Higher Education in the Mountains: The Appalachian School of Law

by Dr. Lu Ellsworth

This is Part 2, covering the impact of the Appalachian School of Law on our region. Part 1, an overview of the history and impact of UVa.-Wise, was in Issue #1 of Mountain Peeks. Look for Part 3, discussing the Appalachian College of Pharmacy in Buchanan County, Virginia, in Issue #3 of Mountain Peeks.

Living off the land, whether farming or harvesting abundant timber, coal, or natural gas resources, has been the mainstay of the Southwest Virginia economy for generations. During most of this time, the few residents who desired to go to college had to leave the region because there were no publicly supported higher education institutions west of Radford or Blacksburg. Beginning in the 1950s, however, local citizens began to recognize the importance of providing greater access to post-secondary education for residents and, eventually, for diversifying the regional economy. This three-part article traces the key developments in higher education in the quest for a more stable economy and improved quality of life for Southwest Virginians.

Part 2: The Appalachian School of Law

Members of the Board of Trustees were formally photographed at their June 2001 annual meeting. Seated are Dawneda Williams, Judge Birg Sergent, Judge Glen Williams, Judge Bob Williams, and Woodrow McGlothlin. Standing are Ann Gillenwater, Joe Wolfe, Roger Rife, Jack Davidson, Eddie Lindsay, ASL Dean Tony Sutin, Roger Powers, Frank Kilgore, Sandra McGlothlin, and Lu Ellsworth. Not pictured are Judge N.E. Persin, Gerald Gray, Charlie Ellis, U.S. Senator George Allen, and Mark Warner.
Members of the Board of Trustees were formally photographed at their June 2001 annual meeting. Seated are Dawneda Williams, Judge Birg Sergent, Judge Glen Williams, Judge Bob Williams, and Woodrow McGlothlin. Standing are Ann Gillenwater, Joe Wolfe, Roger Rife, Jack Davidson, Eddie Lindsay, ASL Dean Tony Sutin, Roger Powers, Frank Kilgore, Sandra McGlothlin, and Lu Ellsworth. Not pictured are Judge N.E. Persin, Gerald Gray, Charlie Ellis, U.S. Senator George Allen, and Mark Warner.

“We were early investors in this law school to the tune of about half a million dollars, and I must say that in my eight years as Chairman there has not been any money better spent.”
Jesse L. White, Jr., Federal Co-Chair, Appalachian Regional Commission, Appalachian School of Law Commencement Address, May 11, 2002.

Throughout 1994, Joe E. Wolfe, an attorney in Norton, discussed the idea of establishing a law school in Southwest Virginia with several colleagues. Wolfe, who grew up in Norton and graduated from Clinch Valley College, attended law school at The University of Virginia. During almost two decades of practice, Wolfe had talked with numerous persons who wanted to become lawyers but could not “go away” to law school. He also observed how higher education institutions in Blacksburg and Harrisonburg could have a positive economic impact on a community or region. Although some of his colleagues were skeptical, Wolfe continued to pursue his vision.

In less than fourteen months, Thompson & Litton and J.A. Street & Associates transformed the former Grundy Junior High School into a modern law school. Governor George Allen returned to Grundy to participate in the ribbon-cutting ceremony marking the completion of the building. Pictured from left are Sherri Dawson, Chair Interior Design and Furnishing Committee; Joe Wolfe, Chair Board of Trustees; Governor Allen; Roger Rife, Chair Buchanan County Board of Supervisors; Chuck Crabtree, Grundy Town Manager; Joe Gary Street, Chair Buchanan County Industrial Development Authority; Dennis Olsen, Dean of ASL; B.J. Miller, President of Visions Design; and Jim Street, J.A. Street and Associates. Also participating were Bill Thompson and Terry Williams, Thompson & Litton. 
In less than fourteen months, Thompson & Litton and J.A. Street & Associates transformed the former Grundy Junior High School into a modern law school. Governor George Allen returned to Grundy to participate in the ribbon-cutting ceremony marking the completion of the building. Pictured from left are Sherri Dawson, Chair Interior Design and Furnishing Committee; Joe Wolfe, Chair Board of Trustees; Governor Allen; Roger Rife, Chair Buchanan County Board of Supervisors; Chuck Crabtree, Grundy Town Manager; Joe Gary Street, Chair Buchanan County Industrial Development Authority; Dennis Olsen, Dean of ASL; B.J. Miller, President of Visions Design; and Jim Street, J.A. Street and Associates. Also participating were Bill Thompson and Terry Williams, Thompson & Litton.

In May of 1994, Mr. Wolfe contacted this author to discuss his idea. After listening to him and reflecting about my own extensive experiences with higher education, I agreed to become the first non-lawyer to join his informal small group of interested volunteers. Joe and I then met with James P. White, the long-serving consultant on legal education for the American Bar Association. I also visited nearly a dozen law schools throughout the country to meet with key administrators and to view their facilities.

Armed with a concept paper and Carl Sandburg’s mantra “Nothing happens unless first a dream,” Joe and I started to transform the initial small informal group into a much larger steering committee which eventually numbered more than 80 lawyers, judges, business leaders, educators, and civic leaders drawn from Kentucky, North Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Virginia. The Steering Committee began to systematically implement the concept paper, which projected the first classes for the Fall 1997 term, and began to mobilize support, including Virginia Governor George Allen’s public endorsement of the project.

Then a momentous event took place. Leaders in Buchanan County saw the enormous potential for economic development of the county if the law school was located there. I was impressed with their interest and willingness to act. Soon thereafter, representatives of Congressman Rick Boucher and Governor George Allen, Joe Wolfe, Judge Glen Williams, and I traveled to Washington D.C. to meet with Jesse White, Jr., Federal Co-Chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, to persuade him to help support the fledging law school. An initially skeptical White described the meeting, “I was amazed and impressed by their vision, their planning, the case they made for how this would help the coalfields region of Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky, and, most of all, by their passion.” The Appalachian Regional Commission eventually provided two grants totaling almost $500,000 for operating expenses. The ARC award was the first national validation of the potential of the Appalachian School of Law.

Buchanan County’s supervisors, school board, industrial development authority, and private donors raised and pledged millions of dollars and provided two school buildings in downtown Grundy for the project. The Appalachian School of Law began to take shape during the next sixteen months. In August 1997, the Appalachian School of Law became the first higher education institution in the Virginia coalfields offering graduate or professional degrees when the Dean and 21 faculty and staff members welcomed its charter class of 71 full-time students, including 30 women and several minorities, to the new Grundy campus.

President Ellsworth introduces the Charter Class to the large audience at the inaugural commencement on May 12, 2000. The two top academic students, Julia McAfee and David Bary, are standing near President Ellsworth.
President Ellsworth introduces the Charter Class to the large audience at the inaugural commencement on May 12, 2000. The two top academic students, Julia McAfee and David Bary, are standing near President Ellsworth.

Over the next three years, the school’s nationally-recruited faculty refined the curriculum to create a rigorous program for the professional training of lawyers, which emphasized professional responsibility, dispute resolution, practical skills, and a unique community service requirement. The goal of the faculty as well as the Board of Trustees was and is to educate lawyers who will become community leaders.

At a special Founder’s Circle lunch preceding the first commencement on May 12, 2000, the Investment in Tomorrow Campaign concluded with 190 visionary donors having contributed more than $8.5 million to the young law school. The Honorable George Allen, who by then was a trustee of the law school, once again returned to campus to present the commencement address to the charter graduates, their families, and numerous regional citizens.

L. Anthony Sutin, who had left a highly successful career in Washington, D.C. in 1998 to join the faculty, became the school’s dean in July 1, 2000. Tony, along with his assistant dean Paul Lund, deftly guided the school to achieve provisional ABA accreditation in February 2001. This new status stimulated widespread interest in the law school with a resulting substantial increase in enrollment. This momentum continued until a horrific event struck the campus on January 16, 2002. A law school student shot and killed Dean Sutin, Professor Tom Blackwell, and student Angela Dales, and severely wounded three students. Despite the almost unfathomable personal tragedy and institutional devastation, Interim Dean Lund helped unite and lead the faculty, administrators, students, alumni, trustees, and regional citizens to keep the law school going.

Governor Mark Warner visited with students in the Lions Lounge at the law school soon after the tragic shootings on January 16, 2002.
Governor Mark Warner visited with students in the Lions Lounge at the law school soon after the tragic shootings on January 16, 2002.

Within five years, the school gained full ABA accreditation and was well on its way to achieving success in another major gifts campaign to raise $5 million especially for endowments to underwrite student scholarships and faculty support. Enrollment had grown to 350 full-time students, including about 60 percent from the five Central Appalachian states. The law school now employs nearly 60 full-time persons, including nineteen nationally-recruited faculty members. Many of the alumni practice in the Central Appalachian states. In 2006, Virginia Lawyers Weeklyrecognized me as one of Virginia’s Leaders in the Law for achieving “full ABA accreditation for the Appalachian School of Law.”

ASL celebrated its American Bar Association full accreditation with a community event in September 2006. Students, faculty, staff, local residents, and their families enjoyed barbecue and bluegrass.
ASL celebrated its American Bar Association full accreditation with a community event in September 2006. Students, faculty, staff, local residents, and their families enjoyed barbecue and bluegrass.

In 2004, Congressman Rick Boucher remarked that the faculty, staff, and students of ASL have “enriched, broadened, and diversified the local culture,” and “they are making a major contribution to the local quality of life.” In late 2007, Southwest Virginia Community College and the law school completed construction of The Booth Center on the law school campus. This 60,000 square foot facility provides numerous well-equipped classrooms and offices for the community college and law school as well as additional parking. Both institutions envision The Booth Center as a “mini” higher education center where students can select from classes offered by a number of colleges and universities.

ASL in 2010, including the recently completed Booth Center.
ASL in 2010, including the recently completed Booth Center.

The Appalachian School of Law fulfilled Joe Wolfe’s original vision. As Paul E. Fletcher, the editor-in-chief of Virginia Lawyers Weekly, stated in 2007, “The Appalachian School of Law has really put Buchanan County on the map.”

Next Issue: The Appalachian College of Pharmacy, the latest addition to our region’s higher education choices.

Editor’s Note: Former Governor George Allen was the commencement speaker for ASL’s 2010 graduation ceremony. His support for ASL has come full circle. Governor Allen had a big time during his visit as seen here as he and Delegate Will Morefield pose with Noah Horn Drilling employes atop a new big drilling rig. Governor Allen operated the drill at the company’s Vansant site and then toured the Appalachian College of Pharmacy before flying back home. Dr. Lu Ellsworth, Clinch Valley College History Professor and Vice Chancellor and Dean, and Founding President of the Appalachian School of Law Dr. Lu Ellsworth, Clinch Valley College History Professor and Vice Chancellor and Dean, and Founding President of the Appalachian School of Law
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