July 31, 2015
Return trip home brings back fond memories for Beamer
Tech's longtime head football coach recently spent part of a day in Carroll County talking about his roots with some people who know him the best

By Jimmy Robertson

HILLSVILLE, Va. – A familiar refrain for Virginia Tech Athletics in 2015 has been, “This is Home.” Simple in its nature and subtle to its core, that message on posters and social media calls people to return to Blacksburg and Virginia Tech, where many fans, students and alumni have enjoyed some of the best moments of their lives.

Frank Beamer calls Blacksburg home these days, and those who know him best know that Virginia Tech is more to him than his employer. It, too, is home.

But to get to know Tech’s head football coach, one needs to venture to his childhood home, the genesis of this great man. On a perfect July day last week, Beamer, son Shane, and some athletics department staffers journeyed to Carroll County, a beautiful slice of land on a plateau that cozies up to the Appalachian Mountains, to do exactly that.

The caravan went down the interstate and hopped off on state Route 100, a road that Beamer knows all too well.

“All my burn operations were in the Pulaski hospital,” he said, a reference to an explosion that caused burns on his face when he was 7 years old. “I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve been down this road. I could drive this road with my eyes closed.”

Several in the group wondered if Beamer’s eyes were always on the road or on the bucolic scenery at times, but that’s an entirely different topic! Let’s just say that there was ample discussion of racing, drafting and other NASCAR maneuvers.

The group safely pulled into Hillsville, where he met with eight friends, most of them former classmates, and enjoyed lunch at The Hardware Co., a neat little spot on Main Street owned and operated by Logan Tiebout and wife Kelley.

At ease in his own backyard, Beamer made introductions as only he could.

“This one’s from Fancy Gap,” he said, introducing Judy Williams. “This one’s from down the mountain,” he said of Ralph Berrier, who runs an apple orchard near Cana at the foot of Fancy Gap Mountain. “This one’s a city slicker,” he said of Joe McGrady, who runs a law firm in Hillsville, which, with a robust population of 2,600, hardly constitutes a city.

For that reason, the remark draws laughs. As do many others. It takes less than 30 seconds to realize that people in this part of Virginia love Frank Mitchell Beamer more than perhaps any other constituency. And they love him for who he is, not what he does.

That became evident over lunch, when the stories started flowing. Others in the group included Larry Joe and Janet Banks (both of whom went to school with Beamer from the eighth grade on), Gary Quesinberry (who graduated with Beamer and played on the high school football team), Jim Marshall (another classmate who also played on the football team) and Mike Bolen (who lived in Fancy Gap near the Beamers and also played football). Beamer and many of his classmates at the table celebrated the 50th year of their high school graduation earlier this summer – which they planned, fittingly, when their famous classmate could be there.

They deal on each other over the course of lunch, serving the best ones on Beamer. He isn’t above telling on himself, an endearing quality for someone of his stature. Few know of his affection for marching bands, which started in fifth grade when he was named the co-outstanding band member. In those days, bands traveled and played at events like the Apple Blossom Festival in Winchester and the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. Riding Greyhounds and spending nights in hotel rooms were treats.

But his band career got sidetracked in ninth grade when he didn’t make the squad. It forced him to take an alternative route to continue being a member.

“A week before we’re getting ready to go –I believe it was the Apple Blossom Festival – they said, ‘We need a tuba guy in the back. Don’t play. Just put your lips there and put your gums out. Just act like you’re playing so we can fill out the back row,’” he said. “There were three of us that tried out to carry the tuba. Now I’m a pretty good athlete, and the tryout was putting the tuba on your shoulder and walking across the stage while they watched you march. Well, I lost the tryout. I wasn’t good enough, I guess. I thought it was rigged.”

He laughed, and then he continued.

“Then two days before they’re ready to go, they said, ‘We’ve got to have one more guy that will carry the banner – the banner up front,’” Beamer said. “They said the only thing was you had to be able to fit in that last uniform. There was only one uniform left. I went over there, and it was a little snug, but I sucked in my stomach.

“I still tell everyone that everything has always worked out for me. Even then, I went from the back of the band in the tuba section right to the front.”

The story says a lot about Beamer, who constantly acknowledges the Marching Virginians and Highty-Tighties, Tech’s marching bands. He even invites them to scrimmages, so that his team experiences a game-day vibe.

There were other tales. Did anyone know Beamer was in the Boy Scouts? His uncle served as a scoutmaster, and once, he instructed the boys to build a birdhouse, giving them the actual design.

“After looking at ours, I knew Frank and I were not going to be carpenters,” laughed Bolen, who is a year younger than Beamer.

Beamer could have been a farmer. His parents, Raymond and Herma Beamer, owned a small farm in Fancy Gap, a little blip of a place located about seven miles from Hillsville on Route 52, which snakes through the Carroll County countryside. He milked cows and put up hay as a child, humbling and hard work, but character-molding enterprises.

Beamer derived his work ethic and toughness from those days on the farm. Of course, he also got those traits honestly. Like most couples in those days, his parents worked full-time jobs in addition to farming. Beamer’s father worked as an engineer for the highway department, while his mother carved out a career as a teacher. They raised four children.

Herma Beamer might be thought of as highly in Carroll County as her famous son. She taught many of the elder citizens in elementary school. After getting her teacher’s certificate from what was then Radford State Teacher’s College (now Radford University), she educated the youth in various one-room schools throughout the county for much of her life.

Mrs. Beamer ran a strict household, keeping her two sons and two daughters in line, and she carried that same philosophy to the classroom. She viewed each of her students as her “child,” both loving and disciplining at the appropriate times.

Her son, though, caught a little more of the disciplining than some of the others.

“I used to get it at school if I did something wrong and even a few times when I didn’t,” Beamer laughed. “Then I’d get it again on the way home. I remember several times thinking, ‘Man, I’ve got to get out of the sixth grade.’”

His mother passed during the early morning hours of a Thursday in the fall of 2004, shortly before the Hokies played a football game against Maryland. Beamer coached in the game, which turned into a 55-6 rout of Maryland. In failing health leading up to her death, she had told her son to keep coaching in spite of her situation. He dutifully listened, knowing that her generation didn’t like to be coddled.

Not long after her passing, he established Herma’s Readers, a charity organization that collects books and promotes reading among younger children. Those in Carroll County agreed it was the perfect way to honor her memory.

Other stories surfaced. Beamer once stood up to a bully by … well … let’s just say by using more than words, and they all joked about selling Krispy Kreme donuts to pay for a senior trip to New York City for the World’s Fair. Content from this discussion is best left among the classmates.

Inevitably, though, the conversation shifted toward sports and Beamer’s exploits. Some were legendary; some not so much.

Beamer played three (football, basketball and baseball), but excelled in football. His baseball career took a jolt when Berrier, who played baseball with Beamer, told of how Beamer, an outfielder, once let a fly ball hit him square on the head.

“There was a runner at second,” Beamer tried to explain in self-defense. “I looked at him to see if he was tagging up. Before I could look up, the ball hit me right there [pointing toward his forehead].”

The story drew laughs. It was quintessential Beamer, showing self-deprecating humor and humility.

On the gridiron, things went better, as he seemed destined to lead Hillsville High to a championship. A quarterback playing for then-Coach Tommy Thompson and his wide-open offense – a rarity in those days – Beamer put the team in position to win a title, but a poor call by an official in a game against Blacksburg High robbed them of their chance at glory.

Marshall dived in on this story, telling of how Hillsville squandered a 13-point halftime lead and found itself trailing by one in the waning moments. They had Blacksburg pinned at its own end. Blacksburg quarterback Duane Shealor scrambled in the end zone, and a group of Hillsville players sacked him for the game-winning safety, or so they thought. An official inexplicably said that time had expired, nullifying the sack. The call awarded the Indians, as they were known then, the victory.

“We absolutely got cheated out of it,” McGrady said. “Everybody wants to say that, but we really did. Our coach played the old films, and you could see it on the films. There is no question we got cheated out of it.”

But that’s only part of the story, according to Shane Beamer.

“To show how things come full circle,” Shane said. “Duane Shealor is now his [Frank’s] neighbor. Lives right beside him [at the Blacksburg Country Club].”

“Nah, I haven’t,” Frank said when asked if he had every talked about that game with his neighbor. “That was hard to take.”

Beamer takes losses hard, even ones from 50 years ago. While humble and respectful toward opponents, he’s extremely competitive. Few see that side of him, but folks in Carroll County know.

Most of the group’s fondest sports memories of Beamer, though, come from his tenure as the Hokies’ football coach over the past nearly three decades. One person cited the kick against West Virginia in 1999 as a favorite moment. Another recalled the national championship game in 2000. Someone mentioned André Davis’ game against West Virginia in 2000 in which he scored touchdowns three different ways.

When pointed out that most of their fondest sports memories of him came when he was a coach – and not from his playing days – he laughed.

“They’re getting around to that,” he cracked.

Two hours later, the lunch gang gradually, and a bit dejectedly, said their goodbyes, knowing that time with the county’s cherished son is rare. Beamer signed some posters and even a couple of media guides, including one that McCarthy planned to give to Judge Edward Turner – a UVa graduate.

Beamer then hopped in his silver Cadillac with Shane and a couple of staffers in tow and turned around on Main Street, heading toward Carroll County Middle School. This building used to be the home of old Hillsville High School, and behind the building, carved out of a small hill, sat the football field where Beamer used to play.

This patch of grass was barely 100 yards long, and it also served as the baseball field. The field looked a little ragged, and the concrete bleachers appeared to be in disrepair.

But the memories were of high-definition quality.

“This,” Beamer said, pointing to the hill. “is where we did conditioning. We had to run up this hill for our conditioning. Then over there [pointing toward what would have been right field], there was a light pole [which had since been taken down]. They didn’t take it down after football season, so during baseball season, if you were the right fielder – and I was several times – you had to navigate that pole. Can you imagine? I almost knocked myself out a couple of times.”

Seeing the field also touched Shane, who had not seen the place where his father made his mark. Shane played for Blacksburg High School and had played against Carroll County High, but the game was played at the new high school a few miles away.

“He brought me here once, but we just stayed at the top of the hill,” Shane said. “We didn’t come down here and look at it.”

The coach also toured a few of his old hangouts, showing the group the VFW Hall and Corney’s, a local hot dog/hamburger joint that has since closed. Back in the day, one paid 20 cents for a hot dog and 30 for a hamburger. Cornelia Hall ran the place and looked out for the kids.

As the afternoon slipped toward sunset, Beamer made the decision not to visit his old home place in Fancy Gap or the elementary school he attended, though two video staff members shot some footage. The day ended with the familiar jaunt back up state Route 100 toward the interstate and on to Blacksburg.

As he drove back and started getting ready for the kickoff of his 29th season, he seemed at ease, happy for down time, good conversation and close friends at the place he still calls home.

“He is a true source of pride,” McGrady said. “He’s well liked in this area. He’ll do things for this community, too. He’ll make donations, and he’s always willing to come up with something when asked.

“He couldn’t be any more popular around here.”

That’s a familiar refrain heard in many parts of Virginia. Yet as outside observers quickly learn, those in Carroll County best understand the reasons why.

This is home.

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