Photo by Matt Kelly
|Papa 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.|
Chancellor Emeritus Joseph C. Smiddy AKA Papa Joe Smiddy, the first chancellor of the College at Wise, 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 this year.
“ 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 they 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 county jail inmates doing much of the physical work. When the school first opened, the administrator 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 Gap.”
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 administrator two years later and 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 Dr. O. Kenneth Campbell, the colleges’ first dean and administrator, lured him back to the classroom.
“We 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.
“The 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 biology each 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 at the college’s Appalachian Music Festival, which is part of a year-long celebration of the school’s 50th anniversary. They also are regular performers at the annual Papa Joe Smiddy Old Time Music Festival, held at the Natural Tunnel State Park.
Smiddy is internationally known, too, having traveled frequently to Ireland, his ancestral homeland. Instruments in tow, Smiddy and longtime friend 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!”
Smiddy has traveled extensively since he retired in 1984, but his heart and thoughts are never far from his coal country college.
“One 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 at Wise.”
Smiddy also praised President John T. Casteen III, with whom he worked when Casteen was secretary of education for the commonwealth, and current acting Wise chancellor 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.