Board in tune
with U.Va.-Wise, thanks to Smiddy|
Photo by Matt Kelly
Joe Smiddy plays his banjo while sitting on the bumper
of a 1931 Ford Tudor
on Oct. 1. Later that day, he addressed
the Board of Visitors on the University of Virginia’s
College at WIse, now celebrating its 50th year.
By Matt Kelly
Joe Smiddy, the first chancellor of the College
came over the mountain
recently with banjo on his knee.
He arrived at the Rotunda Oct. 1 to address the Board
of Visitors on the relationship between the University
and U.Va.- Wise, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary
You gave us the first institution [in Southwest Virginia] that was truly free
to search for the truth,” Smiddy told the board. “We never had an
institution that was not fettered. You provided a place that was free and open,
and that was a blessing.”
He explained that the coal companies controlled the region,
having paid for everything from schools to churches.
Some coal superintendents felt
could dictate policy,
especially in the 1960s when students protested strip mining and championed
land reclamation laws. The College at Wise was separate from all of that,
because of the University, Smiddy said.
A number of individuals were instrumental in creating
Clinch Valley College, known today as the University
of Virginia’s College at Wise. Chief among
them were U.Va. President Colgate W. Darden Jr., who met with Fred Greear, an
old schoolmate of Darden’s, Kenneth Asbury, an attorney and mayor of Wise,
and William Thompson, a coal-mine operator.
The college started on poor farm property that was used
as a home for wayward women. The county spent
$16,000 to renovate the building, with
inmates doing much of the physical work. When the school first opened,
had a two-person staff — a maintenance man and a secretary.
Smiddy’s message to the board was both serious and humorous, and at times
even accompanied by music. He told tales of his 50-year relationship with the
college and played his banjo for the board at a dinner meeting, picking old standards
such as “Mama, Don’t Whip Little Buford,” “Just a Bowl
of Butter Beans,” “Boil Them Cabbages Down” and “Cumberland
Smiddy, now 84, is a seminal figure for the College at
Wise. He began as a biology teacher when it first
opened in 1954, became
chancellor in 1967, when the school became a four-year college.
A former high
school biology teacher and administrator, Smiddy had been a partner
in the Powell Valley Oil Co.
in Big Stone Gap when
dean and administrator, lured him back to the classroom.
had eight teachers for 109 students,” said Smiddy, who was quizzed on
his biology knowledge by U.Va. biology professor Ladley Husted. “If this
is going to be U.Va., you’re going to do it right,” Smiddy
remembers Husted telling him.
most exciting part of my life was that these students really
wanted to learn,” Smiddy
said. “I was so inspired [that] I wanted to spend the
rest of my life with them.”
Enamored so much with teaching, Smiddy stayed in the
classroom even while serving as administrator,
teaching at least
one section of
term. He taught
every semester there but his last one.
Smiddy credited his first wife, Rosebud, who died in
1981, for his success as an administrator. “She was a great part of what made me,” he said. “She
and the University gave me the opportunity to be creative.”
Another creative outlet for this teacher and administrator
was — and still
is — music. Smiddy took his banjo, which he learned to play from his father,
to the dorms and played with student musicians. When John McCutcheon taught folk
music at the school, Smiddy enrolled in his fiddle course. Smiddy’s
own son, Joseph F. Smiddy, took up guitar when he was a student
at the college, then
went on to become a successful doctor and member of the board
at the College at Wise.
Father and son still play music together in the band,
Reedy Creek. The senior Smiddy said they do about
50 shows a
year, most recently
Appalachian Music Festival, which is part of a year-long celebration of the school’s
anniversary. They also are regular performers at
the annual Papa Joe Smiddy Old Time Music Festival,
at the Natural
Smiddy is internationally known, too, having traveled
frequently to Ireland, his ancestral homeland.
Instruments in tow,
Smiddy and longtime
Michael E. O’Donnell, who teaches Irish Studies and French at U.Va.-Wise, have
played from pub to pub and “covered
Ireland very well,” said Smiddy.
In 1985, he and O’Donnell stepped into Dirty Nelly’s pub in Blarney,
Ireland, and ran into Jackie Keene, a musician with whom they had played on their
previous trip. Smiddy said when he saw them, Keene, pint in hand, shouted: “The
hillbillies are back!”
has traveled extensively since he retired in 1984, but
his heart and thoughts
are never far from his coal country college.
of my fondest memories was to see Colgate Darden stand
on top of the hill [of the poor farm] and envision what
it could be,” Smiddy said. “It
was an inspiration to know and learn from him. So many of the
University people had a great influence on faculty and students
Smiddy also praised President John T. Casteen
III, with whom he worked when Casteen
was secretary of education for the
Ernest H. Ern.
“They want him to stay another 100 years,” Smiddy said of Ern, “He’s
charmed everybody down here.”
Some sing the same tune about Smiddy. “Papa Joe … has done more to
advance the gospel of Thomas Jefferson than anybody,” said attorney Don
R. Pippin, a graduate of the College at Wise and a member of U.Va.’s
Board of Visitors.