In Memoriam: Institutional Icon ‘Papa Joe’ Smiddy, UVA-Wise’s First Chancellor

Joseph C. “Papa Joe” Smiddy, pictured here with his grandson William, served as the first chancellor of UVA’s College at Wise.

Joseph C. “Papa Joe” Smiddy, the first chancellor of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise, died Monday at the age of 96, leaving a legacy that will forever shape the college and its mission.

Smiddy, lauded by many for his dedication to UVA-Wise and Southwest Virginia, provided 30 years of groundbreaking leadership to the college. Donna P. Henry, UVA-Wise’s current chancellor, said Smiddy continued to provide solid and thoughtful advice to the end of his life.

“It has been such a blessing for me to have known him,” she said. “At our last meeting, he was still giving advice and was very supportive of the direction of our college. He was still working for the college until the very end. Our hearts and prayers go out to his loving family.”

Henry said Smiddy provided extraordinary service to the college.

“He was a distinguished, kind and honorable man who led the college from humble beginnings to a highly respected division of the University of Virginia,” she said. “UVA-Wise will honor his legacy.”

Papa Joe Smiddy, indeed, leaves a legacy that began with his lifelong love of education. Later in his career, he was honored with the Kanto Education Award and the Laurel Leaves Award.

“The entire University of Virginia family mourns the passing of Joseph C. 'Papa Joe' Smiddy,” University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan said. “Papa Joe played an essential role in establishing the College at Wise and guiding the institution through its early years. He believed that the college has the power to transform students’ lives as well as the entire community, and that belief continues to guide the college today. 

“On a personal note, I am so glad that I had the opportunity to get to know him. He was a remarkable leader, profoundly kind, and a legend in Southwest Virginia.”

A native of Jelllico, Tennessee, he made Southwest Virginia his home, and used his banjo, quick wit and warm personality to serve as an ambassador for the college and the region. He was just as home in boardrooms in Richmond as he was discussing the college and its future with fellow diners in The Inn at Wise. He used his charm and political skills to propel the college forward and safely navigate the school through good and bad times.

He broke Virginia’s antiquated segregation laws when he admitted the college’s first African-American student by famously asking, “What color is her money?” when worried staff ran to tell him that a black woman was trying to register for class.

He chose to strategically ignore some orders from Charlottesville in the early days – particularly one that said the school would never be a residential college – when those instructions ran counter to what was best for the then-fledgling College at Wise. His philosophy was that it was easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, and he had a special desk drawer to store those orders.

He steered the two-year school toward its emergence as a respected, four-year institution, and he fought budget cuts in the early 1980s that many feared could have closed the school’s doors.

He was always there to pitch in on the largest or smallest tasks to strengthen the college. A leaky roof in the early days gave Smiddy the opportunity to showcase his mopping skills.

“You didn’t have anyone to call in those days,” he said when speaking to the crowd who attended Smiddy Hall’s rededication in 2013. “You just grabbed a mop.”

Former Chancellor George Culbertson, who was a former student of Smiddy and later served as an administrator during Smiddy’s tenure, said during the rededication that Smiddy became the face of the college.

“I think the stars were in alignment when they brought Joe to this institution,” Culbertson said.

Smiddy graduated from Lincoln Memorial University in 1948. He earned a master’s degree in biology from Peabody College when he returned from three years of service in the U.S. Army during World War II. LMU, the University of Richmond, Cumberland College and the College of William & Mary awarded him honorary doctorates.

Education was always Smiddy’s career focus. He taught at Jonesville High School in Lee County and served as principal. Giving up a promising career with Shell Oil, he joined Clinch Valley College of the University of Virginia when the college opened its doors in 1954. 

He and his first wife, the late Rosebud Smiddy, also a lifelong educator, moved their family to a small living area in what is now Bowers-Sturgill Hall, and his two children would earn degrees from the college.

He became dean two years later and was named director two years after serving as dean. He became the college’s first chancellor in 1968 and guided the school for three decades. The University of Virginia Board of Visitors named him chancellor emeritus and professor emeritus of biology after his retirement from the University’s only division college.

Smiddy is survived by his son, Dr. Joe Frank Smiddy, and his daughter, Judge Elizabeth Wills. Several grandchildren and great-grandchildren also survive him. His first wife, Rosebud Smiddy, and his second wife, Reba G. Smiddy, preceded him in death.

Funeral arrangements will be announced later.

Media Contact

Kathy Still

UVA's College at Wise