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Unsung Heroes: MECC's Mike Gilley

Amanda Marsh • Jan 30, 2013 at 3:55 AM

It wasn’t just the pleas of Mike Gilley’s grandmother that led him back to Southwest Virginia. Destiny had a hand in helping him discover an extraordinary career at Mountain Empire Community College.

Gilley is the director of library services and doesn’t limit his workweek to Monday through Friday. He goes above and beyond the call of duty to make sure the local culture is documented and preserved for future generations.

Gilley diligently gathers audio and video recordings of musicians preforming at the Home Craft Days Festival, which is held each autumn at Mountain Empire Community College. He not only records the live music, but also takes time to interview the artists.

"It’s more than an entertainment value," Gilley said. "We hope to have these recordings available for researchers. The video allows us to capture both the verbal and non-verbal responses. It’s more interesting to see what they look like."

Increasing curiosity and understanding of Appalachian culture is Gilley’s goal. He’s creating a catalog of recordings, transcripts and videos that will be available online and most likely he won’t stop there. Recording numerous interviews with craftspeople at the Home Craft Days Festival is another one of his aspirations.

Because of limited job opportunities, Gilley never thought he’d ever have the chance to document old-time musicians and craftspeople like he’d dreamt of since first attending the Home Craft Days Festival in the early '70s.

"I saw Hobart Crabtree’s old time banjo performance," Gilley said. "It really got me interested in the music."

Gilley was so inspired by what he saw at the festival that he designed and completed his own Appalachian Studies bachelor’s degree using existing courses at the former Clinch Valley College. And even after obtaining a master’s degree in folklore and ethnomusicology, Gilley found that job openings were scarce in research, museums and regional archives.

"I ended up working in library," he said. "I thought it would be boring, but I ended up making a career out of it. Now I get to work with my first love - cultural studies in this region."

Gilley’s upbringing in Big Stone Gap brought him full circle when he accepted a job with Mountain Empire Community College six years ago.

As it turned out, his grandmother really did know best.

"My grandmother and I were very close and she was worried that I would go to school and not come back," Gilley said. "I’ve always tried to stay close in Southwest Virginia. I was drawn to study the traditions and culture that are still here. That’s what makes us unique from other places."

In his current role, Gilley teaches students how to do research and use library resources. He’s also teaching a course this semester on the history of music in central Appalachia. In fact, the time he spends teaching music-related classes could increase if Mountain Empire Community College decides to offer an associate’s degree in music. The likelihood of a music degree is yet another area where Gilley is involved. He’s conducting a feasibility study regarding the need for the added program as part of his studies toward a Ph.D. in community college leadership.

Analyzing the probability of a music degree at Mountain Empire Community College is an extension of the success of the Mountain Music School, a weeklong event held each summer that provides a crash course in learning an old-time instrument. The event requires even more of Gilley’s time.

"I am a musician, but more of a music historian than a musician because I don’t practice as much as I should," said Gilley, who plays old-time guitar and banjo. "I’ve been a student at Mountain Music School and I help wherever they need me. It’s one of the best programs I’ve seen locally."

In December, Gilley was recognized for his dedicated community service to Mountain Empire Community College. The award was another reminder that the library director and instructor is right where he needs to be.

"It’s funny how things work out," Gilley said. "It just goes to show, if you’ve got a dream, hold onto it. You never know when it will come to fruition."

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