Dr. John Preston McConnell
1866 - 1941

By Dr. & Mrs. H. C. Graybeal


       Just 100 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. He received 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?
"In my 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)

After three 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 Charlottesville.

He was 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.

Upon his 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. He enjoyed 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 satisfaction."

The fact 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.

He moved 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.

Dr. 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.

Along with 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."

Later he 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.

Dr. 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 follows:

"As a 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 mother." (2)

Among the 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.

Of the 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 Christian Church.

To give an example of his philosophy of life a statement may be given from his book above referred to: "I 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) 

The result 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 friends.

An 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:

"An 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."

Goodridge Wilson wrote in his "Southwest Corner" of the Roanoke Times as follow:

"In his 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 girls." (4)

H. Powell Chapman, Editor of the Roanoke Times, said:

"John 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)

On the 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:

"Believer 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. 

Pages 27 to 30


Return to Historical Sketches

Return to Wise Co

Copyright Notice
All files on this site are copyrighted by their creator. They may not be reproduced on another site without specific permission from Vickie Sturgill Stevens . Although public information is not in and of itself copyrightable, the format in which they are presented, the notes and comments, etc., are.