Historical Sketches of Southwest Virginia
Publication No. 4 - 1968
Dr. John Preston McConnell 1866 - 1941
By Dr. & Mrs. H. C. Graybeal
years prior to February 22, 1966, a unique and noble character was born
in Scott County, Virginia, about whom this brief sketch is written.
Scott County has provided our country with a large number of notable
people, not the least of whom was Dr. John Preston McConnell, founder
and first president of what is now Radford College, Radford, Virginia.
Dr. McConnell was the eldest son of Hiram, better known as Squire, and
Ginsey Brickey McConnell of Obey's Creek, Scott County.
his early training in the elementary school of the community. Later he
taught the same school for three years. He wrote in his Autobiography, a
volume entitled WHO AM I?
early teens I conceived the idea that I wished to be, for a season, at
least, a school teacher; however, it did not occur to me that I would
devote the major part of my life to educational work. As a boy I looked
forward to the time when I could become a lawyer, or what was a little
nearer to my heart, editor of a weekly newspaper...I felt that the
editorship of a weekly newspaper offered any good man, or woman, a very
good opportunity to increase the public intelligence and to influence
public opinion in the right direction." (1)
years of most enjoyable experience in elementary education he decided to
secure a college education, and was persuaded to enter Milligan College,
located near Johnson City, Tennessee, from which institution he received
the B. A. and M. A. degrees, taking first honors in his class. For
several years following his graduation he taught at the College. During
this time, on May 21, 1891, he married Clara Louisa Lucas from
Montgomery County, Virginia. She was at the college at that time. During
these years at Milligan, in addition to his teaching, he served as
business manager and acting president. It was here that he decided to
make education his life's work. However, he believed his education was
far too inadequate for the work of a teacher.
So in 1900
he took his wife and four small children to Charlottesville, Virginia,
where he enrolled as a graduate student in the University of Virginia.
There he majored in History and Economics: To help defray expenses he
tutored, and served as an instructor in Rawlings Institute in
awarded the Ph.D. degree by the University, along with three other men.
They were the first to receive this degree from the University. He chose
for his dissertation subject as part of the work for his Ph.D. degree,
NEGROES AND THEIR TREATMENT IN VIRGINIA FROM 1865 TO 1867. This
dissertation was copyrighted in 1910, and the book was widely
distributed at $1.00 per copy, which was a good price for a small volume
in those days.
graduation at the University, he accepted a position at Emory and Henry
College, Emory, Virginia, as professor of History and Economics. He
moved with his family, now increased to five children, in the fall of
1904. While serving on the faculty of Emory and Henry College he
actively participated in many programs for the improvement of
educational and civic life in Southwest Virginia, and throughout the
State. He was an enthusiastic promoter of the historic "May
Campaign" in the State in 1905 for State support for secondary
education. Soon after taking up his work at Emory and Henry, he was
asked to serve as Dean of the College, and Chairman of the faculty
committee on COURSE OF STUDY.
He was a
very popular professor, and the students soon gave him the friendly
title of Dr. "Ekie" due to his emphasis on the importance of
courses in Economics.
his work at Emory and when he refused an offer at a much more lucrative
salary, a friend asked him how much he was receiving at Emory and Henry,
to which he replied, "$50,000." His friend, realizing that
there must be some trick to it, asked how it was paid, Dr. McConnell
replied, "About $1,000 in cash, and the balance in pure
that Dr. McConnell was selected to head the new State Institutions to be
established at Radford, is evidence enough as to his reputation in the
field of education in the State. He was elected in 1911 and while
teaching at Emory and Henry, directed the planning and building of the
new school to have the name of The Radford Normal and Industrial School
for Women. It has since changed its name several times, but is now known
as Radford College.
with his family to Radford in the late summer of 1913, and opened school
to its first students in September of that year. His assuming this new
position, and moving to Radford, changed his work from a college
professor, principally, to an administrator, but it did not change his
interest in the program of working for the betterment of community life
throughout the State.
For his new
faculty he took great care to find, not only good teachers, but persons
who were civic minded and enthusiastic about their work as educators.
Notable among these were Prof. W. E. Gilbert, Dr. J. E. Avent, Dr.
M'Ledge Moffett and Prof. F. B. Fitzpatrick in 1919.
McConnell's life and work at Radford was very closely tied up with these
dedicated members of his faculty. They devoted themselves to promoting
to the utmost of their ability the ideas and ideals which he advocated.
He had an unusual ability of unifying, coordinating, and welding the
faculty into a united force for the advancement of living conditions of
the people of the State.
By this time
Dr. McConnell knew more people in Virginia, particularly Southwest
Virginia, and was known by more people than most any man in the State.
He not only knew the individuals, but he knew their ancestry, and the
members of their families by name. It would be safe to say that he spoke
to more groups of people, and under more auspices, than any man of his
generation. His ability to deliver forceful messages with illustrations
and stories of familiar origin enabled his hearers to appreciate and
remember. He was a much-sought-after speaker for important gatherings.
the gratification of serving his people in this way, many ludicrous
incidents happened. For example, he was speaking Gate City at an outdoor
function, when someone out on the periphery began shooting a pistol;
whereupon most of his audience took to cover leaving him standing on a
platform alone. A friend called out, "Run, John McConnell, run.
You're too good a man to be sacrificed this way."
gained questionable publicity when the Press gave wide coverage to an
incident of his trousers slipping down while speaking at the Annual
Banquet of Southwestern Virginia, Incorporated, in Bristol. Immediately
following this experience he received at least a dozen pairs of
suspenders from friends all over the country, one pair from as far away
as Walla Walla, Washington.
McConnell was very proud of his ancestry, and of his home county of
Scott. His love of Scott and his constant reference led to the prevalent
statement by others in referring to Scott County as "The Great
State of Scott," or sometimes abbreviated to "Great
Scott." He wrote in the book, WHO AM I?, referred to above, as
child I was impressed by both of my parents that they had undertaken the
very great task, and one in which they took much pleasure; namely,
properly rearing and educating their large family of children. I am not
able to decide whether I was more influenced by my father or by my
many organizations with which he was affiliated as a leader in one
capacity or another, besides being president of the College until 1937,
were the following: During World War I he was Director of Junior Red
Cross Work in Virginia, also Director of the sale of War Savings Stamps
for Montgomery County, and Director of the Near East Relief Campaign in
Virginia. He served for a season on the Board of Directors of the
Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind at Staunton, and for a number of
years was president of the State Board of Charities and Corrections. He
was president of the Anti-Saloon League of Virginia, 1921-1928. He was
very active in the promotion of regional alms-houses in Virginia.
various educational and civic organizations with which he was a leader
might be mentioned the following: He was president of the State Teachers
Association, chairman of the State Educational Conference, and president
for many years of the Cooperative Educational Association. He served as
president of the Southern Education Association, and of the Southern
Educational Society, and the Home Betterment League of the South. He was
for many years president of the Southwestern Virginia Incorporated, a
Regional Chamber of Commerce. He served for many years as president of
the First and Merchants National Bank of Radford.
He was a
member of the Christian Church and took an active part in its program
from the local church to the national organizations. He was a member of
the Board of Managers of the International Convention, chairman of the
Board of Recommendations of the Christian Church in the United States
and Canada, and a member of the International Board of Education of the
To give an
example of his philosophy of life a statement may be given from his book
above referred to:
believe one can live a very happy and useful life, even though his life
is devoted to education, religion, unofficial, and unselfish work for
others, although it is manifest on almost every hand, that the material
rewards, or the financial recompense, in the work of this kind, are
smaller than they are in the fields of industry, commerce, or
manufacturing. The undefinable, imponderable, unpurchaseable, and
untransferable compensations and gratifications of mind and heart, as I
see it, are more permanent, and more satisfying than any material
rewards that business or pompous official life can provide. I believe
from my own experience and observation that one does well for himself,
and for others, when he decided to live a life of service to others, in
promoting the finer things of life rather than a life of getting, and
using, and spending for one's self. I think I can truly say that if I
were privileged to go through life again, I would choose the teacher's
or educator's vacation." (3)
of a questionnaire sent to a large number of alumnae of the College give
an indication of his most noted characteristics, when they answered the
question, "As you now recall them, please list some characteristics
of Dr. McConnell." Hundreds voiced such terms as human, humorous,
democratic, loyal to convictions and ideals, kind and helpful. Perhaps
the most consistent answer was his amazing gift of making and keeping
illustration of his appreciation of the value of an individual is given
in the following incident: It was near the appointed hour for a
conference with the Governor of Virginia, when he, accompanied by a
friend, entered the capitol grounds and stopped to get a shoeshine. He
began talking with the shoeshine boy, and when the shine was finished
the friend indicated that the time was near for the conference. Dr.
McConnell waves his hand reassuringly, and continued the conversation
with the boy. At last after a few parting words of advice, he joined his
friend and said to him, "My friend the Governor will be there when
we get there, but this was our only chance to influence and help that
boy, who may be a future Governor."
As long as
Dr. McConnell was President of the College, a chapel service was held
every school day, regularly scheduled for thirty for forty minutes. A
Scripture reading and a prayer, frequently the Lord's Prayer,
characterized the program. He enjoyed group singing, although he did not
sing. The program was concluded usually with some words of wisdom from
him, expounding on one of his familiar proverbs, such as:
honest man is the noblest work of God."
"A man see what he is looking for."
"As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he."
"The grass is greener on the other side of the fence."
"The fool's eyes are in the ends of the earth."
"Riches of the mind and spirit are the only true wealth."
"It is not enough to be good, be good for something."
"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."
Wilson wrote in his "Southwest Corner" of the Roanoke Times as
special field of education he has been an aggressive pioneer in teacher
training, in providing equal opportunities for men and women, in
adopting the curricula to the needs of the workaday living. In all these
he has been not merely an interested participant, but an active and
forceful leader - and with that surest mark of greatness, unaffected
simplicity, he has been the genuine personal friend of hundreds of
common men, and the beloved fatherly adviser of thousands of boys and
Chapman, Editor of the Roanoke Times, said:
Preston McConnell was born in the hills of Scott County and the eternal
strength of the hills, their dignity, their simplicity, their sheer
beauty, their contrast to all that is artificial or petty, have been
reflected in his life and character as he has moved about among the
people of the Southwest all his days, ever helpful, every sympathetic,
ever kind to one and all." (5)
occasion of the celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the
presidency of the College, his long- time friend Dr. Roy Flanagan sent
him the following sonnet:
in the 'things that are not seen'
Discerning prophet of a better time,
Perceiver of rare jewels in the grime
Of life's dark corners 'mid the poor and mean;
Wise Teacher of the True, the Brave, the Clean;
Exponent of the Law of Sinai heard:
Strong Fashioner of the Deed to match the Word;
And Faithful Guide into the Light serene;
Great friend of the forgotten, Helper rare;
Your stalwart form and clear, simple speech
Have taught a humble people everywhere
How fine a thin it is truly to teach.
To work, to serve, to hear and forbear,
And what it means to 'Practice as you preach.'" (6)
(1) WHO AM I?, an unpublished autobiography (2) Ibid (3) Ibid (4) The
Roanoke Times, November 15, 1937 (5) Ibid, November 15, 1937 (6) An
Interpretive Study, The Philosophy of Education of John Preston
McConnell, TeaCher, by June McConnell Graybeal, 1949.