AN 89-YEAR OVERVIEW
SLIGHTLY IRREVERENT FORMER REVEREND PENS MEMOIRS
ROANOKE TIMES & WORLD-NEWS used with permission
Date: Sunday, February 14, 1993
Edition: NEW RIVER VALLEY
Byline: LURA ASTOR SPECIAL TO THE ROANOKE TIMES & WORLD-NEWS
Please contact me if you have the corresponding photos to this article.
The article came out on a Valentine's Day Sunday and the photos were a wonderful retrospective.
"I was a hillbilly born in Blacksburg," said Ellison Adger Smyth, who's seen a lot of the world in his 89 years.
From his vantage point comes a book, "RetroSpect: Growing up in Blacksburg and Other Tales Through a Long Life." Changes and challenges filled those years, and so does a charming tale of romance. The book, published by Pocahontas Press, is due out in July.
When he retired in 1968 as pastor emeritus of Blacksburg Presbyterian Church after 21 years, he and his wife, Mary Linda, traveled the country in search of their retirement home.
Those travels were a new chapter in their life together that began with a traditional Southern courtship that began in Charleston, S.C. On the retirement odyssey, "Mary Linda collected plants and I collected rocks and butterflies," Smyth said.tell
visited Mexico and Canada, and after four years put their feet back on
Blacksburg soil, settling in the Warm Hearth retirement community. It
was his second Blacksburg homecoming. The first one had brought him to
town as a young pastor in 1948. "There's no place like home," said
Smyth, who was born on what is now the Tech campus.
Mary Linda Smyth, who holds the distinction of being Virginia's oldest employee, works in the Virginia Tech herbarium. She urged her husband to join a writing workshop at Warm Hearth led by poet Nikki Giovanni.
Mary Linda Smyth said she believed her husband needed more intellectual stimulation. "He's always worked with words; why, he's written thousands of sermons." Ellison Smyth thought otherwise. "I had enough to keep me busy, what with my gardening, woodwork and lapidary work . . . besides, what was I going to do with a gang of old women?" he asked, laughing. "But I was intrigued and Nikki Giovanni is a genius." And many of the group turned out to have sharp minds. Now he teasingly refers to them as his "over-aged harem."
"Oh, he's a treasure, wherever he goes," Giovanni said. "He reads for us every week. . . . He's used to writing and speaking. We can count on him to start the discussion for us. "And he's a charmer. I'm glad Mary [Holliman, of Pocahontas Press] is doing the book. He's writing valuable essays" on the beginnings of Tech, where his father was dean of faculty.
Smyth also found some male reinforcements in the group. "One fellow had traveled around quite a bit, Texas and so on. One of his stories was in dialect and I asked, `What part of the Southern Appalachians are you from?' He said, `Illinois.' " Smyth seemed tickled that the joke was on him.
Why did he want to write his autobiography at this point? "Writing is a good outlet," he said. It forces a person to be true to himself and follow his own counsel.
Smyth didn't start as a minister. After graduating from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1925 as an electrical engineer, he moved from Blacksburg (population then about 700) to Schenectady, N.Y. (population 18,000.) A dozen years and a career change were ahead before he would marry Mary Linda.
Schenectady was quite a change for a country boy, he said. For several years he worked at General Electric. Then he discovered he was more interested in people than in electrical research. "I found I could listen. People would come to me. . . . They just needed a listening post." About this time, he said, "The hound of heaven dogged me and I couldn't escape."
Smyth followed in his great-grandfather's footsteps and entered a seminary, studying first in Richmond and then in Edinburgh, Scotland. His great-grandfather was a pastor in Charleston. One of the couples he married there had a son, whom the grandfather baptized. The son later had two daughters.
Smyth by 1935 was doing ministerial work in Lexington. His supervising pastor was married to one of those daughters.
Smyth drove his boss' wife and two of her friends to Charleston for Garden Week that year and met the other daughter, Mary Linda, who was sick with the flu. Sparks flew anyway. Mary Linda had a suitor at the time, but Smyth indicated his interest should she ever be free. Before long, she was, and she came to Lexington to visit her sister. She and Ellison were married July 1, 1937. Now, Ellison Smyth likes to tell people they "met in bed," because of Mary Linda's flu.
While serving in Lexington, Smyth took several liberal arts courses at Washington and Lee to fill a lack in the humanities. He received a master's degree in history. The first dozen years of ministerial work took him to several churches: Warrenton; Nitro, W.Va.; and Hartsville, S.C. In 1947, he was asked to preach at Blacksburg Presbyterian Church. He became pastor there in February 1948.
Years later, Hampden-Sydney College gave Smyth an honorary doctorate of divinity, which he laughingly calls an "ornery degree." He said he thought it was bestowed because some of the Tech faculty and administrators in the Blacksburg church were Hampden-Sydney alumni and wanted the sermons preached by someone with a doctoral degree.
His book, "RetroSpect" includes memoirs of his studies and travels in England, Scotland and France during the 1930s. He writes and speaks of the people he met during his lifetime.
"People are people," he said. "Wherever you find people you find the same problems . . . selfishness, lack of vision, pride. You name it, we've all got it. Includin' preachers . . . sometimes, especially preachers."
After posting, I received this correction, printed here with permission:
I stumbled across your articles about my parents Ellison Adger and Mary Linda Vardell Smyth. There was an error in the write up about my father.
Although mother’s father was born and baptized in Charleston, South Carolina, my mother was born and raised in Red Springs, North Carolina. Grandfather Vardell was the founder and president of Flora McDonald College in Red Springs, and the family spent their summers in Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Blowing Rock is where my father first visited my mother “in bed”. I don’t know where the idea of “garden week” came from. Mother and Dad were married July 1, 1937, in Rumple Memorial Presbyterian Church, a church named after mother’s grand father, Rev. Jethro Rumple.
Father’s first ministry was in Saskatchewan, followed by a church in Nitro, West Virginia. Then came Lexington, Virginia, as an assistant to Dr. J.J. Murray, the brother-in-law of mother. Then Warrington, Hartsville and finally, Blacksburg. I was born in Hartsville and grew up in Blacksburg.
The article about mother was pretty much accurate.
E. Adger Smyth, Jr.