Born in 1929, seven years after Lucille Thomas Nolen, Margie was able to escape the drudgery of farm work in 1946 and retired back to Floyd County in 2000. She lives near the author on the edge of Rt. 221: “I can’t wait till FloydFest is over,” she declared as vehicle after vehicle charged up the hill. Her house and former used-book store occupies a remodeled building formerly used by the Floyd Church of God. “It was fun to say ‘I recycled a church.'” In 2013 the once-sturdy farm girl is fragile and white-haired, but she still has a sparkle of both mien and mind that was no doubt appreciated by her employers. A smart dresser, politically liberal, Margie speaks quietly with a non-Appalachian Southern accent. Along with her two cats she listens to classical music on WVTF Public Radio. Her collaborator on this autobiography, Randall A. Wells, along with his wife Marjory, occasionally drive down the hill to take her a little supper (“I don’t cook”), and she sometimes bestows on them a thoughtfully-chosen volume. Margie notes that while she sent Wells to the dictionary for the word “slopping,” he sent her there for “deracinate”—a verb that is fundamental to her memoir.I preferred straight roads and flat fields. But I was born and raised in Floyd County in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
I was born in a house, still standing, across the road from the present Willis Elementary School. I was the first of five daughters born to Jabe and Hattie Hylton Keith. When I was still a small child, we moved to the Cundiff farm in the Topeco Community, where we lived during the Great Depression of the Thirties. The house had no electricity. Light was from kerosene lamps. Wood stoves were used for cooking and heating. Water for drinking, cooking, laundry and bathing was carried up the hill from a spring in the woods. The toilet was down the path.
We had a Philco battery radio. Before she married, my mother bought a Victrola and some records. (She had been a teacher in one-room schools in the Burks Fork area, around the Buffalo.) When electricity came, we got a refrigerator and made strawberry ice cream with wild berries.
When it was time for me to start school, our parents got permission from the school board for my sister Melva to start with me although she was barely five years old. We had to walk two miles through woods, across fields, down hills, over fences, across a creek, down a gravel road that turned into a dirt road, to one-room Harman School. We attended three years before it was closed. We rode the bus to Floyd for fourth grade, in the building that now houses School House Fabrics. Then we moved to “the Perry Quesenberry place” across Alum Ridge Rd. (Rt. 615) from Greasy Creek Baptist Church. We finished school at Willis.
It was at Willis that my farm work really began. I have great respect for farmers and the work they do to provide our food. I just wasn’t born to be one.
I am thankful for my childhood although it was hard. I had a loving family and I learned to work. One of my chores was taking the cows back and forth to pasture, a job that was okay but I hated milking. We sat on stools in the stalls with our feet in the muck, holding a bucket under the cow, trying to squirt milk into the bucket while the cow tried to kick it as she slapped you across the face with her tail. The milk was put into heavy metal cans and stored in the cold mountain water in the springhouse until time to transfer the cans to roadside, where they were picked up and taken to the processing plant. The old Carnation building can be seen on the right as you enter Riner [a village north of Floyd on Rt. 8]. The milk cans are valuable collectors’ items now.
Melva and I hoed many a row of corn. If it didn’t meet Daddy’s approval, we hoed it again. The stalks had to be hilled with soil, weeds had to be pulled, and suckers had to be removed. I hated slopping the hogs. The liquid food consisted of table scraps, water, and “mash” that was bought, I believe. They ate all sorts of nasty garbage as well as corn after it was dry and shucked. Shucking corn was a hard job, easy to get cut by the shucks. To me, butchering was the absolute worst event of farm life. I dreaded the crack of the rifle that shot and killed the hogs and I detested the meat processing that followed. The dead animals were scalded and the hair scraped off. They were then cut into the various parts—a bloody mess! All this angst, however, didn’t prevent my enjoying my father’s home-cured country ham!
During my teens (the Forties), the cash crop of some farmers was acres of green beans. My sister and I picked them for 25 cents a bushel and worked the night shift at the factory canning them. As I recall, the factory operated only at night, during the bean-growing season, and processed the beans picked during the day. We were taken there by Daddy in the pickup and he came for us when the shift ended, I think at 11. One night my job was sealing the cartons of beans (after picking out stuff that shouldn’t go into the cans) on long wooden tables. I didn’t like factory work but don’t remember much about it. Remnants of the building survive on Rt. 221 at Canning Factory Rd. [The compound was originally Shelor’s Mill, a turbine-powered grist mill on Howells Creek.]
During the War [World War II] when male help was not available, my sister and I worked in the hay field. After the grass was mowed, it was raked by machine into windrows [to dry]. These were piled into shocks (mounds) that were picked up by the wagon and hauled to the pole where the hay was stacked. Melva and I pitched hay from the wagon to Daddy to stack. (Does anyone remember hay stacks?) Our mother sold eggs and butter. Collecting the eggs from the nests in the henhouse was not too onerous, although it required walking through droppings to reach the nest. We girls churned the butter in the kitchen.
I daydreamed my youth away as a means of coping with things I didn’t like. One of them was housework. Ironing was tolerated because I could listen to the radio, our main station being WDBJ-Roanoke. What I heard depended on the time of day. Mother liked soap operas. On Saturday afternoon I listened to the Metropolitan Opera, if possible; one of my favorite singers was Risë Stevens. That night it was the Hit Parade (I knew the words to all the songs and later could practice writing them down in shorthand) and the Grand Ole Opry from WSM in Nashville. My favorite singer was Eddy Arnold, for whom I started a fan club.
My other outlets were pen pals, fan clubs, and reading. Pen pals were obtained from various sources. We are in our eighties now but I still correspond with my pen pal in Tennessee whose name, address, and request for pen pals were listed in the bulletin of the Ernest Tubb Fan Club. [Tubb was a pioneer of country music.] Another correspondence that lasted from our teen years until recently was with Hazel in Stafford, England, who married a British Army vet. She and I were born the same month of the same year. For my seventieth birthday I was given a plane ticket to London to meet the whole family. (I even saw Queen Elizabeth as she was leaving Windsor Castle.) We drove to Bruges, Belgium, to celebrate Hazel and Stan’s fiftieth wedding anniversary. Both are dead now, but their younger son, his wife and I stay in touch and they have visited us in Floyd.In high school I was a member of the Beta Club, an academic honor society. Its magazine had an ad by Hiwasee Junior College, Madisonville, Tennessee, a small town between Knoxville and Chattanooga. I applied for a work scholarship and was accepted. Daddy drove me about thirty miles to the train station in Radford, and both of us probably cried all the way! I don’t remember the train ride but again probably cried the whole trip. I still have the little trunk that accompanied me back and forth. I was off to college and the worst imaginable case of homesickness.
I had never been away from home and missed my family. But I couldn’t return until Christmas. The homesickness eventually was eased by work, classes, extracurricular activities and new friends. The first year I worked in the kitchen and dining room. The second year I was secretary to three professors; one was Miss Nancy Eastridge from Kentucky. She gave me the Literary Award at graduation, probably because I wanted to re-start the campus newspaper, which had been discontinued during the War. I went to see Dean Cash and he said we could revive The Hiwassean if we could finance it. We sold (begged) ads to local merchants and supporters.
We didn’t have majors in junior college. I had what was called the Vocational Arts course. An institution of the Methodist Church, Hiwassee had a church on campus, required weekly attendance at chapel, and required Bible as a subject. Because at that time the college had a working farm, it also required a quarter of agriculture. Besides English, I took algebra and calculus, which I would never have passed without the help of my math genius friend Dorothy Parks, who, after graduating from Tennessee Tech, went back to Hiwassee as a math professor!
An unusual aspect of college life in 1946, when I entered Hiwassee, was that veterans were returning on the G.I. Bill. Having these men on campus, in class, and in sports, was a new dimension. Also, a cultural awakening for me was the presence of foreign classmates. I had two Cuban roommates, Esmeralda and Yolanda. They wouldn’t let me practice Spanish with them because they wanted to speak English. “Yoly” went home with me on one Christmas recess. In 1950, two years after graduation, I visited them in Havana after traveling to Miami on the Greyhound bus and taking a boat overnight.My return to Floyd County was a long, circuitous route.
Upon graduation from Hiwasee in 1948, I went to Nashville on a Greyhound. On arrival, I stayed at the Andrew Jackson Hotel, torn down several years later. I then rented a small room in the home of a woman who raised canaries. I didn’t have a car until I bought a 1952 Chevy in 1955. I knew no one in the city. I thought I would start there and work my way around the country as a secretary; instead, Nashville became home for thirty-four years. I fell in love with the place, my work, and the people.
I went to an employment agency and was hired on my first interview, as secretary to a small sub-contracting firm, John Bouchard & Sons. This was a wonderful learning experience. I was secretary to the president, purchasing agent, bookkeeper, and heads of the plumbing, heating, and air-conditioning departments. There were also an electric shop, a machine shop, and a foundry. I substituted for the switchboard operator and the payroll clerk.
After three years I answered an ad in the newspaper and was hired as secretary to a vice-president (the president’s son) and the treasurer of Tennessee Products & Chemical Corporation, a mid-sized manufacturing company. I still have my desk sign: Miss Keith. The vice-president, Carl McFarlin, Jr., saw a magazine item about the Certified Professional Secretary Examination, which was being started by the National Secretaries Association, headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri. He challenged me to take the exam. It was a six-part ordeal over two days. I fudged my age to meet the minimum requirement (twenty-five), but since it took me three years to complete, my certificate was legal when I finally got it in 1954. I had to go to Chattanooga to sit for the exam. Nashville did not have a chapter of NSA, so the Chattanooga members “pounced on” me as a contact. The Nashville chapter was installed in 1954 and it was a big part of my life for the rest of my time there.
The era of “merger mania” had begun, and TP & CC was acquired by Merritt-Chapman & Scott Corporation of New York. Top executives were replaced and I was offered a position in the sales department, but Mr. McFarlin counseled, “You can do better,” so I took my severance pay and found another job, at Oman Construction Company. They had jobs in such exotic places as the Middle East, but I didn’t have enough to do and was bored. I had heard that the longtime secretary to the chairman of Genesco Inc. was retiring. I knew her and expressed my interest in being considered for the job. She replied that the company had a “promotion from within” policy and the position had been filled. I was hired by the Television, Radio and Film Commission of the Methodist Church (TRAFCO). This was an interesting and challenging situation and I was enjoying it.
Then I had a call from the manpower executive at Genesco! The position was open and he wanted me to come in for an interview with Mr. Jarman. I said, “Sorry, I’ve been on a new job three months and can’t leave.” He persisted. So, one Saturday I put on my suit, hat, heels, and white gloves, and went to my destiny. (Dr. Spencer, at TRAFCO, graciously said he was proud to have his secretary become secretary to Maxey Jarman.) Genesco had an office in New York City at 730 Fifth Avenue. One of my duties was to substitute for the secretary there when she went on vacation. So I traveled there at least once a year for several years—even got to ride a couple of times on the corporate jet.
But Genesco also had a mandatory retirement at sixty-five. Mr. Jarman wouldn’t make an exception for himself and retired in 1972. He had written a book, A Businessman Looks at the Bible, and wanted to do more writing but was persuaded to enter the 1974 gubernatorial campaign. He survived a broken arm at home and a wreck of the campaign bus but didn’t survive the primary. The new governor hired him to do a survey of the state government and make recommendations for improvement, after which a thick report was published. I had remained Mr. Jarman’s secretary as well as being secretary to the chairman of the retirement trust. But Mr. Jarman became ill and died in 1982.
It was time for another new challenge, which came from his longtime friend, Fred Smith, who asked me to come to Dallas and work with him because he wanted to do some writing and knew I liked to work with words. A businessman, public speaker, teacher, and mentor, Mr. Smith was being urged to put his wisdom into books. We produced four.
The first, You and Your Network, was published in 1984. The acknowledgments include: “With special thanks to Margie Keith—manuscript typist ad infinitum.” Neither of us wanted a computer, not even a “smart” typewriter as they were called, so this manuscript was typed and retyped many times on an old IBM machine—at least it was electric, not manual.
The next two books were Learning to Lead and Leading with Integrity. The fourth, Breakfast with Fred, was published after I retired, but its editor, his daughter Brenda Smith, gives me credit for archiving his material on which the book and the website were based (www.breakfastwithfred.com). The title comes from the breakfast sessions he was having with the group of young executives he mentored. I was seventy-two when Mr. Smith decided, at eighty-seven, to close the office. He never really retired, though, and died at ninety-two, just days before the publication party for his last book.
I had retired to Floyd in 2000 with three van-loads of books to start a new adventure: selling my library as “Margie’s Books.” Thirteen years later I am happy to be back with family and friends, old and new, many books, and two cats.
Looking back over my career, I wonder where I got the gumption, determination, or whatever it was than enabled me to do these things, because as a child I was very shy, bashful, introverted. I would do things such as hide to keep from talking to visitors who came to our home. Somehow in high school I realized that I had to overcome this disability or handicap and started taking on leadership responsibilities, such as club chairmanship and presidencies. There were teachers all along the way through school who inspired and encouraged me. (God bless teachers!) I wanted to affirm my parents’ and teachers’ and employers’ faith in me.
Did I work harder after I left the farm than I did on the farm? The difference, of course, is that I was enjoying the work after I left.