A! Magazine for the Arts

Joseph C. "Papa Joe" Smiddy kept the crowd grinning during a recent performance in Bristol, Tenn. (Photo by David Crigger|Bristol Herald Courier)

Joseph C. "Papa Joe" Smiddy kept the crowd grinning during a recent performance in Bristol, Tenn. (Photo by David Crigger|Bristol Herald Courier)

A Music Miracle

March 30, 2009

*** Published: March 29, 2009 in the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier. ***

WISE, VA – The guitarist unleashed mighty licks, strumming what sounded familiar: a time-honored hymn.

A funeral march.

The hushed crowd of more than 100 – gathered for a Salvation Army fundraiser at a church in Bristol, Tenn. – must have expected to hear the quite somber "Just a Closer Walk With Thee."

Then, to the microphone, stepped another man, clearly a generation older than the guitarist. Slowly and reverently, he sang, "Just ... a bowl ... of butter beans."

And the crowd cackled.

Eighty-eight-year-old Joseph C. "Papa Joe" Smiddy kept the crowd grinning, too, with a twinkle in his eye, especially when he piped in a few notes from his trumpet, playing the hymn like some New Orleans jazz. He sang on, as well, as if the spirit moved him:

"Pass the cornbread if you please.
"I don't want no collard greens!
Just a bowl of them good ol' butter beans."

The crowd clapped, hooting and hollering. And Papa Joe continued to serve up more, arranging the song's second verse as a sing-along. He read one line. Then the hall responded in unison: "Just gimme them good ol' butter beans!"

All applauded this folksy figure – a man who could pluck a banjo or blow a harmonica.

The guitarist in the background, meanwhile, might be used to the shade of a large shadow: Dr. Joe Smiddy, a medical doctor in Kingsport, is Papa Joe's middle-aged son.

Standing on stage at the Bristol church, "Dr. Joe" told his white-haired father, Papa Joe, that he had heard playing harmonica could help old people improve their lung capacity.

"Oh yeah?" Papa Joe returned. "Well, if I find any old people, I'll let you know."


Papa Joe, at 88, no longer drives. Still, his boyish grin beams whenever he speaks of taking a journey – recalling either a dime-a-ticket train trip to see his girlfriend in the 1940s or an upcoming plane ride to see his brother, the preacher, in Florida.

"He's still as feisty as he ever was," said Papa Joe's wife, Reba.

Born on June 20, 1920 in Jellico, Tenn., Papa Joe Smiddy retains the wonder of a child, still fascinated with what makes the world go around, especially how yesterday's lessons might connect with what's needed today.

People need to trust each other again, the retired educator told the crowd in Bristol, prior to playing any music. And people, he said, need to have faith that better days lie ahead.

Both rules continually helped Papa Joe steer the ship at the University of Virginia's College at Wise.

Coming on board as a biology teacher when the school opened in 1954, Papa Joe quickly became dean. Then, he was named the school's director in 1957 – a title that was changed to chancellor in 1967; it was a position he held until he retired in 1985.

All along, he carried his banjo, picking and grinning with a hee-haw hum. Yet, more than music factored into the magic of how Papa Joe governed what was once called Clinch Valley College.

"I broke rules," he said, matter-of-factly. "I broke quite a few."

Most famously, he accepted a "colored woman" into the school in 1962 – a time when Virginia colleges were not segregated. Back then, somebody told Papa Joe that he was breaking a rule.

Papa Joe chuckled. "I said, "I'm from Tennessee, I really don't know much Virginia law,' " Papa Joe recalled.

So the African-American woman was admitted into the all-white institution. A few years later, she became a professor at the University of Missouri, Papa Joe said. "And this is a wonderful thing about Southwest Virginia and a wonderful testimony," Papa Joe continued. "Not a single soul ever said an unkind word to me about that."

Such rule-bending stems from Papa Joe's youth, when he was given his own chance to escape a lifetime in the coal mines – and get an education.

Fact is, ol' Papa Joe probably shouldn't have ever even gone to college. But he did. And, because he did, so many others did, too.


The son of a coal miner, and one of eight children, Papa Joe learned to play music as a child. "My dad started us all on a comb and a piece of paper," Papa Joe said.

By age 8, Papa Joe turned to the trumpet – a horn he still blows.

Then, in the summer of 1939, after graduating high school, Papa Joe's high school principal arranged for him to meet the president of Lincoln Memorial University (LMU) at Harrogate, Tenn.

At that time, Papa Joe figured he had no chance to attend college, because his family had no money to pay tuition. But Papa Joe went along.

He never did complete a formal application. But he must have made a good impression. LMU's dean admitted Papa Joe with an agreement that he, like other students, would work on the college's farm for 20 cents an hour to pay an annual $315 tuition.

The exchange actually required more than farm work: Papa Joe also had a job killing bed bugs in a boys' dormitory.

"I am an expert on bed bugs," Papa Joe said. "I can go in a room, and I can smell them."

Spending two years at LMU, Papa Joe played music in dance bands. Then, after joining the U.S. Army at the onset of World War II, he spent 18 months playing in an Army band at Camp Lee in Petersburg, Va.

Later, he was sent to New Caledonia, a French colony off the coast of Australia. He worked in an outfit specializing in military supplies. "And we were getting ready for the invasion of Japan when the war ended."

Following the war, Papa Joe finished his degree at LMU in 1947 and lived at his new wife's hometown – Rose Hill.


Rose Hill remains an integral part of the Papa Joe story. The Virginia town now shows up in a war protest song played by his son, Dr. Joe.

The Smiddys performed "Rose Hill Train" at the Salvation Army benefit in Bristol. And, later, they shared memories of Lee County, Va.

Near Rose Hill, Papa Joe launched a public schools career as a teacher of biology and chemistry, as well as principal, at Jonesville High School. He also became a part-time band director.

"I taught instruments I never played and never touched," Papa Joe said. "I had a handbook for band and orchestra directors that had fingering charts for all the instruments. They'd get the clarinets and saxophones. And I had one, too. And we all learned."

In time, Papa Joe's success at Jonesville's band attracted the attention of educators in nearby Pennington Gap. They wanted him to start a band at their high school, too.

"These people thought I was the music miracle of the century," Papa Joe said, smiling. "In a summer's time, I had those kids playing music. What made me successful is I had 34 students who could read music, who had studied piano."

But, he was also bent on biology. He loved how the world worked and couldn't wait to soak up more. So when the call came that a new college was opening in 1954 at Wise, Papa Joe jumped aboard, joining the staff of what became Clinch Valley College.

"I was there in the log-rolling days, when it first started on Sept. 13, 1954," Papa Joe said. "We had 109 students, and about 70 were Korean War veterans, all going to school on the G.I. Bill. We could have called it "G.I. Bill College,' because that's what it was."

Students came here to learn, Papa Joe said. "We had a lot of people who always wanted to go to college," he added, "and now they had a chance."


As the chancellor of Clinch Valley College, Papa Joe would visit the Charlottesville headquarters of the University of Virginia about six times a year. Often, he would bring his banjo with him and offer some down-home charm to the university brass.

"I'm sure that I talked funny," Papa Joe said with an accent reminiscent of many in the Cumberland Mountains.

It was also no secret that Papa Joe could use that banjo – and a folk tale or two – to woo financial support from politicians for his college.

"What made the school is the University of Virginia," Papa Joe said. "We could never be what we are without the University of Virginia. They really held us to high standards."

Still, the isolation of Wise helped in another way, Papa Joe figured. "One thing that was kind of a blessing was that Charlottesville was 300 miles away, and Richmond was 360 miles away," Papa Joe said. "So we could be innovators. I could actually poke my head out there and try some things."

Other times, he just liked to visit local high schools and talk to juniors and seniors. "I thought that's what the Lord put me there for – to go out and find these students who never had a chance to go to college."

Don Pippin, now an attorney in Norton, Va., was one of the college's first students. And, early on, Pippin recalled how Papa Joe became a father figure to all on campus.

"Papa Joe is our combination of Mark Twain and Thomas Jefferson," Pippin said. "He's a teacher, a dreamer, a thinker, a writer and a politician. And, of course, that's the way Thomas Jefferson was."


Today, most folks affectionately call this man "Papa Joe" – a nickname given by his grandchildren. That name shines on a sign at a café on the modern-day college at Wise. On campus, you'll also find Smiddy Hall, housing classrooms and faculty offices.

Nearly two dozen years have passed since Papa Joe retired from the school. Still, he keeps returning to campus.
This is home, he said, even while standing amazed at all of the new buildings, renovations on older structures and major landscaping under way this year – to the tune of more than $100 million.

But, what has not changed is Papa Joe. He's still playing that same old song – his signature tune, "Butter Beans." That's the favorite of his wife, Reba, the woman he married in 1985 after the death of his first wife, Rosebud.

"Everybody likes "Butter Beans,'" Reba said. "It's just a legend."

Just like Papa Joe.


Papa Joe Smiddy's life is profiled on a new four-DVD collection. For information on how to obtain a copy, call the University of Virginia's College at Wise at (276) 328-0100.