Virginia McChesney

 

Virginia McChesneyFor a quarter of a century, Mrs. Sam McChesney gave music and inspiration to Appalachia. The village was called Big Stone Gap, Virginia in the coal mining area where the Powell River cuts around Stone Mountain. It was here that Mrs. Mac started an 11-piece band in 1933 and taught for 16 years before she received a salary. Though the school provided no money, it let her rehearse in the auditorium, and later boarded off the balcony for a band room. “I remember once a contest judge complimented me because my children had done so well. ‘Mrs. Mac,’ he said, ‘I know about that one light bulb in your band room; you are to be congratulated since this is the first time these children have really seen their music!’”


Buying musical instruments and uniforms was a sacrifice in Wise County, but the school band flourished none-the-less on a generous budget of enthusiasm, rich traditions, and the dedication of Mrs. Mac. Her own personal career on the violin had been cut short when she developed violinist’s palsy. Uncommonly vigorous and never ill, Mrs. Mac taught over 35 years before she retired in her native town of Big Stone Gap giving 75 piano lessons a week, “I don’t guess I can tell you why, but music is the whole world for me,” she explained. “I know the children won’t all feel that way, but every one of them absorbs something. That is why I never turn down anybody for lack of talent. If they come, they can stay, even if all they learn is not to play when they’d hurt the music.”

 

When Big Stone Gap schools were consolidated in 1963, she moved into the new Powell Valley High School where she had her first real band room, but still no budget. Her 72-piece band continued to use the original bass horn, assorted metal clarinets, and other heirlooms. Parents contributed $2 a month, which was used for music and state contest expenses.

“There were no band directors around here when I started, so nobody complained because I was a woman.” By the time college-trained music educators were taking jobs in the area, she was the indisputable dean of her profession. Everyone recognized her special qualitites.

 

Mrs. Mac’s husband, Sam, was a salesman who was also the band’s factotum. He built risers with lumber from an abandoned barn, organized a drill team with youngsters who couldn’t afford instruments, and generally helped make the balcony livable by putting in shelves, etc. When he died in 1967, Mrs. Mac continued teaching until her retirement.

During her career, bands under her direction earned an impressive number of superior ratings in both marching band and concert band. Adjudicators have included nationally known figures such as Paul Yoder, Nilo Hovey, Cliffe Bainum, Jack Lee, and John Paynter, who gave her marching band a rating of 99.6 at one contest.

 

When the subject of the first uniforms came up, Mrs. Virginia McCesney confronted the businessmen in town who were about to be reimbursed money they had put up for football lights. Since they had not expected to get the money back, all but one told her to take the money for the band. The one businessman felt bands were a losing proposition that cost too much money. But a few weeks later, a brightly uniformed band marched down main streets and stopped in front of the obstinate businessman’s business establishment. They played a rousing rendition of “Beer Barrel Polka.” The following day, the irate storekeeper returned his share of the money to Mrs. McChesney to finish paying for the uniforms.

 

A member of the first Big Stone Gap Band, who is now a doctor, has said, “How much better off so many of us are because of her work.” A local merchant stated, “You don’t get this kind of person in a town very often.” What a fitting tribute to such a dedicated teacher. Today, we have problems, our budgets do not often seem adequate, the administration and school boards do not always follow every recommendation we make, and sometimes we do not believe the community cooperates as extensively as they might. Put Virginia McChesney in today’s band position and she would be over-whelmed. Here is a woman who probably was the first career high school woman band director who certainly worked under what we would call adverse conditions and produced a fine musical organization, consecutively for many years. She stands tall among WBDI members as our foremost pioneer woman of the podium.