private quarters, and I was astonished,” says Worby. “He had great art! Fantastic books! Music! I realized there was an actual person behind that title.” One month later, on Valentine’s Day, Caper-ton bought Worby a baby grand piano. In May they were married.

It was a second try for both. She was divorced from movie producer David Obst. Though Worby has no kids, Caperton has two—Gaston IV, 27, and John, 25—from his 23-year marriage to Dee, a former Miss West Virginia and onetime member of the state legislature. But this was different, as Worby says, “completely outside the context of prior life.”

Worby spent much of her prior life in the New York City suburbs with her parents, Louis, who, at 75, is still vice president of a hardware-manufacturing company, and Diana, 70, a onetime housewife who later earned a Ph.D. in literature. When Worby was 8, her parents took her to the New York Philharmonic. “People would ask me what I wanted to be, and I’d say, ‘Leonard Bernstein.’ The sad thing is,” she says, “I wasn’t kidding. But there were no women conductors. It was always, ‘Why don’t you be a music teacher?’ ”

She tried—earning a music degree in 1971 at the State University of New York College at Potsdam, then teaching in schools. But, she says, “Nothing fit.” Then one day, at 27, she recalls, “I woke up and said, ‘I need to be a conductor.’ ” Setting out to find a mentor, she planted herself on the doorstep of Jacques-Louis Monod, a French-born conductor. He spent hours denouncing the very idea of female conductors—but made an exception for Worby who had continued to hound him. It paid off. After years of training, she became an assistant conductor with the Spokane Symphony and, over time, a popular guest conductor.

Caperton had his own hurdles to overcome. He grew up in Charleston, W.Va., with an older sister, Cary, and his parents, Gaston Jr., president of the family’s insurance firm, and Eliza, a homemaker. He was, he says, a disaster at piano—and fared even worse academically. “When I was in fourth grade,” he says, “my parents discovered I couldn’t read. I’d fooled everybody.” One doctor suspected dyslexia, and from then on, he recalls, “my father would sit me at the foot of his bed every morning and make me memorize words. He had remarkable patience.”

After earning a business degree from the University of North Carolina in 1963, Caperton joined the family firm. But at 47, he felt it was time for a change—in his life and state politics. He won his first-ever campaign in 1988 and was re-elected overwhelmingly in ’92. Today the couple live in the 30-room governor’s mansion, but also on their nearby farm, and in a Wheeling cottage and a New York City apartment. Which is home? Simple, says Worby: “Wherever we are together.”


LINDA KRAMER in Wheeling

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