A letter from the editor (Jan 2009):

Odell S. McGuire:

Odell McGuire was sitting in the White Column Inn one night about 25 years ago. There was nothing unusual about his being there. But that particular night it was snowing, with great white flakes falling down past the old brick buildings and street lights onto the deserted sidewalks and Main Street.

Odell was leaning back in a wooden chair near the corner between one of the big windows facing Main and the fireplace and chimney that had long since ceased being able to draw smoke. There was a tall glass of bourbon and ice and water sitting on the window sill, and he was sipping from it a little more slowly than usual.

There wasn’t much of a crowd that night. Most folks with any sense at all had gone home before the snow piled up on the roads. If Odell was worried about getting home to his little cabin in Bird Forest at the foot of House Mountain, he didn’t let on. Instead, he reached down, took his banjo from its case, quietly tuned it, and began playing “Ducks on a Millpond.”

In the dim light and the snow falling outside, Odell, with his beard and banjo and glass of whiskey didn’t just seem like a character from another century. That night, he was a character from another century, and he took everyone who heard him, and everything that could be seen around him, back in time a hundred years or more.

Odell McGuire died in December. It’s hard to imagine he’s gone. He was one of those people who seemed to spring up out of the earth itself and live in geologic time.

He was born in Knoxville, was wounded in the Korean War, held geology degrees from Columbia and the University of Illinois, worked for Texaco looking for oil in Canada, and was hired to teach geology at W&L in 1962.

When he was hired, Odell was — or at least appeared to be — a soft-spoken, conservative, threepiece- suited man who would fit right into a conservative college in a conservative town.

And then he went to a fiddlers convention.

Odell showed no signs of musical interest or aptitude when he was growing up. But at the convention, he was smitten by the sounds of an old-time banjo. And when Odell was smitten by something, he didn’t let it drop.

Before long, he was traveling down to the hoots and hollows of West Virginia and North Carolina, visiting families of old-time musicians and learning everything he could. And a tribe of students began going with him. They didn’t know they were about to launch a musical wave.

But they did. Musicians from all over the country — and all over the world, for that matter — began coming to town, to the White Column Inn (which was owned by Odell’s ex-wife, Mata) to stay a while and listen and play this strange Appalachian music that seemed as old as the hills.

It seemed perfectly natural that a geology professor who knew as much about the mountains as anyone, and a great deal more than most, would take to the music of those mountains. (Mercifully, Odell’s studies of the Alps did not induce him to take up yodelling.)

And it seemed perfectly natural that a man who knew so much about the mountains would move up into an old cabin and raise goats and a garden and live close to the land in what appeared to be a fairly simple life.

But there was nothing simple about Odell. He was fiercely intelligent. He was genuinely, not idly, curious about nearly everything. He had a way of asking questions that cut through the fog, and if the answer was murky, he’d give a look that made it clear he expected something better. He was a voracious reader, and he had an attention span that tended to run years.

Odell delighted in discovering things about the world around him.

When W&L bought a snazzy new mainframe computer back in the mid-70s, he figured out how to program it to make haiku, and he’d bring reams of print-outs to share with the customers at the White Column. (Some were captivated. Others felt they were being held captive by a deranged drunk.)

When he was dissatisfied with translations of ancient Greek works that mentioned geologic formations, he taught himself ancient Greek and translated them himself.

His knowledge of the geology of the mountains led him to wander through the history of their human inhabitants, and he let his wandering take him where it would.

One place it led was the Revolutionary War, and Odell spent months pouring over old diaries, letters, pension applications and official reports. It started when he began wondering about the place of the mountaineers of Rockbridge County in the Revolution, and one thing led to another and to another. By the time he was finished, Odell had written an incredible piece of history, “Many were Sore Chased and Some were Cut Down: Fighting Cornwallis with the Rockbridge Militia.”

It was published in early 1996, and contains the definitive history of the Battle of Guilford Courthouse. Odell always said that the purpose of writing is to explain. But the work does more than that. In explaining, it carries the reader into the midst of the battle. You can practically smell it and hear it, so much so that it seems Odell was reaching across time to transport you back two centuries, so much so that it seems he must have been there.

Odell didn’t leave a large paper trail. And there aren’t many recordings of his banjo playing. What he left, instead, were all the lives that he touched and all the lessons he taught simply by being himself. Odell was a living connection to the history of the world around him. He may be gone, but Odell, like ducks on a millpond, left plenty of ripples in this world.

Reference: Odell McGuire, reprinted in memoriam