Tom Hess

Tom Hess, Magistrate & President of the Rich Valley Fair; Grady’s Gap, Saltville, Virginia:

“I’ll be eighty years old in December. I’m a magistrate here in Smyth County. For the past thirty-five years [I’ve been involved with politics.] I was an investigator with the town of Marion, and investigator with the Smyth County Sheriff’s department. I’m a football official and just got a plaque last week for fifty years of refereeing.

I grew up in Broadford, just down the road here from the Rich Valley Fair. Played in the mountains all the time. Instead of walking the road going’ down to the store, we’d head to the mountain and go all the way [up] top of the mountain, then come out down at the store, which was about five miles. If we’d go straight down, we’d only have gone ‘bout half mile. More fun that way. Ol’ young boys, you know how they are. 

We played baseball all the time [and] rode the bicycle. We had three stores down at Broadford [and] we hung around down there till up in the evening. We had a volleyball court down there under the bridge [and] we’d play volleyball ‘bout every evening. 

I spent the summer with [my grandparents]. They’ve lived on a farm about a mile from me. We’d spend some time over with them; then they moved up in what they call Possum Holler. We’d go and ride our bicycles four or five miles, and spend ‘bout the whole summer with them on the farm. 

My grandfather was a hardworking farmer. He worked for the Buchanans back in those days. [They] had a big farm, and he worked on that. My grandmother done all the cooking. Stayed in the house and cooked all the time. 

(Values they instilled) To be honest, and to look people in the eye when you’re talking to them and just try to be a good person. If you got anything to say to anybody, say it to their face. That’s what my grandfather always taught me. My grandfather always said, ‘Hello boy, what are you doin?’ 

I went into the military in October of 1955. I graduated high in school in ’54, and went in just three or four months later. I was in the U.S. Army. I went to Port Jackson and got my training down there, and then went on to Massachusetts [and] stayed there the whole time. Back in those days, we had these Nike Ajax missiles set up all the way around protecting Boston Harbor. 

I worked in the office of one of those bases. I got married when I was in the Army. My wife was in college in Radford. We got married and so she stayed in college a little while longer, then came on to Massachusetts with me. We stayed up there for two and a half years. [We] came back to the hills, and she went back to school, got her Master’s degree and taught school for thirty-two years. We have three children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. 

I went to work for the Sheriff’s department in 1975. I worked patrol, and then as time went on, I was appointed to a Captain. In 1979, we got defeated in the election [and] the town of Marion hired me as a patrolman. About six to eight months later, they promoted me to investigator, so I stayed there till 1988. 

My nickname is Curly. We had a big fight downtown one night. We all run down there --- three or four police cars. One old boy knew me, and he said, ‘Curly, I think I’ll just whip your tail end.’ I said, ‘I’ll tell you one thing, I’ve never whipped nobody, but you might be the first one.’ He just got in the car and we just went on up to the jail. 

The judge was a good friend of mine and he asked me one day, ‘How would you like to be a magistrate? I said, ‘When can I start? I started in 1988, and I’ve got twenty-six years in now as a magistrate. 

Everybody knows everybody and I guess everybody in Smyth County knows me; been around a long time as a policeman and a magistrate; seen a lot of people as a football referee. Man, I’ve refereed from Roanoke to Lee County. I believe I was twenty-six years old when I started. I worked the field for about six or eight years, then the commissioner promoted me to head referee, so I’ve been a head referee about forty years. 

I was over in the coal fields callin’ one night and my outside man was on the same side as the coaches, and they wanted to get all the bad words and fussing. I’m out in the middle of the field and I can’t hear them. They were giving my outside man just down the road. Finally, he told me, ‘I can’t stand it anymore, he’s really layin’ it on me over there.’ It started in the third quarter and he couldn’t take it anymore; the coach couldn’t. He says, ‘I wanna see Tom Hess, the head man.’ 

I called time out and started over to the sidelines to talk to him, and I got to thinking. I just read in the paper [that] week where his daughter had been in a car accident. I met him on the sidelines and he was tellin’ me how bad my crew was, they must have learned that from me, and how much he hated my mother. 

When he got done I put my arm up there on his shoulder and said, ‘Coach, how’s your daughter?’ And he didn't’ know what to say. That just shut him up. At the end of the game we was loadin’ up in the car to leave, and he came over to me and he said, ‘Dang you, Tom Hess, you know how to get to a man! 

I’m a full-time magistrate with the state of Virginia, I work for the Supreme Court of Virginia, but I’m burning a lot of my time. I work Tuesdays and Thursdays, and play golf Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I’d play Saturday and Sunday if I could get anybody to play. 

This is our eighty-first year of the Rich Valley Fair. I’m the president, but we all work together. Rich Valley Fair is just a good place for good ol’ hillbillies to come and hang around. We put on a pretty good show each night, and people seem to enjoy it. The fans come from everywhere; they come from Tennessee, North Carolina, especially [for the] horse show. We had the truck pull this past Saturday night, one of the biggest crowds we ever had here. Got a few vendors up there that sell a little food. I think we got the ninth rated hamburger in Southwest Virginia. Best hamburger you ever want to eat. 

In 1996, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. I didn’t know anything was wrong with me. My daughter-in-law is a nurse, and she told my wife, said, ‘Something’s wrong with Tom. He’s lost all of his energy.’ They made me go to the doctor and they did tests on me and found out I had prostate cancer. The doctor over at Marion called me and my wife in. We had no idea. I’d never been sick hardly in my life. 

We was sitting in front of the doctor and he said, ‘Well, I got bad news. You got prostate cancer.’ That just devastated you. I was about fifty-seven or eight years old. I said, ‘Man, I don’t know what we’re gonna do.’ We heard how bad cancer was and you don’t last very long, but I’ve fought it and never did give up. I was bad and didn’t know it; it was really, really bad. You know the prostate is about the size of a walnut, and the whole thing was cancerous. 

They sent me to Bowman Gray in Winston Salem and had surgery down there and removed my prostate. I’ve had several other operations for cancer, but today I’m doing well. I’ve got lung cancer, but it’s really almost under control and doing real good. 

I had a good friend who was a deputy sheriff with me. I was the Captain in the department and he come in and had a little sore right under his badge. He said, ‘Do you mind if I take that badge off?’ I said, ‘Just put it on your belt.’ He found out he had cancer, and about three months he was dead. Laid down on the couch and died. I’d go about everyday and try to get him to ride around the police car with me and he wouldn’t. 

I told my wife, ‘If I ever get cancer, don’t you let me lay down.’ My friends and my family they won’t let me lay down, they make me go all the time. I think that’s one reason, I got a good attitude and I exercise and I keep my body in pretty good shape. I think that’s a lot of the answer to it. It’s devastating when they tell you you have it, but you can’t quit. If you quit, you’re dead. Just fight it and keep going. 

Don’t give up, like I always told my kids, when you get down on somebody else’s level, they win. And when you give up, cancer wins.”