FERRUM — When Roddy Moore first arrived at Ferrum College’s Blue Ridge Institute & Museum 45 years ago, he had an idea of what he hoped it would become.
“What it is today,” Moore said succinctly, sitting in his office surrounded by photographs capturing Southwest Virginia lore.
The institute was founded in 1973 and Moore joined its staff the next year. Everything for which the institute is now known — its folklife festival, record label and museum exhibits — had yet to be established.
“I was young and naïve and thought anything could be done and tackled it that way,” Moore said.
Moore was eventually named the institute’s director. He has served under five college presidents and seen Ferrum, a former junior college, award its first four-year degrees. But on Friday, the 76-year-old will retire.
Having joined the institute shortly after its creation, the institute’s history is intertwined with Moore’s own. It was a few years before he was named director, but Moore said he was always given the freedom to choose the institute’s direction, “as long as I didn’t cause problems and spend money I didn’t have.”
Though Moore will relinquish his title as director, he plans to stay involved with the institute, helping with the folklife festival and growing the endowment, among other things. Technically, Moore didn’t start the institute. But his friend Francis Amos, a historian and retired physician, said Moore may as well have.
“Had it not been for Roddy it would really never have amounted to anything,” Amos said. “He was the driving force that really got that going.”
A passion for collecting
During his childhood in the coalfields of southern West Virginia, Moore wasn’t exactly the academic type.
His mother was a teacher, and head of the junior high honor society. Moore said he was the only teacher’s child in the history of the school not to be accepted to the honor society in junior high or high school.
But he was interested in history. It started in Moore’s Boy Scout days, with a scoutmaster who shared his enthusiasm for the subject.
From there, Moore developed a passion for collecting. But he doesn’t focus on just one thing. Moore collects “a little bit of everything, from vintage hot rods to pottery.” Today, people say his house looks like a museum.
He managed to make collecting into a career.
“I’m a folklorist, but I’m a folklorist that’s interested in interpreting history through objects man has made, material culture,” Moore said. “And that’s a little different.”
The director is fascinated by just about anything. Blue Ridge District Supervisor Tim Tatum said talking to Moore is “sort of like talking to an encyclopedia.” He’s knowledgeable on so many topics.
“I’m real fortunate that I’m ADHD, so I can have many interests at one time,” Moore said.
Music is another of his interests. During his tenure, the Blue Ridge Institute started a record label. Two booklets that accompanied albums, delving into the history of the music they contained, were nominated for Grammys. Though Moore was drawn to studying the region’s music, he’s no musician.
“I’m tone deaf, so I don’t even sing in church,” he said.
Moore’s interest in examining this region — whether through its material culture or music — stems from a personal connection. He has family ties to Southwest Virginia, and spent many summers in Roanoke and Fincastle. He also attended Virginia Tech for his undergraduate studies.
Moore has never tired of studying the region.
“There’s so much out here and there’s so much work to be done,” he said. “Every time you turn over a rock there’s something new.”
And that’s why he never tired of his job at the institute. Moore said it’s taken him so long to retire because the work was always exciting. Abe Naff, Ferrum’s athletic director, said it takes “tremendous passion and strong will” to stick with and build a program the way Moore has. He said Moore has earned a spot among the college’s greatest leaders.
“Any time you stay at one place for a long time, it says something about the person,” Naff said.
He described Moore as a person who knows how to get things done, even when he has to raise funds to do it and is working with a “skeleton crew.”
Moore cares little about taking credit, but deeply about Ferrum College and Franklin County, Naff said.
“Very few places get to have such a great employee and a great ambassador as Roddy Moore has been,” Naff said.
A festival homecoming
The Blue Ridge Institute is perhaps best known for the Blue Ridge Folklife Festival, launched during Moore’s first year at Ferrum.
He knew what it took to make a festival successful, having worked with the Smithsonian Institution’s first festival on the National Mall and on three festivals at Mountain Empire Community College, which he proudly notes are still running to this day.
Moore sought funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, but the agency declined. It didn’t believe the community would turn out for an event on a college campus.
But the doubters were wrong. Moore estimates somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 people attended that first festival.
“They [the NEA] sent someone down to see the festival and they funded it the next year, because we did have the community on campus,” Moore said.
Today, the folklife festival draws between 10,000 and 15,000 people on average.
Moore attributes the fall festival’s popularity to its authenticity.
“We’re really unique that our musicians and craftspeople and different people are not imitators of the culture but are part of the culture,” he said.
Recruitment is easy, Moore said: he need only go out and talk to people. The institute director believes his regional accent helps.
The event serves as a “homecoming” for students, the community and the participants, Moore said. For some it’s akin to a family reunion, the one event a year they know family or friends will attend. Amos applauded Moore for creating an event that makes history real for people, introducing them to overlooked parts of the culture they may never have discovered, an aspect of which Amos said Moore has a particular knack.
“We need this type of thing that puts flesh on the bones of history,” Amos said.
Before Moore came to Ferrum, community colleges were “just going gangbusters in Virginia.” He thought they might put some junior colleges like Ferrum — the college didn’t award its first four-year diploma until 1976 — out of business.
But Moore said he came to realize that Ferrum is more community-oriented than some community colleges. Under Moore’s direction, the Blue Ridge Institute has also forged ties with the community.
The museum’s exhibits, which have covered topics from Rockabilly music to carved walking sticks to canning, have been designed to attract not just tourists, but locals, too.
“We wanted to do exhibits that the man on the street might find interesting and come in to see,” Moore said.
An exhibit on moonshine — or, as the locals call it, white liquor — was on display for two years, Moore said, because people kept coming in to look at pictures of their relatives.
Exhibits that originated in Ferrum have traveled to the Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond, the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg and the William King Museum of Art in Abingdon.
It raised the profile of the institute, and Moore. Jennifer Braaten, a former longtime Ferrum College president, said Moore’s name is one everyone knows.
“It never ceased to amaze me, Roddy’s connections,” Braaten said. “Wherever I would travel in Virginia somebody would say [of Ferrum], ‘Oh yeah isn’t that where Roddy Moore is at that Blue Ridge Institute?’ ”
Moore’s work has brought needed exposure to the region’s history. Too many people think of Appalachia as aesthetically beautiful, she said, but are unaware of the “richness of its culture.”
During graduate school in Cooperstown, New York, he met a retired magazine writer and author who said his focus was “the history of the people below the level of historical scrutiny.” Moore liked the sound of that, and has tried to emulate that idea.
Moore said he was compelled to do exhibits on folklife for a simple reason: “Nobody was doing them.”
It’s this candor that Tatum, the county supervisor, admires about Moore. The two first met decades ago when Tatum was working for the sheriff’s office and helped to direct traffic at the folklife festival.
“He does not pull punches,” Tatum said of Moore. “If you want to know how he feels about something and you ask him, he will tell you straight up. And if you don’t ask him, he’ll tell you straight up.”
The annual folklife festival is another example of the institute’s community spirit. Though the event is hosted by the college, there’s community pride and ownership of the event.
In the early ‘90s the college’s president at the time, Jerry Boone, advocated for moving the event off campus. But the community pushed back. A 1991 Roanoke Times article said a petition urging Boone to reconsider garnered more than 5,000 signatures. Ultimately, Boone changed his mind and allowed the festival to stay on campus.
No shortage of imagination
Ferrum College has made preserving the history of its region a part of its mission.
It started in earnest with the Museum of Mountain Lore, which opened in 1971, according to The Roanoke Times archive.
Moore read about the fledgling museum in the newspaper and decided to stop by. He found a room in the basement of the library, with no one who could tell him about the items on display — a far cry from what the Blue Ridge Institute & Museum offers today.
“But I saw then that someone was interested here,” Moore said.
So in 1974 he joined in the college’s mission. Moore said George Kegley, a Southwest Virginia historian and former Roanoke Times reporter and editor, recommended him to Ferrum officials.
Moore said he’s proud of many institute initiatives, from establishing a connection with The Crooked Road to launching a record label that was picked up by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Every program and project has served a simple, overarching goal.
“If I’ve done anything here, it’s making the people more aware of their own culture,” Moore said.
But he doesn’t have trouble passing the institute on. His successor will be Beth Worley, who currently serves as his co-director.
“I don’t worry about that. It will take a different shape and things, but it’s her program now, it’s not mine,” Moore said.
Worley said she’s humbled to follow in the footsteps of Moore. She did a two-year stint at the institute right out of college, left for graduate school and returned years later. Along the way, Moore has been a mentor.
Worley described him as completely original, and said Moore “knows something about everything.”
“The museum is an extension of him,” Worley said. “He is a tremendous historical resource himself.”
College President David Johns echoed that sentiment, describing him as “essentially a living, breathing version of the History Channel.”
In written remarks, Johns expressed gratitude for Moore’s contributions.
“It is impossible to calculate the magnitude of Roddy’s impact on this region,” Johns said. “He has helped to preserve the beauty and genius of the folk arts and folk ways of the Blue Ridge and he has introduced us to forgotten treasures that still influence our lives.”
Moore is confident in Worley, and said Johns also has been supportive of the institute. But he’s not one to speculate about what the future will hold.
“When I came, who could have told the directions I’d go in?” Moore said. “I think five-year plans are good for people that have no imagination.”
And Moore certainly can’t be accused of that.