HILLSVILLE — Joe McGrady has been friends with Frank Beamer for more than 50 years — even though Beamer once knocked him out cold with a punch to the jaw.
Jim Marshall remembers striking out Beamer in a Little League baseball game when they were kids. Janet Banks took piano lessons with Beamer. Larry Collins played football and baseball with Beamer and their buddies in a cow pasture on Sunday afternoons after church.
It seems that nearly everybody in Carroll County has a story about Beamer, the pride of Fancy Gap, especially his classmates from Hillsville High School’s class of 1965. They say that the guy who has roamed the sidelines as Virginia Tech’s football coach the last 29 years is still the same boy they knew from the “top of the mountain,” as folks in Carroll County describe Fancy Gap.
In high school, Beamer was intense, smart, competitive, incredibly humble, a born leader and a genuine nice guy. He never lost those traits, his oldest friends say.
“He never changed,” said John Lewis, who graduated with Beamer in ‘65. “I never saw a change in Frank. He’s one of the nicest people I ever met. Even though he played sports and was very popular, he was friendly with everybody. I never knew anyone who said anything negative about Frank.”
Carroll County is where Beamer learned his values and work ethic from his mother, Herma, a tireless long-time school teacher, and father, Raymond, who worked for the highway department and loved sports. It’s where he endured a horrible accident that literally scarred him for life and learned to never give up.
Beamer never forgot his rural upbringing in Fancy Gap, and he has donated time and money to county projects, from playgrounds to the restoration of the historic Sidna Allen house near his boyhood home. The people of Carroll County never turned their backs on him, either, even during the bad seasons. As the sign says on U.S. 52, “Welcome to Fancy Gap, Va. Frank Beamer Country.”
Frank Beamer was born on October 18, 1946 in Mount Airy, North Carolina, a town 15 miles down the mountain from Fancy Gap and the location of the nearest hospital. He grew up in a white frame house, the youngest of four children, and he attended one-room schoolhouses called Sunnyside and Mine Branch before the new Fancy Gap Elementary School opened when he was in the fifth grade.
By then, he had already suffered a near tragedy. In June 1954, just as the school year had ended, 7-year-old Frankie was badly burned after a gas can overturned and caught fire near the family’s garage. Beamer and his older brother Barnett were burning trash, when a smoldering broom came in contact with the gasoline and erupted in a fireball. Over the next four summers, Beamer underwent 30 surgeries and skin grafts to repair the damage to the right side of his face and body.
After the bandages came off, Barnett soon had his little brother — younger by 5 years — out throwing footballs and baseballs. The backyard therapy paid off. Beamer has always credited his brother with not only saving his life but also with making him a more competitive person.
“Barnett was a great athlete and Frank looked up to him,” said Larry Collins, who grew up with Beamer in Fancy Gap. “You could see the desire in Frank even then. He wanted to be better than Barnett, and Barnett would push him. You could see Frank’s potential then.”
When he attended Fancy Gap Elementary, Beamer was taught by his mother, who was a strict, fair teacher.
Herma was an Allen, a relative of the family that became notorious for its role in a tragic gun battle inside the county courthouse in 1912. Herma’s grandfather, Jack Allen, was brother of Floyd and Sidna Allen, two of the main participants in the shootout. Even though her grandfather was not involved in the gunfight, she never talked about her ancestors’ roles in the tragedy, even though anyone who’s from Carroll County knows the stories of the “courthouse massacre.”
Perhaps living with that legacy made her stoic and tough. She might’ve even been a little rougher on her own son.
“I remember one time she walked past his desk and she just smacked him,” remembered classmate Judy Williams. “I don’t know what he had done, but it must’ve been something.”
Last summer, Beamer attended a luncheon with former Hillsville classmates and he recalled that his mother used to discipline him twice for classroom offenses, once in school and again at home.
“He joked that, ‘If my mother were teaching today, she’d be in jail,’” Williams said.
In his 2013 autobiography, “Let Me Be Frank: My Life at Virginia Tech,” Beamer wrote about having his mother as a teacher:
Let me tell you, she was a lot harder on me than she was on all the other kids. I guess she was fair in grading me, but I sure didn’t get any breaks, either. Let’s just say there was a lot of discussion during our ride home from school every day.
If there was any trouble in the room, even if I was only near it, I was the one who got paddled later. Mom believed in paddling your rear end.
Actually, Herma Beamer was an exceptional teacher, well-respected by children and parents. After his mother’s death in 2004, Beamer established the nonprofit Herma’s Readers, which has distributed more than 100,000 books to children.
Even though he grew up the road in Hillsville, Jim Marshall heard stories about Frank Beamer before they ever attended high school together.
“In the sixth or seventh grade, I started hearing about Frank Beamer … usually from girls,” Marshall said.
Girls noticed the cute boy from the top of the mountain. Some, like Janet Banks, took piano lessons with Beamer, who also played trombone in the marching band up until high school. One year, the band was practicing for the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C. when a tuba player injured himself and could not march. Beamer and his childhood buddy Collins both tried out for the tuba part, with Collins getting the job.
However, Beamer was assigned to carry the band’s banner, a much better spot in the parade.
“I beat him, but he still got to go to the front of the band,” Collins said. “He was competitive at anything — even the tuba.”
Beamer’s athletic skills surpassed his musical talent, though. Banks recalled that she and Beamer were part of a church youth group’s trip to Florida in the early 1960s, a trip that some in the party wanted to extend by a few days.
“But we had to come back because Frank had to go to football practice,” Banks said.
Beamer played football, baseball and basketball, and he excelled especially on the gridiron as a quarterback. When he arrived at Hillsville, he even played on two teams in one season — the eighth grade team and the high school junior varsity squad.
Hillsville football teams were on a roll in the early 1960s under head coach Tommy Thompson and assistant coach Marty Dowdy. Beamer made the varsity at defensive back as a 10th grader, then started at quarterback as a junior and senior, throwing for 43 touchdown passes in those seasons. Hillsville finished 8-2 in 1964 and narrowly missed winning the New River District after a 20-19 loss at Blacksburg, during which a potential game-winning safety was waved off by officials on the last play of the game.
Marshall, who played on that 1964 team, has never fully gotten over that defeat.
“I remember [Blacksburg’s quarterback] rolling and slamming the ball down and hollering, ‘I beat us! I beat us!’” Marshall said. “And the referee came over and said, ‘No, no, son, the ball game was over.’”
During Beamer’s senior year, Hillsville enjoyed much athletic success, even though the school had limited sports facilities. Football and baseball games were played on the same field in some bottomland behind the school. No gymnasium existed in the entire county. The boys basketball team practiced at the local VFW building and played “home” games 10 miles away at the Galax YMCA.
Still, the teams were solid. Beamer quarterbacked a good football team, he was the point guard on the basketball team that had a winning record and he was an outfielder on a baseball team — always a strong program — which won the New River District regular season title.
Beamer was more than just a jock, he was a leader in the classroom and was president of his senior class. He was even more mature than many of his classmates, and wasn’t afraid to let a fellow know when he was acting out of line, as evidenced by a story from Joe McGrady, a classmate and football teammate.
Just after graduation, Hillsville’s class of 1965 took a senior trip to New York City and Atlantic City, New Jersey. Not surprisingly, the graduates exercised their newfound independence by partying hard. McGrady remembered buying $50 worth of liquor, then ran a “nip joint” from his hotel room by selling shots to his classmates at a dollar a pop.
The motel management threatened to evict some of the students, until Beamer himself agreed to rein in his boozed-up buddies. When McGrady strolled out of his room and planned to resume the party on the boardwalk, he told Beamer to get out of his way.
Beamer responded with a right to the jaw that knocked McGrady out.
Looking back 50 years later, McGrady said that Beamer “was doing me a favor. It would have been a long hitchhike from Atlantic City.”
Beamer and his buddies were known to get in a few scrapes with opposing players during their high school years — especially those from arch-rival Galax. But those stories will remain untold here.
“Frank and us did some things as teenage boys we will not tell you about,” Marshall said.
Even after he went to Virginia Tech, Beamer never strayed from his roots. Jason Semones remembered that Beamer and Tech quarterback Al Kincaid came to Carroll County to speak to Semones’ Cub Scouts pack in the late 1960s.
Semones graduated from Tech in 1981 and joined the Hokie Club, which cost all of $100 for an entire season’s worth of tickets, including prime parking passes. After Beamer became Tech’s coach, Semones said it was “kind of cool to have a local connection to the coach,” even during the rough early seasons.
Semones owns Sunny Side Store, a classic retail store near Hillsville right across the road from the one-room schoolhouse which Beamer attended for three years. Before Beamer was coach, you could find more Virginia, North Carolina and Duke fans in Carroll County than Tech fans.
Now, though, Sunny Side sells “far more Virginia Tech merchandise than any other school,” Semones said. That’s due to Beamer’s success as coach, he said.
McGrady, who graduated from Virginia Tech, said that Beamer not only changed Tech football, but the entire university, as well.
“He was like the engine pulling all the cars behind,” said McGrady, a Hillsville lawyer, who has a Tech football helmet autographed by Beamer in his office. “First, he changed football, then the athletic department. Then the entire university grew and expanded as a result.”
Marshall said that Beamer expanded the Hokies’ fan base, then spoiled them with victories, conference championships and bowl games.
“A lot of people became Tech fans after Frank got Tech going,” he said. “You’ve got people who’ve known nothing but winning.”
Beamer’s classmates expect to see him around his old stomping grounds after retirement. He’s been generous with his money for local projects. He donated money to build a playground at Fancy Gap Elementary School. He recently gave $5,000 to the Carroll County Historical Society as it raises money to restore the 1911 Sidna Allen house, a state landmark built one year before Allen — one of Beamer’s relatives — was involved in the Hillsville shootout.
Many members of Hillsville High School’s 1965 class have remained close. Out of 161 surviving members, 104 attended their 50th reunion last summer. Beamer has never missed a high school class reunion. Marshall made sure to schedule reunions around Beamer’s busy offseason schedule.
Now that Beamer is retiring, his oldest friends are happy that the boy from Fancy Gap will have more time to spend with his family, play golf and perhaps visit Carroll County on occasion. Still, the end of an era is a little sad, too.
“You never want to see it end,” Marshall said, “because we’re all the same age!”