L.B. Dietrick's Blacksburg and VPI

by Ronald B. Dietrick, M. D.


Dean of Agriculture Leander B. Dietrick in 1952

Growing up in Blacksburg was wonderful. My Father had come there from Pennsylvania to take a Master's Degree in Agriculture after graduating from Penn State. In those days the town was beautiful, quiet and small. Traffic was not a problem, the town having only two stop lights, (only one somewhat earlier), and most folk felt safe enough not to lock their doors, anytime. Only occasionally was life's quiet way disrupted. Once was when Sergeant Bresingham was murdered. Still things were pretty quiet, though the town policeman, "Highpockets," had to get after a Tech student every once in a while.

Town and time were regulated by the "whistle." This was located atop the college power plant which stood behind the dormitories at the upper end of "faculty row." In those days all dormitories were in the upper quadrangle except one for non-Corps students way down by the old "Aggie" Hall, where my father worked. The whistle, a steam affair, blew daily at 7 A.M., noon, and six P.M. All activities sort of revolved around that whistle. If the six o'clock whistle blew, and I was off playing somewhere, I knew it was time to get home pretty soon for supper, or get in trouble. Not uncommonly, I got in trouble.

The Dietrick house was on Preston Avenue for over fifty years, but my parents lived in a variety of places before building in 1939 on a lot bought from Warren Miller. So far as I know Miller owned all of what became Preston Ave. and maybe Draper Road as well, selling it off piece by piece in the 20s, 30s, and early 40s. Getting that house built on Preston Ave. was quite an undertaking, not only from the cost standpoint, which seemed pretty high at something like eight thousand dollars, but Mother had definite ideas about having the house "architecturally correct." To help in this desire they retained the services of Mr. Cowgill, an architect associated with VPI. Plan followed plan but Mother could not get a kitchen plan to suit her. Night after night she lay awake thinking about it long after Dad was asleep. One night the perfect plan crystallized in her mind, so she woke Dad up saying, "I've finally decided on a plan for the kitchen." Instead of rolling over and going back to sleep, Dad got up and started out of the room. Mother asked, "Where are you going?" Dad replied, "I am going to call Mr. Cowgill. I'm sure he will want to know you have finally decided how you want the kitchen." Mother was startled. "You can't call him, it's three o'clock in the morning!" Dad revealed his irritation, saying, "All right, but if you ever wake me up for something like that again, I will call Mr. Cowgill!"

At first, Dad and Mother had a room at the Colonial Inn located across from the present Post Office, and operated by Selden Heath. Shortly later they moved in with a family named Corman, who resided on a corner of what is now Draper Road, (then Water Street), about where the Police Station is now. They did not stay there long but moved to an apartment over the National Bank which was across Roanoke Street from the present bank. The building is still there. Next they went to the corner of Roanoke and Church Streets, across from the then Presbyterian Church Manse. This is the first place I remember, from age three. Looking east up toward the town cemetery Roanoke Street was like a tree covered tunnel with the proverbial light at the end. I remember looking up that street and thinking up there is "forever." About 1931 we moved to the Agricultural Extension Apartments, which were below the present library on College Avenue. The Avenue ran straight from the town's one stoplight at College and Main to the "old" "Aggie" Hall. This is the place that I really remember from childhood, when it was home to us, the Teskes, the Montgomerys, and the Beamers. Beside the apartments was a black cinder-top road that went up "Minter's Hill." Across the way were some college tennis courts, and a pasture with an open stream running through it, where Dr. Tom Hutcheson kept his cow. Behind that was the University Club, which is still there.

Transportation into Blacksburg from Christiansburg by car was a two lane black top road, though I remember Dad telling me that the road was unpaved when he arrived in Blacksburg. Most folk did not have cars though, so the N&W train called the "Huckleberry" was much used, coming in about twice a day to the station located where the city hall is now. The name "Huckleberry" supposedly came from the fact that anyone could hop off, pick some huckleberries and get back on after a short dash, the train ran so slowly. The "Huckleberry" was sort of an institution and continued up through the 1940s, perhaps into the fifties, though with a reduced schedule. One of my favorite activities in the early Forties was finding wine bottles discarded along the tracks, then breaking them on the rails. Nothing like the sound of breaking glass to a kid. This was on the way home from school. Every once in a while when I found what I thought was a pretty one, I carried it home thinking Mother might like to keep it. The tracks provided a smooth way for folk who lived along them, so a lot of people from out near Merrimac Mines used them to walk home.

The town had its share of "characters" though I don't remember very many. One, though, was the mayor, Dr. Eheart. A dentist by profession, he used to drive around town in a big Packard, never driven higher than in second gear. One day while driving in company with his wife he hit a Tech student. The car was going so slow and the blow so glancing that the student hopped up uninjured. Mrs. Eheart got out of the car and told the student, "Young man, I hope you sue him! Dr. Eheart, I am walking home." She did.

If Dr. Eheart was a character on the town side, Professor "Bosco" Rasch was a character on the gown side. The stories about him could easily fill a volume, but H.M. McEver told me this one. Sometime around 1929-30 when "Mac" was a freshman, and walking to an early class he used to see Professor Rasch coming by the two Academic buildings. Being impressed by the gentleman he asked some upperclassman who he was, and was told that he was "old Bosco." Wishing to be polite "Mac" greeted Prof. Rasch with, "Morning Professor Bosco" for a whole quarter, receiving the sonorous reply, "Good Morning Sir." Finally, Mr. McEver found out his true name.

Another story from Mr. McEver concerned church going. In those days church attendance was required of the Corps of Cadets, and incoming freshmen were asked their church affiliation so they could be lined up and marched to the church of their denomination. I remember how splendid they looked in the winter as they marched up and broke ranks in front of the Presbyterian church, in their deep blue overcoats with scarlet capes over the shoulders. They sat in the balcony, most of them sprawled asleep during the sermon.

Anyway, upperclassmen sometimes told the new freshmen that if they signed up as "Catholic" they would not have to go to church, saying there was no Catholic church in town. Of course, there was, very close to where it is now, but a small inconspicuous frame building. Consequently, a large number of freshman signed up as "Catholic," only to be surprised when they were marched off to attend the Catholic church the following Sunday. Once a year at least, the Catholic church was filled to overflowing. On Monday most students sheepishly changed their "denomination" back to what they really were, Baptist and Methodist mostly.

Mr. McEver was also the one who explained to my Dad why people, though invited, would not go in his garden to get vegetables. Dad used to say that of all the people he suggested come get vegetables out of his garden, only Mrs. Montgomery, wife of the Assistant Director of Agriculture Extension Service, and "Shorty" Andrews ever availed themselves of the invitation. Dad was musing about this peculiarity one day to McEver, who then lived across from the Episcopal Church. "Mac" said he didn't need to go into other peoples gardens, he got vegetables delivered to his door. Dad asked, "How's that." McEver: "You know what a fine gardener Sam Wingard is up the street across from the Methodist church? He called me last week that his butter beans were in and said I could pick all I want, but I didn't. A couple of days later he called to say there was half a bushel of butter beans on his front porch for me if I would pick them up, but I didn't go. This morning when I got up there was a half bushel of butter beans on my front porch that Sam had dropped off on his way to work. That's how you get produce out of other people's gardens!"

Blacksburg was a wonderful place, but had certain characteristics. Basically it was a small rural Virginia town with a college, in the midst of the Depression, at that. Perhaps the highest standard or "tone" of the community was set by Mrs. Burruss wife of VPI president Julian Burruss. She never appeared in downtown Blacksburg without a hat and white gloves. This at a time when mountain folk came in to sell black raspberries at 5 cents a quart. I remember Mother buying more than we needed just to be of help. Still Mrs. Burruss set the standard. Another thing about the town was a prejudice against "Yankees." Not hostility, but definitely a prejudice, perhaps modified as time went on by the presence of a number of "Yankees," which was anyone not from Virginia or the old South. In the School of Agriculture there was August Teske from Michigan, Dr. Bryant from "out west," Mr. Holdaway from New Zealand, A. L. Dean from New England, (he ordered maple syrup every year from L. L. Bean), Verne Hillman from Iowa, and of course, L. B. Dietrick from Pennsylvania. No doubt there were others. Still, a certain feeling about "Yankees" existed. I remember coming home from school in the third or fourth grade burning with fury about the terrible things the "Yankees" did to Virginia during the Civil War, only to be asked by Dad, "Did you know I am a 'Yankee'?" I didn't say so, but I was ashamed.

I remember too years later, Dad came home from a trip out in the state, and saying with amusement that old patterns die hard. I asked what he meant. He said his traveling companion stopped with embarrassment right in the middle of a joke about "Yankees," and said, "Oh! I'm sorry Dean Dietrick, I forgot that you are from the North." That was about 25 years after Dad came to town. I also recall that Professor Harrison who lived behind us at the base of "Minter's Hill" refused to go down the street in New York City where Grant's tomb was located.

Dad had sort of an eye for the incongruous or humorous. He greatly enjoyed the Burma Shave ads, of which were many. One of his favorites which he quoted for years was, "I proposed to Ida. Ida refused. I'da won my Ida if I'da used, Burma shave." He was also amused by the advertising sign outside one of the small Valley towns, which read, "Eat and sleep with Mrs. Zirkle." For those too young to remember, they used to have what were called boarding houses, where you could get a room and meals for a night or longer, like the Bed and Breakfasts of today, but considerably less costly. I don't think Dad ever stopped there.

A humorous incidence occurred one day when Mother hung up the phone laughing. Mrs. "H" had called to invite her to a Tea. Since Mrs. "H" and Mother did not move in quite the same social circle, Mrs. "H" felt the need to explain the invitation by saying, "I decided to invite some of the new people in town this time." Mother was laughing because at the time she had been in Blacksburg over 25 years, and Dad was director of the Agricultural Extension Service.

Mother could occasionally get herself into a bit of trouble. One day while we were living at the Extension Apartments, probably in about my tenth year, I came crying with a nasty cut on my left arm. I had fallen in a ditch dug by college workman across the road where they were building what is now Brown-Donaldson. In today's climate such a thing might lead to a lawsuit, but certainly not then. Obviously the cut had to be sewed up, and Dad was out of town. Finally, she got in touch with Mr. Beamer who came home from work to help in getting me to the doctor. Trouble was our doctor, Manges, was out of town. Dr. Phlegar also was not available. That left Dr. Lucas so off to his office we went. Once there, Mother got a queasy stomach so Mr. Beamer volunteered to go into the treatment room with me. I remember getting worked on, but little more. After the job was done, the bill paid, when we were going home, Mr. Beamer laughed and said that Dr. Lucas was not too happy about the whole thing. Mother wanted to know why so he told her. Apparently Dr. Lucas wondered if he was getting a new patient, or whether this was a one time thing, so he asked me, "Ronny, Dr. Manges is your regular doctor isn't he?" To which I answered, "Yes sir." Dr. Lucas queried again, "Well, how did you happen to come to me today?" I said, "Well Dr. Manges was gone, and Mama couldn't find Dr. Phlegar, so she said 'I guess we'll have to go to Dr. Lucas. He's dumb, but he ought to have enough sense to sew up a cut!'" Mother was terribly embarrassed but Mr. Beamer thought it was right funny.

Another man who probably would qualify as a "character" was Harvey Price, Dean of Agriculture, to be distinguished from "Flopsy" Price, (E.R. Price) who was a character as well. When Dad arrived in the early 1920s there was a speculation as to whether Dean Price wore a wig. One day when Dad was in the Dean's office he saw Dean Price scratching his head with a pencil. The pencil pushed under and elevated the wig, so the question was solved. Later Dean Price was noted to have stopped wearing his wig and Dad was elected to go in and ask why. Dean Price said he had been hunting grouse a few days before when the wig fell off as he was running through the woods so he had to stop and get it. Shortly after, it snagged on a bush and he had to stop again. Finally it got caught a third time so he "Just never went back after the damn thing." Dean Price was also quite a historian and knew a lot about local history in particular. He told Mother once that he was an "English" Price and not one of those "Hessian" Prices who came from Germany as mercenaries with the British during the American Revolution. I remember him as a small rotund man who had a rim of tobacco stain on his beard. His was a sad life in a lot of ways, but Dad said on many occasions that he did a lot of Virginia agriculture.

On the Agriculture scene with Dean Price were the two Hutcheson brothers, Dr. Jack was Director of the Agricultural Extension Service, and Dr. Tom was Head of the Agronomy Department. Brothers and fine men, they were very different. Dr. Jack was incisive and to a young boy rather intimidating. Dr. Tom was quiet and had a sweet nature. Dad summed it up very well by saying, "You had to admire Dr. Jack, but you loved Dr. Tom." He worked with both for a long time.

Dr. Jack taught a Sunday School class of VPI students, which met in the large assembly hall of the Sunday School Building behind the Presbyterian Church. My class met in a small room just off it, and was taught by Paul Swaffer. On Sundays when Dr. Swaffer was not too engrossing I could look out the door and listen to Dr. Jack. One Sunday he was teaching on the Ten Commandments and said, "You can't break the Ten Commandments. You can violate them but you can't break them. They'll break you." Almost sixty years later, I have not forgotten that.

Not to denigrate Dr. Swaffer, he was a pretty good teacher, doing a good job with a bunch of generally disinterested little boys. He had sense enough to let us talk about Tech's recent triumph or tragedy in sports, especially if there had been a home game the previous day. Most of us were faculty kids which meant we could go to home events using season tickets. In those days a season ticket for all the home sports events at VPI were five dollars for the faculty member, three dollars for the wife, and one dollar for a child. Our family went to a lot of games. Anyway, Dr. Swaffer let us have a while, sometimes a long while, to talk before starting the lesson. He liked sports too.

Dad had a good story about Dr. Swaffer who required a long term paper in one of his classes. Once a student, fatigued by his labors buried a sentence in the middle of his paper saying, "If you've read this far, you're a bigger fool than I think you are, and I'll buy you a carton of cigarettes." When the paper came back, there was the grade on the outside, and the comment, "Make it Camels."

A story about Dr. Jack came about when he seemed to be looking happier than usual. Dad asked him why, to be told, "My grandchildren are coming for a visit." A week or so passed and Dad remarked, "Boss Jack, how was the grandchildren's visit?" The reply came back, "Dietrick, there is nothing that makes a grandfather's heart any happier than seeing the round smiling faces of his grandchildren coming in the door for a visit, unless it's the sight of their round little bottoms going out the door when they leave!" Dr. Jack was a man with a rigorous sense of duty. The day after learning that his son Bob had been killed in France, he came to work as usual.

Dr. Tom Hutcheson despised English peas. One time he and Dad were guests at a banquet, at which the usual fare was served, Chicken ala King, mashed potatoes with gravy, and English peas. Looking with disgust at his plate Dr. Tom said, "Deet, I hope to live long enough to see one total failure of the English pea crop."

Then there was H.H. Hill, Head of Agricultural Chemistry where I worked a couple of summers. He told me how he got the nickname "Bunker." Seems he and a couple of friends were riding on a train in the Northeast, when they stopped at a station. Across the way was a place named the Bunker Hill Saloon, so, "We all got off and had a drink, and I got the nickname "Bunker Hill."

Seems there was an ample supply of "characters" among the faculty in the thirties. I have thought about this often and have come to the conclusion that there are probably just as many "characters" today, but the college was so much smaller then that everyone knew the "characters" and their peculiarities. Dr. Gudheim, who must have been Scandinavian, was such a character. One day a student told him, "Dr. Gudheim, I just don't understand infinity, can you explain it a little better?" Dr. Gudheim took a piece of chalk and drew a line across the blackboard, and on the wall around the room. When he reached the window he threw the chalk out. Turning to the student he said, "Dot iss inwinity."

Another story has overtones of an authoritarian background. Dr. Gudheim hated to have a student "cut" one of his classes. One day in a mechanical drawing class Dr. Gudheim approached a student who had cut a class. "You cut my class yesterday?" The boy said, "Yessir, I had some business downtown." Dr. Gudheim pulled out his pocket knife, and slashed an "X" across the boy's drawing with the remark, "You cut me, I cut you!"

Another such was "old" Dr. Pritchard who lived down near or at the end of "faculty row." He must have worked in Biology or somewhere in the School of Agriculture for he was an expert on insects. One day several students decided to fool the old man so they painstakingly constructed a "bug," gluing the legs from one, to the wings from another, etc. Then they took it to Dr. Pritchard with lots of excitement, "Dr. Pritchard we have found a bug that none of us can identify." Dr. Pritchard took the specimen and examined it very carefully, using a magnifying glass, turned to the students with great seriousness remarking, "Gentlemen, you have found a 'humbug'" By the time I was born Mrs. Pritchard may have been a widow, as I remember no Dr. Pritchard. (After writing the above, I visited with Dr. Pritchard's daughter, Mrs. Howard Wilson, who survives at age 94 in Sunnyside Retirement Community, Harrisonburg, VA. She assures me that her father was in Engineering, so he could not have been the subject of the above anecdote. I know my Father told the story, but who the subject was, I have forgotten, obviously. Mrs. Wilson suggests it may have been Dr. Smyth, who was Head of the Biology Department.)

During the 1920s Dad did a lot of traveling in Southwest Virginia. Often he would stay in someone's home since there weren't a lot of hotels in some counties. Once in a home and at supper, the lady of the house told him, "Mr. Dietrick, that sugar bowl is over two hundred years old. My great great great grandmother brought it over from England." Dad reached over to pick it up and examine it more closely. When he did so the handle came off in his hand! Terrible embarrassment was spared when he was told the handle had broken off before, and been glued back on. Still he felt pretty bad there for a few moments.

On another trip Dad did stay in a small rural hotel. Breakfast in the morning quite naturally included hot biscuits. One gentleman at the table ate a large number of same, ending up with the remark, "Hot biscuits, there ain't hardly nothing I don't like no better nohow." Dad said this was most double negatives he ever heard in one sentence.

Apparently lots of Dad's travels had to do with a government program set up of Veterans of WWI. They were either given or could buy at very low prices small farms on which to settle. Men from VPI would go out periodically to see how they were getting on. On one such visit Dad was asked to stay to supper. When he and the farm wife walked through the unscreened door to the kitchen there were several chickens sitting on an open barrel of flour. Lashing out at "them dern chickens," she drove them out the open door, following which she took a cup and dipped out some chicken feces that had gotten in the flour, and threw it out the door too. After this she used the same cup, unwashed, to dip out the flour to make biscuits. Dad had to eat some as the entire supper consisted of biscuits and stringbeans. That was all they had.

Many of my father's closest friends, though by no means all, were in the School of Agriculture or the Presbyterian Church. One story I picked up myself was from J.B. Jones who was head of Electrical Engineering. He was an enthusiastic tennis player who often teamed up with Norman Johnson, the Presbyterian preacher who, at six feet four, was very tall for the time. Once when they were in a tight game of doubles "J.B." missed a shot and cut loose with a mild expletive like, "Oh Hell." Which led him to apologize to Johnson for cussing. Johnson replied, "Don't worry about that just get up to the net and hit the damn ball!" Mr. Jones explained to me that preachers could be human like everybody else.

Over in the Agriculture School, Dr. Young, Head of the Agriculture Experiment Station did not think much of preachers, or at least not of Churches for he never went in spite of many invitations to do so. One day he and Dad were walking across the drill field to the Presidents Office, when Dad remarked, "Doc, I wish there were something I could do to get you to come to Sunday School." Dr. Young, who did not like tobacco, looked at the cigarette Dad was smoking and replied, "When you quit smoking, I'll start coming." Dad threw the cigarette away, took the pack out of his pocket, threw it on the ground, and said, "See you Sunday." And he did for Dr. Young started attending Sunday School regularly, but he didn't go to Church. A good many years later Dad was again with Dr. Young, and he made the comment, "You know, Doc, I sometimes wish I was a drinking man." Dr. Young said, "Deet, why in the world would you say a thing like that?" Dad's answer was, "Were I a drinking man, I would stop if you would start coming to Church." In point of fact Dr. Young did eventually start coming to Church.

Several of Dad's stories were about a student who came up to VPI in the late twenties or early thirties, named Starnes. I believe his initials were T.J. He later became a county agent in Giles county. Mr. Starnes was a big rough country boy from down in Southwest Virginia. Early in his college career he took a class under Dr. Wolfe, the father of author Tom Wolfe. Dr. Wolfe was rather short, and he remarked on Starnes height on the first day of class, asking, "How tall are you Mr. Starnes?" Starnes said, "Six foot two in my stocking feet." Well says Dr. Wolfe, the grow'em pretty big down where you come from," to which Starnes answered, "I don't know about that professor, but I've pulled suckers off corn taller than you are."

Dr. Wolfe and Mr. Starnes had another encounter sometime later when Dr. Wolfe asked him in class, "Mr. Starnes, when would you put in your corn crop?" Mr. Starnes said, "The day after the first full moon in April!" "And how did you arrive at that date Mr. Starnes?" Now, Dr. Wolfe and Dr. Tom Hutcheson had published a book on Agronomy, and, the answer was supposed to be, "From the Manual of Field Crops by Hutcheson and Wolfe." Starnes answer was "Sears Roebuck Catalogue!"

This story about Mr. Starnes came later in his career, when he was a county agent. It was election time in the county and one of the candidates was going around in a "ballyhoo wagon" (Dad's term), making speeches. Originally, wagons were used, but by Starnes time candidates used trucks. Mr. Starnes was leaning against the truck listening, when one of the speaker's supporters came up and asked, "Mr. Starnes, what do you think of our man's speech," to which Starnes replied, "I think it's a bunch of damned foolishness." This irritated the questioner, so he said, "Mr. Starnes do you know anything about our candidate?" Starnes: "No." Supporter: "Well do you know anything about the issues in this election?" Starnes: "No." Supporter: "Since you don't know the candidate, and you don't know anything about the issues, how can you say it's a bunch of damn foolishness?" Mr. Starnes said, "A lot of my friends say I am an expert in damn foolishness, and I know it when I hear it!"

According to Dad, Starnes was known to take an occasional drink, but his wife wouldn't let him keep liquor in the house, so he had to take his friends out to the barn where he kept a supply on hand. Dad always said the Starnes were fine Christian people. They suffered the horror of seeing their two daughters drown in a lake at a Sunday School picnic, helpless to do anything.

Of all Dad's friends in the twenties, thirties and onward, Mr. Leo C. Beamer was certainly one of the closest. Mr. Beamer, also in the Horticultural Department at VPI, was a big rotund, jolly man, almost always cheerful. He and Dad gardened side by side for close on to forty years, first down at the Extension Apartments, long gone now, and later on Preston Ave. The association ended only with Mr. Beamer's death. They always did things together. Sometimes one would get the cabbage or tomato plants for both, sometime the other. In spite of this Dad could never understand why Beamer's tomatoes always came in a week or two earlier than his, though they were planted at the same time, and cared for in the same way. It was not a matter of competition, but perplexity. One day he was in the garden when Mother came out and he noticed she was doing something to the tomatoes plants, so he asked, "Mildred, what are you doing?" She replied, "Well I never do anything in the garden, except this one thing I am doing now. Every year when the first blossoms come on the tomatoes I pinch them all off." "Why do you do that?" Mother said, "Because it makes the other tomatoes get bigger." Dad told her, "Well you have solved a question I have been wondering about for twenty years," and went on to explain that her actions delayed the development of the first fruit.

Though Dad loved gardening, he was not able to arouse much enthusiasm in me, although one time he did "hire" me to pick potato bugs. It seems strange in this day and time of insecticides that eliminating such a pest in a garden could be as simple as picking them off, but it was especially so with potato bugs and tomato or tobacco worms. Anyway, I was hired and I believe that Mary Jean Montgomery was hired with me. The price was a penny a bug. We picked long and hard, we though, and ended up reporting to Dad that we had gotten over fifty bugs! He commended us and paid up, asking what we had done with the bugs. I replied, "Oh we dumped them out at the end of the row." Maybe he decided then and there that I didn't have what it took to be a gardener.

For a child Mr. Beamer, known as "Uncle Leo" to me, was a lot of fun to be around. We were without a car in those days, so the Beamers often drove us to church in theirs. When church was over and we were going home "Uncle Leo" would let me "drive." I would sit on his lap, a close fit between him and the steering wheel, and steer the car while he handled all the other manipulations. It was fun, especially with Mother and Mrs. Beamer sitting in the back calling out warnings and predictions of dire consequences. Surely he must have kept his hands close to the wheel, but I thought I was really driving. It was a great thrill. At least we never had a wreck. Such a thing would get a traffic citation today, but things were more relaxed then.

There is no doubt that Mr. Beamer loved to drive. He and Dad made many many trips "out in the state" often leaving on Monday morning to return late Friday night or even on Saturday. When they were ready to leave Dad always said "Will you drive or shall I?" Mr. Beamer's stock reply was, "I'll drive out and you can drive back." When the return trip started he would say, "I'll drive back and you can drive the next trip." Only rarely did Dad get to drive. Once, on the way home late at night "Uncle Leo" went to sleep at the wheel. Fortunately they were in Eastern Virginia where the land was flat, so the car just ran off the road into a potato field. Both of them were suddenly awake in the midst of rows of potatoes. As Mr. Beamer backed the car out onto the road Dad said, "Beamer you better let me drive," to which Mr. Beamer replied, "No, I'm awake now."

Mr. Beamer, probably because of his jolly forgiving nature, and pleasant personality, as the object of many practical jokes. He almost never took offense as many objects of practical jokes will do. Once during the thirties he and Dad were over on the "Eastern Shore" when they stopped for supper at a place called the "Shickshinny Restaurant." Mr. Beamer said he did not want a big supper so he ordered only a piece of pumpkin pie. The waitress set it to one side and served Dad his meal. While Mr. Beamer wasn't looking Dad took a toothpick and stuck it into the back of the pie, pushing it further in with another. Then he suggested that Mr. Beamer go on and eat the pie, not waiting until Dad started his dessert, which Mr. Beamer did. About three fourths through the toothpick popped up and Mr. Beamer said, "Deet, look at this." Dad said, "Good Lord, I wonder if the cook is white or colored?" Mr. Beamer called the waitress who was properly distressed, and asked if he wanted another piece of pie. Mr. Beamer said yet but to make it cherry, whereupon Dad interrupted and revealed that he had stuck the toothpick in the pie for a joke so Beamer would finish it. Everybody was relieved. Later as they were driving away Dad said, "Beamer I don't understand you sometimes," and he said, "What do you mean Deet?" So Dad told him. "You are too picky. I don't know how the toothpick got in that pie, but it got sterilized when it was cooked, so there was no use getting upset about it." For a long time Mr. Beamer did not know the real truth of the matter.

Once Mr. Beamer, Bill Daughtry and Dad took a trip up to Washington together. On the way they stopped for lunch at a restaurant in Harrisonburg. During the meal Mr. Beamer jollied the waitresses and joked with them a great deal. Later as they drove on down the valley Dad and Bill chided him to which he replied that the waitresses knew it was all in fun. As it happened, after the meeting in Washington Mr. Beamer had a meeting in Richmond, so he went there by train, and Bill Daughtry and Dad drove home, stopping again at the same restaurant in Harrisonburg. No sooner were they seated than a waitress asked where the "big fat jolly man" was who had been with them the other day. Dad said, "Oh, we were taking him to the insane asylum in Staunton." The waitress was horrified, and couldn't see how such a happy pleasant man could possibly be insane, so Bill Daughtry told her, "That's how we know he's going off, he gets real happy and jolly. We're his bodyguards and when he gets that way we know to take him in, before he gets violent." The waitress accepted, and nothing more was said. Months later Mr. Beamer came in the office one morning having just gotten back from a trip down the valley, and told Dad something peculiar had happened. Dad asked him what and he answered, "You know that restaurant you and Bill and I stopped at on our trip to Washington months ago? Well, I stopped there last night about closing time on my way home. The minute I walked in the waitress screamed, "that's him" and ran off into the kitchen. Nobody would come to wait on me, so I finally had to holler. When I did two waitresses and the cook came out together and took my order. When they brought my food they; all came out together, and when I paid my bill they all came to the cash register together. There is something funny going on up there!" Again it was a long time before Mr. Beamer knew the truth.

Another story has to do with Mr. Beamer and "Aggie" Nuckols. Mr. Beamer was in a meeting smoking one of his White Owl cigars which went for a nickel. "Aggie" came in late and sat down by Mr. Beamer at an open window. Soon he asked Mr. Beamer if he had another of those cigars. Mr. Beamer said "Sure." And handed one over. Mr. Nuckols lit up, took a big puff, looked at the cigar closely, said, "Phew!" and threw it out the window. Mr. Beamer wasn't too amused.

One final story about Mr. Beamer, which Dad witnessed but was not party to. Around 1940 Anne Hutcheson, the daughter of Dr. And Mrs. Tom Hutcheson became deathly ill with rheumatic fever, and was hospitalized in Roanoke. During her illness she needed a blood transfusion, something pretty unusual for Blacksburg at that time. When the call went out for donors, arrangements were made to do preliminary blood typing at the Biology Department at VPI, so that people with a non-matching blood type would not have to drive 40 miles to Roanoke to find that out. Mainly, the call went out to staff in the School of Agriculture. It was Saturday afternoon when Mr. Beamer came in from a trip. Mrs. Beamer told him of the emergency and said to go right down to the college to get his blood typed as most of the other men were already down there. Mr. Beamer had a lot of experience with illness during WWI, and was not too happy about getting stuck, but down he went. A number of Agricultural staff were sitting around talking, and Mr. Beamer joined them after his blood was drawn. In a few minutes Dr. I.D. Wilson came in and told Mr. Beamer there was something messed up so they would have to take another sample which was done. Beamer didn't like that. Again, after a few minutes Dr. Wilson came out and said, "I can't understand it. Your blood is type five. It had never been found in the white race before, and only once in the American Indian. We'll have to take another specimen. (In those days blood was typed as one through four, instead of the present system.) A short while after the third sample had been taken. Dr. Wilson came out and told the group, "Well it turned out to be type four. The assistant made a mistake." Everyone laughed about it, including Mr. Beamer, but dad said Mr. Beamer never did much like I.D. Wilson after that.

In retrospect, it was WW II that affected Blacksburg and VPI so drastically, beginning the process that made both what they are today. Things were never the same, and somehow the town lost the ambiance that was so special. Everyone over a certain age remembers Pearl Harbor, but the harsh reality of the war hit home to us several months later. One Saturday morning Mother and I were sitting at breakfast when the "Huckleberry" came on the tracks just back of our house. It was not a scheduled time for the train, and it had more cars than usual so, we realized something was afoot. I ran out the door down to the foot of Preston Ave. where I heard singing. A few more steps and I was across the tracks and by the train, where I saw the entire Corps of Cadets marching up, singing as they came. One by one the Cadets filed on and the train pulled away. For the next few days the town seemed emptier than it had ever been, and we knew it was changed forever.

My Father and Mother lived in Blacksburg for a long time, from about 1922 until her death in 1976 and his in 1988. Dad accumulated a tremendous fund of stories during his time in Blacksburg. I do wish I could remember more, and had recorded more during his lifetime. Several times I urged him to record them on a tape recorder, but he never would.

When he was appointed Dean of Agriculture, he really did not much want the job. When Dr. Walter Newman first broached the idea to him, he demurred saying that the Dean should have a Ph.D. which he did not have. When Dr. Newman persisted Dad suggested that H.L. Dunton should be appointed. He had the requisite degree and was from the Eastern Shore. Finally Dad acceded to Dr. Newman's repeated requests and became Dean. He told me though that he never enjoyed being Dean, or Director of Extension either, as much as he did when he worked in the Horticulture Department in the twenties and thirties with a group of close friends.

One story of him as Dean of Agriculture is worth relating. It seems that the VPI budget was coming up in the legislature, and there had been a lot of talk in the newspapers about cutting Tech's budget. There was a lot of concern at the college. One day Dad called Bill Daughtry, by then the Director of Agricultural Extension, into his office to discuss the budget situation. Dad said, "Bill, before we start I need your advice on a little matter. I have a student in the School of Agriculture. He had flunked out several times, and the rules say he should not be re-admitted, but he came to me asking for an exception. What do you think?" Bill answered, "Deet, the rules are clear-cut, and re-admission should be denied." Dad told him, "Well, I have interviewed this young man. He seems sincere and says this time he will not play around, but do better. Would that make any difference to you?" Bill replied, "No, rules are rules, and you will have to stick to them." Again Dad pursued the problem, "Suppose I told you that the boy's Father is a rich cattleman down in Southwest Virginia, and a long time friend of VPI. Would that influence your opinion?" Bill stuck to his guns. "No, that won't help. The boy's not eligible for re-admission, and that's that." But Dad persisted too, "You and I have to go down to Richmond next week to meet with some officials about the budget. Suppose I told you that this young man's father is Governor of Virginia?" Bill said, "Ah, you go to Hell!"

For many years after retirement Dad was a familiar figure in Blacksburg. A couple of vignettes of him during this period are interesting.

The first occurred during the height of the Vietnam War. Tech students were having a big rally in Burruss Hall, and they asked Dad to sit on the platform, presumably as a representative to the "older generation." At any rate they ignored him throughout the proceedings, much of which had to do with the fact that people over thirty were ignorant and didn't know anything. As they were winding down Dad interrupted to ask if he might say something. The moderator a little abashed, answered that he was certainly welcome to say something, so Dad asked him how old he was. The student was surprised, but answered, "Twenty-five, why?" Dad said, "Let me offer you my sincerest sympathy." Again the student was taken aback wanting to know why he needed sympathy. Dad said, "Because in five years you will be thirty, and you won't know anything!"

Dad took wonderful care of Mother during her failing years, doing all the shopping, the laundry, the cooking, much of the cleaning, and kept track of her many medications. To carry laundry back and forth he had an old cardboard box with holes in the sides to grasp, which had been used to pack tomatoes, originally. It had split down one corner so he repaired it with binder twine. One time when I was home from Korea for a visit, he asked me if I would take the laundry to the Washerette. I did so. During the wait for the wash to get done I noticed two of the attendants kept looking at me rather strangely. Finally one of them sidled over as I was folding laundry and asked, "What are you doing with Mr. Dietrick's tomato box?" They knew the box all right, but not me.


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Last updated June 23, 1998