Papa Joe Smiddy speaks during Tuesday's ceremony at UVa-Wise. Tim C. Cox photo.
WISE — Get Joseph C. “Papa Joe” Smiddy near a microphone and his banjo generally won’t be too far behind. Such was the case on Tuesday during rededication ceremonies for a building named in his honor at The University of Virginia’s College at Wise.
Accompanied by his son, Dr. Joe F. Smiddy, on guitar, the duo led a singalong of a favorite Papa Joe tune, “Just a Bowl of Butterbeans,” much to the delight of a crowd of well wishers that included UVa President Teresa A. Sullivan and current UVa-Wise Chancellor Donna P. Henry.
The first chancellor of UVa-Wise, Papa Joe Smiddy will celebrate his 93rd birthday later this month. Initially hired to teach biology when the college was founded in the mid-1950s as Clinch Valley College, Smiddy became the second director of the fledgling college and then chancellor when the institution gained four-year status in the 1960s.
Smiddy provided 30 years of leadership during the college’s formative years and presided over a growing institution through his retirement in 1987, when Smiddy Hall was originally named in his honor.
Completed in 1972, renovations to Smiddy Hall began in 2011 and the former college administration building now includes the information technology and business and social services departments, along with administrative office spaces and classrooms.
On Tuesday, rededicating the building once more in Smiddy’s honor became for all who attended an honor just to be in the presence of a UVa-Wise legend. And just in case anybody would ever think Papa Joe ever got too big for his britches, he reminded about helping to mop floors in the early days of the college because of a leaky roof.
“You didn’t have anyone to call in those days,” he said. “You just grabbed a mop.”
Henry called Smiddy an “illustrious man” who provided “extraordinary service” to the college, leading it from humble beginnings to the highly regarded branch campus of UVa.
Smiddy “espoused and modeled the can-do attitude” that has exemplified UVa-Wise, she said. Along with rededicating a building, Henry vowed to “rededicate ourselves” to the principles the college’s first chancellor established and stamped with his own brand of determination.
UVa’s Sullivan said “authentic, distinctive and alive” are three words that perfectly describe the college as well as Smiddy. “You are certainly authentic,” she told Smiddy, possessing “special flair” that is uniquely distinctive. As for alive, Sullivan said she referred not to his years on earth but “your great human vibrancy, your aliveness” that is seeped into the very essence of the college.
George Culbertson, a UVa-Wise professor, first met Smiddy when enrolling in 1956 and would go on to teach and then serve with Smiddy’s administration. He said Smiddy “became the face of this institution” because Smiddy “was not an office-bound administrator.”
He said “part of the genius of Joe” was Smiddy’s ability to make friends across the region and the state with the ultimate goal of making the college grow and thrive as his mission. Culbertson said “the stars aligned” when the college was founded, when it became a four-year institution and when its name was changed, but one star was always constant.
“I think the stars were in alignment when they brought Joe to this institution,” he said.