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The late Joe Stutts had a way with words

One of the greatest pleasures involved in writing The Short Rows for the past 22 years has been the help I’ve received from some wonderful people, some who live here in Isle of Wight and Surry, and others from distant places, but who usually have some local connection.

One of those contributors, sadly, is no longer with us. Joseph H. Stutts, of Franklin, died in 2016. Joe was well known in Isle of Wight primarily because of his job. For three decades, he was the erudite and articulate community relations manager for Union Camp Corp.

After his retirement, he briefly worked as a reporter for The Smithfield Times. It was just something he wanted to try.

But it was in his position at Union Camp that I came to know him soon after returning to Smithfield in the early 1970s.

I’ve never been a huge fan of the public relations profession because I’ve seen “spin doctors” at their worst. But I’ve also seen them at their best and have had the pleasure of working with competent public relations people at a number of locations, including Dominion Power and Smithfield Foods.

Among them, Joe was one of the best I ever knew. He would, as his job demanded, defend his company unapologetically, but he never skirted — or twisted — the truth in doing so.

You couldn’t know Joe Stutts for long, though, without realizing that he was also a true son of Southside, with rural roots that were sunk deeply in the soil of his native Nansemond County, and a love for this part of Virginia that shaped him and, in large measure, made him the person we so admired.

He was a generous fan of The Short Rows and on several occasions wrote embarrassingly kind notes about various columns. Along with the notes, though, always came some worthy contributions. I ran across one of them this week and it deserves preservation, not just for the picture it paints, but for the beautiful Stutts prose in which it is written. Joe penned it while reading some Short Rows columns in 2012.

It follows, unedited.

 

What memories your wonderful prose has resurrected, including some indications of early weakmindedness in my youth. Can you imagine anyone foolhardy enough to walk into a kitchen heated almost to incandescence in midsummer (canning in full swing) and saying, ‘I don’t have anything to do.’ 

“There was a special hoe, ancient in service, polished bright by the sandy loam of Tidewater, and worn to half its original size, with a specially shortened handle for me. So at a tender ten, I spent the remainder of the afternoon in the ‘pea’ field. I quickly learned not to draw attention to any idleness on my part, an accomplishment that has supported me well in later life.”

 

Joe then turned to some of his favorite colloquialisms.

 

“Another bit of our local language for your collection: ‘When he come by, he throwed up his hand.’ Of course, this refers to a greeting rather than regurgitation. I still hear, ‘He threw up his hand,’ but it seems to have lost something.”

 

At various other times, Joe contributed other bits and pieces of local language and lore, all of which are much appreciated and worth keeping.

He recalled hearing farmers talk about peanut land that was so poor you couldn’t shoot from one peanut shock to another. And of two men who couldn’t get along, he heard it said that they couldn’t climb a fence together without getting cross-legged.

Another Stutts contribution was “put your foot in the path,” which he viewed as beginning a short walk. I recall it also as referring to a job you’ve been putting off. The only way to deal with such a task is “just put your foot in the path.”

In his last note to me before his death, Joe also expressed a bit of exasperation with our increasing role as a tourist destination.

“I would say these things should go into a book, but it would end up for sale in a tourist shop to amuse the outlanders who snicker at us enough anyway.”

I think he may have been at least partially wrong, for no one with a brain would snicker at Joe Stutts’ creative abilities or his role as a gentlemanly spokesman for his beloved Southside Virginia.

 

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is j.branchedwards@gmail.com.