Higher Education in the Mountains: UVa-Wise, The Appalachian School of Law, and The Appalachian College of Pharmacy as Economic Engines and Keepers of the Region’s Best and Brightest Students

by Dr. Lu Ellsworth

This is Part 1, covering local history and the impact of UVa-Wise on our region. Look for Parts 2 and 3, discussing the Appalachian School of Law and the Appalachian College of Pharmacy in Buchanan County, Virginia, in future editions 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.

fw_crocket_old_fence
The County Poor Farm, known in the 1920s as the Wise County Detention Home, became the site for the new school in 1954. This photograph shows the initial college building when it was part of the farm.

Regional History
The rugged mountains of remote Southwest Virginia have both challenged and provided opportunities for residents. During the late eighteenth and most of the nineteenth centuries, the widely scattered settlers eked out a living by hunting, fishing, eating wild fruits and plants, and subsistence farming. Living off the land was hard, and only a few people engaged in commerce. Access to formal education was almost non-existent.

After the American Civil War, the industrial revolution of the rapidly expanding nation provided enormous demand for timber and coal. A few entrepreneurs in the late nineteenth century began to see new opportunities in the vast hardwood forests and rich coal deposits of Southwest Virginia. The subsequent building of railroads through the mountains facilitated the development of the timbering and coal mining industries. By the early twentieth century, hundreds of people had migrated into the region to work for the timber and coal companies. Coal camps sprang up near the mines, and small towns with larger business districts grew up along the railroads. Grammar schools were gradually built so that children could attain the rudiments of an education before going to work for the timber or coal companies, the railroads, or farming.

Most of these visionary business owners were outsiders who had access to the capital and emerging markets necessary to support these new industries. These entrepreneurs, however, had little interest in building a broad-based economy. Their focus was on providing the resources necessary to ensure an adequate supply of laborers for harvesting the trees or mining the coal. When most of the trees were cut, the lumber companies abandoned the region, leaving the coal companies to be the dominant economic activity by World War I.

Coal mining and related activities continued to be the engine driving the regional economy for the remainder of the twentieth century and into this century. The boom or bust nature of the coal industry, the declining numbers of workers as mechanization displaced miners after World War II, and the diminishing supply of easily-mined coal led to efforts to diversify or strengthen the economy. Some of the new activities, such as furniture or textile manufacturing or call centers, initially provided jobs, but many eventually were later outsourced overseas. Consequently, they could not sustain local economic development.

In late 1929, Robert Carter Jett, the Episcopal Bishop of Southwest Virginia, proposed converting the Wise County Detention Home outside the Town of Wise into a high school and college modeled after Berea College in Kentucky. Leading coal officials, the Chairman of the Wise County Board of Supervisors, and The Coalfield Progress endorsed Bishop Jett’s vision. The Great Depression soon intervened to prevent the implementation of his plan.

After World War II, some forward-thinking residents began to question the wisdom of denying talented young men and women the opportunity of going to college. Many high school graduates could not afford to “go away” to college; others who did go away frequently did not return home. In either case, the loss of talent or “brain drain” worried these community-minded residents.

Part 1: The University of Virginia’s College at Wise
“Clinch Valley College is the single institution responsible for a revolution in Southwest Virginia. It has been responsible for bringing the people of this part of the state into the mainstream.”
Ann Gregory, Newspaper Publisher, Public Hearing, October 23, 1990

Early proponents of establishing Clinch Valley College soon formed a Local Advisory Board. Members in 1957 included (from left to right) Glenn Williams, Glenn Phillips, J.J. Kelley, Hagen Richmond, M.M. Long, Kenneth Asbury, W.J. Thompson, and Fred Greear. Not pictured is J.L. Camblos.
Early proponents of establishing Clinch Valley College soon formed a Local Advisory Board. Members in 1957 included (from left to right) Glenn Williams, Glenn Phillips, J.J. Kelley, Hagen Richmond, M.M. Long, Kenneth Asbury, W.J. Thompson, and Fred Greear. Not pictured is J.L. Camblos.

By the early 1950s, Fred Greear, a well-connected Norton attorney, Kenneth L Asbury, Mayor of Wise and an attorney, and other coalfield residents began talking about the need to bring post-secondary education to the region. The shortage of trained public school teachers and the need for people with scientific or technical education such as engineering was apparent to these Wise Countians. They no doubt were also aware that the University of Virginia, like other well-established institutions across the country, was opening extension centers or branches outside Charlottesville in order to provide greater access to specific courses or academic programs. Colgate Darden, the president of U.Va., had previously proclaimed that the institution’s “incalculable influence should be felt in every community of Virginia.”

With the tireless support of Sam Crockett, U.Va.’s extension agent in Southwest Virginia, the Wise Countians gained the endorsement of President Darden for establishing an extension branch or center in Wise County through a series of fast-paced events beginning in December, 1953. Darden wrote Greear in February, 1954, stating “we will make every effort to organize work which will be interesting and profitable to the people in that area.” Under the skillful prodding of State Senator M.M. Long, Sr. of St. Paul, and Delegate Orby Cantrell of Pound, the proposal gained General Assembly approval to begin work in 1954 with an initial annual $5,000 appropriation.

After the favorable action of the General Assembly, local residents and U.Va. personnel worked feverishly to open the center. The Wise County Board of Supervisors permitted use of the building which housed the Poor Farm and provided $6,000 for repairs and $2,000 for equipment. The Town of Wise authorized $4,000 to install a water main to the building on the outskirts of Wise. Civic clubs donated more than $25,000 for student scholarships, and other donors contributed $6,500 for equipment. Community support was obviously strong for greater access to higher education for local residents of this struggling region.

In 1958, Director Joe Smiddy looks over an artist’s rendering of the proposed classroom and administration building which would be the first new building constructed at Clinch Valley College.
In 1958, Director Joe Smiddy looks over an artist’s rendering of the proposed classroom and administration building which would be the first new building constructed at Clinch Valley College.

When the fledgling school opened its doors in September 1954, 110 full-time and 116 part-time students were present, clearly demonstrating the demand for higher education. Seventy of the students were military service persons who had recently returned home and were going to school under the G.I. Bill, and most attendees were first generation college students. Samuel Crockett, who was the first director, welcomed the pioneering students by saying “You are making history today.”

Crockett’s prediction proved exceptionally accurate. By the next spring, the General Assembly officially named the educational venture Clinch Valley College of the University of Virginia, and progress was being made toward fashioning a two-year curriculum for students planning to transfer to a baccalaureate degree granting institution. When the decision was made in 1957 to reassign the college from the extension division to the Provost’s office and to appoint Joe Smiddy, who had been a biology professor, to the director’s position, President Darden clearly articulated the goal. “I want developed there a first-rate two-year college looking to the preparation of students for work here or at some other institution.” Darden also believed that a sound liberal arts program was the best preparation, even for students who could not or would not transfer.

In 1962 the campus included the Administration and Academic Building on top of the hill and the new Fred B. Greear Gymnasium-Auditorium on the right. Behind the tree to the right of the sign is the other original stone building of the Poor Farm, Martha Randolph Hall.
In 1962 the campus included the Administration and Academic Building on top of the hill and the new Fred B. Greear Gymnasium-Auditorium on the right. Behind the tree to the right of the sign is the other original stone building of the Poor Farm, Martha Randolph Hall.

Under the savvy leadership of Smiddy and with strong regional support, Clinch Valley College slowly expanded its facilities, strengthened the library, and recruited well-qualified faculty and staff members. Enrollment gradually increased to over three hundred students. The small two-year college began to have a noticeable direct economic impact on the community, and some alumni who had gone away to earn baccalaureate or other professional degrees did return to the region.

The relatively young institution took another step within a decade to retain talented local residents when it became a four-year degree granting college. During the early 1960s, proponents for creating a two-year community college system in Virginia began to gain political muscle. Supporters of Clinch Valley College, however, wanted to remain part of The University of Virginia. Senator Long, working with Delegate Cantrell, once again provided legislative leadership. In 1965, Long’s bill established that Clinch Valley College would become a four-year institution with the right to grant degrees to graduating students. In 1965, Linwood Holton, a native son of Big Stone Gap, made “Let’s make Clinch Valley College a four-year college” part of his campaign for governor.

Against substantial statewide opposition, W. D. Richmond, Superintendent of Wise County Schools, mobilized his colleagues throughout the Commonwealth to support the need for a four-year college in the coalfields. Other business and professional leaders also advocated for the change. As the debate and political intrigue ensued, enrollment at Clinch Valley College jumped from 301 in 1964-65 to 495 in 1967-68 in anticipation of the new status. On July 1, 1968, Director Smiddy became chancellor of a publicly-supported baccalaureate degree granting college which remained part of the University of Virginia. The Superintendent of Washington County Schools subsequently wrote, “Nothing in terms of education could have been better for Southwest Virginia than this action.”

For more than a decade, the faculty and administration of Clinch Valley College focused on developing a liberal arts curriculum. The new four-year degree granting status further emphasized the liberal arts as the college added majors in these traditional disciplines. In 1973, the college granted its first bachelor of science degree. By 1975-76, total enrollment had more than tripled to 1034 students, including 679 full-time enrollees. Many graduates remained in the region working as teachers or in the private business sector. Others sought graduate and professional degrees at institutions outside of the region; some of these alumni then returned home to practice.

More than a half century after its founding, the University of Virginia’s College at Wise has developed a comprehensive campus on the site of the Poor Farm and contributes substantially to the economy of Southwest Virginia.
More than a half century after its founding, the University of Virginia’s College at Wise has developed a comprehensive campus on the site of the Poor Farm and contributes substantially to the economy of Southwest Virginia.

The recently created state community college system provided two-year degree opportunities to students attending the new Southwest Virginia Community College in Richlands or Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap. These institutions also offered many of the technical and vocational courses and programs needed by local employers. Because of the liberal arts focus at Clinch Valley College, community leaders interested in regional economic development often turned to the community colleges for assistance.

Following Chancellor Smiddy’s retirement in 1984 after almost three decades of leading the college, proposals accelerated for making the college a more comprehensive institution. Under the mandate of the statewide Commission on the University of the 21st Century, the college undertook a comprehensive planning process in the early 1990s. As part of the process, the college conducted public hearings at four locations in Southwest Virginia. Four major themes emerged from the extensive citizen comments, including the following:

  • Clinch Valley College has made extremely significant contributions to transforming the region – especially through teacher education activities;
  • Clinch Valley College must become more comprehensive in order to lead in the further development of Southwest Virginia; and
  • Clinch Valley College must gain resources for its expanding mission.

Among the numerous recommendations of the college’s final plan were adding degrees in nursing, public administration/criminal justice, engineering technology, art and foreign languages, and a master’s degree program for teachers; significantly expanding enrollment; and adding new facilities. The plan left unresolved the widely discussed policy issue of the nature of the relationship of the college with the University of Virginia.

The recent two decades have brought significant advances to the college which enhance its ability to contribute to the region and beyond. The nature of the relationship with The University of Virginia was resolved in 1999 when the Virginia General Assembly approved changing Clinch Valley College’s name to The University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Numerous new classroom and office buildings and residence halls have been added or are under construction. The college today offers 29 majors, including the first undergraduate software engineering degree in Virginia, 29 minors, 24 teaching licensure areas, and pre-professional degree programs in

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

dentistry, engineering, forestry, law, medicine, physical therapy, and veterinary medicine. Although the college does not have any graduate or professional programs, it enrolls more than 1900 undergraduate students, employees about 300 persons, and has 8242 living alumni, many of whom reside in Southwest Virginia. The college continues to sponsor the Center for Teaching Excellence in Wise and recently opened the Southwest Virginia Technology Development Center in Lebanon in partnership with the Russell County Industrial Development Authority.

U.S. News and World Report has annually ranked The University of Virginia’s College at Wise as one of the top public liberal arts colleges in the nation. During the past five years, students have graduated with the lowest financial debt of all public liberal arts colleges in the nation. Another national publication has selected the institution for inclusion in Colleges of Distinction. These attributes further encourage residents to remain in the coalfields for their higher education.

By contributing directly to the economy, improving the quality of life for residents, and permitting residents to remain in the coalfields for their college education, The University of Virginia’s College at Wise continues to assist the development of Southwest Virginia.

In our next issue: The Appalachian School of Law Defies the Odds