June 20, 2008 — Chancellor Emeritus Joseph C. Smiddy reflects on his colorful life and the history of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise in a four-disc DVD documentary released this week.
"Joseph C. 'Papa Joe' Smiddy: The Man, His Life and His Legacy at The University of Virginia's College at Wise" is an entertaining and informative DVD collection that also features the college's first chancellor picking toe-tapping banjo tunes, including his signature song "Butter Beans," in two live concerts with the Reedy Creek Band and friends.
Smiddy, a Virginia legend, has touched the lives of thousands through decades of work for the college and the community it has served since its founding in 1954 as Clinch Valley College.
The idea to create the documentary was sparked about two years ago when current U.Va.-Wise Chancellor David J. Prior noticed a captivated audience gathering around Smiddy as he played the dulcimer and told stories about the college's fledgling days.
"It was so compelling," Prior said. "This storytelling and this music must be preserved."
Smiddy agreed to work with college staff on the two-year project, and the finished work preserves Smiddy's timeless tales for future generations. U.Va.-Wise history professor Brian Wills, who is Smiddy's son-in-law, interviews Smiddy in the documentary.
"Papa Joe's voice and presence in the film speaks volumes about the college's early mission to fulfill Thomas Jefferson's dream to provide educational opportunities throughout Virginia – and far Southwest Virginia, in our case," Prior said. "This special college was not an afterthought. It really fits what Mr. Jefferson and the University are all about."
Smiddy's stories in the DVD collection span the early years of the college where he taught biology after leaving a successful career with Shell Oil, but only after meeting the muster of noted U.Va. biology professor Ladley Husted in a rigorous question-and-answer session that occurred on Smiddy's front porch. Smiddy was later thrust – reluctantly on his part – into the role of director and later chancellor of the University of Virginia's only branch college.
In the documentary, Smiddy says college was never in his plans.
"I really didn't have the money," he says.
A visit to Lincoln Memorial University one Saturday morning with former high school principal Logan Garrett sparked the idea in Smiddy's mind that a college education was attainable, even for a poor mountain boy in the midst of the Depression.
He paid tuition by working all summer on the LMU farm, prying up large limestone rocks and swinging heavy shovels of gravel after the stones were crushed.
On the DVD, Smiddy says much of his work, including an occasional unconventional way of tackling college admission and registration, was designed to give others the same opportunities to obtain a college degree that he had. He admitted the college's first African-American student when it was illegal under Virginia's segregation laws.
"God has given me the opportunity to do for so many students what Logan Garrett did for me," Smiddy said at the DVD screening. "Look at all those people who came to the college with no money, and we helped them go to school."
The Smiddy documentary is a production of UVa-Wise Highland Cavalier New Media. Keith Fowlkes, U/Va.-Wise's vice chancellor for information technology and chief information officer, produced and directed the documentary.
"I believe the most important aspect of this documentary is hearing how one committed person with a passion for the education of people can make such a difference in this world," Fowlkes said. "Papa Joe embodies the very essence of Thomas Jefferson's dream for the education of all people."
The four-disc set features:
• An oral history of Papa Joe's early life and the founding of the college
• Memories of Clinch Valley College and friends who helped the college grow
• A discussion between Papa Joe, U.Va. President John T. Casteen III and Prior
• Live concerts featuring the music of Papa Joe and friends.
The DVD collection is available at the UVa-Wise Bookstore for $25. A $5 shipping and handling fee will be charged for off-campus orders. Proceeds will benefit UVa-Wise students.
For purchasing information, visit the UVa-Wise Bookstore, located in the C. Bascom Slemp Student Center, or call 276-328-0210. For a short preview of the documentary on the Web, visit www.uvawise.edu/papajoe.