Former instructor’s new book chronicles VI’s 130-year history
Signed copies available for sale here at the SBRL for $26.50
BRISTOL, Va. — Between 200 and 300 people recently stood in line to purchase copies of Mary Lou Smith’s new book about the history of Virginia Intermont College.
“They were lined up onto Moore Street and my sister kept running up and saying, ‘Mary Lou shut up and sign.’ But you have to talk to people you haven’t seen in years; former students,” the effervescent, 79-year-old Smith said Friday.
That first signing occurred in the Worrell Fine Arts building on campus, which VI maintenance man Bill Best has transformed into a mini museum. Historic photos from every era line the walls and glass cases overflow with artifacts, flags, clothing, annuals and other memorabilia from the 130 years VI operated.
Smith, a VI graduate, taught there for 57 years and was on the faculty when the private, liberal arts college ceased operating in 2014 after years of financial tumult, lost accreditation and declining enrollment. Almost immediately after VI closed, Smith began compiling the school’s history and in February released “Virginia Intermont College, One Hundred & Thirty Years”.
“I’ve mailed out over 100 books to people all over the country, from California to New England to Florida, you name it,” Smith said. “It’s amazing how many people are connected with VI. If not by marriage, somebody in their family went to VI or their daughter did or their son, or their aunt, or niece or their mother did. So many people have bought books for gifts.”
“This book or one similar to it needed to be written,” Smith said, repeating a refrain included in the book’s introduction.
First established in Glade Spring in 1884 as the Southwest Virginia Female Institute, the college moved to Bristol in 1894 and its name was changed to Virginia Institute. In 1902, the name was changed to Virginia Intermont, which means “between the mountains.” It was an all girl’s school until 1972, the same time it expanded to offer a four-year curriculum.
Smith’s 176-page book is part history, part scrapbook and part autobiography. She talked with hundreds of people, tracked down colleagues and former students, pored over books and documents and made countless trips to campus.
She credits Best with giving her access to locked buildings and helping to ferret out the tiniest detail.
“I think Bill and I will be detectives in our next life,” she said.
The book includes profiles of former VI presidents, lists of notable graduates and even unravels the legend of Vera the ghost, who supposedly haunted the campus. It includes about 300 historic photographs and, in a chapter entitled “Remember when” the caption of a series of candid photos begins with ‘remember when.’In the epilogue, Smith protests “Maybe someday I’ll write a sequel but not anytime soon.”
“I’ll be 80 in a month. I’ll compare it with Grandma Moses. If she can start painting and get famous in her 90s maybe I’ve got a chance,” Smith said. “I’ll write that in the introduction of my sequel, Grandma Smith.”
Article by David McGee
Bristol Herald Courier