CHRISTIANSBURG — Coach, principal, father, grandfather, Marine.
All these words and so much more help sump up James “Buddy” Earp, a well-known retired educator from Christiansburg High School.
Now 87, Earp was born in Mountain City, Tennessee in 1927. He was one of five children raised by a single mom and grandmother in Bristol. He played football at Virginia High School and worked as a cab driver for City Cab. When Emory and Henry College began recruiting Earp for its football team during his senior year on 1945, Earp was concerned about the cost of living in Emory. Earp said, “Emory and Henry picked me to attend, then a group of Bristol citizens made the resources available to get me there.”
Earp played center. “Maybe I was not as big as other players, but I was a pretty good football player,” he said.
The United State entered the Korean conflict in the summer of 1950 and before the fall semester of Earp’s senior year. A member of the Bristol draft board called Earp to inform him that his draft number was about to be selected. Earp immediately made an appointment with a Navy recruiter in Roanoke. The recruiter did not show and Earp drove directly to Richmond and a Marine recruiting station.
Earp joined the Marines, who had a program for college graduates to complete basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina, become commissioned as an officer, and report to Quantico Marine Base for officer training. This program would allow Earp to complete his senior college year and earn his bachelors degree in education.
During his senior year at Emory and Henry, Earp was named team captain, and the Wasps made their second trip to the Tangerine Bowl in Orlando, Florida. Earp graduated on June 1, 1951 and was on his way Parris Island on June 15. Earp remembers, as he was boarding the bus, the Marine drill instructor yelling, “Ok, you college clowns!”
A 3 a.m. arrival was followed by a 5 a.m. wake up. Earp remembers the awful and prevalent sand flies on the base.
With completion of basic training, Earp returned home to Bristol on a three-day pass. He visited his cab-driving buddies and mentioned that his uniform needed pressing before reporting to Quantico. His buddies recommended the new cleaners, Hatcher’s, in town. It was there Earp met his future wife, Mary Jane Hatcher, over the counter.
“I visited that cleaners three times before I decided to ask Jane out on a date,” he said. “We went to the movies to see ‘Westward the Women.’”
Earp was honest with Jane about his service duty at Quantico. However, Earp told her, “I don’t think you will find anyone better.” Jane stayed in touch by letters throughout that year and his tour of duty in Korea.
The Korean Conflict was a war to Marine 2nd Lt. Earp. He was assigned to work with an Army infantry artillery unit responsible for half-track vehicles. His assignment was jokingly based on pedigree of his college experience. Out of five officers available for this duty, two were from the Naval Academy and two were from ROTC programs. When asked his college background, Earp replied, “From Emory and Henry in God’s country.”
Upon meeting the Army captain, Earp recalls, “He was very Yankee and wanted to know where my photographer was.” This jab was in response to Army’s belief in that era that the press liked reporting about the Marines more than the Army.
Earp does not like to talk about the action he saw. He does reveal tidbits of the firefight with the enemy for which his Purple Heart was awarded. Five military members were involved. Two were wounded, including himself, and one killed. Earp tells the story, “One was killed. This blond boy, very blond-haired boy, was yelling about how his backside had been blown off. His wound caused him to be sent home.”
After returning to Bristol, Earp became a Marine reservist. The G.I. Bill helped pay some of his tuition to attend graduate school at the University of Tennessee. While pursuing his masters, he married his devoted girlfriend, Jane Hatcher, in 1954. To make ends meet, Earp worked as a university tennis court roller for 75 cents an hour.
In 1954, Earp was offered a football coaching job at Christiansburg High School, where he also taught physical education, Spanish and English. Earp remembers how the football field badly needed fertilizer. A Virginia Tech professor arranged for delivery of some manure in the spring of 1955. Earp recalled how then Principal Evan King laughed about the rankness of the smell throughout the high school campus located on College Street. Earp remembers, “Mr. King was a great man. Grass on that fertilized field looked good for a while but didn’t last.”
Christiansburg High School in the 1950s only fielded boys football, basketball and tennis, and only girls basketball. Earp started the CHS boys track team that spring. There was no track to actually run on. Earp created a makeshift track around the football field using cinders donated from Virginia Tech. Earp said, “We used an old tape measure to get this whole setup.”
It took until the third track meet before any team member placed. Earp remembers, “The uniform was all gold. Those boys really turned out and wanted to work for it.”
Earp said the track team’s attitude helped other programs at CHS. In the third year, CHS’ track team won the state championship, beating out the area’s top team at Andrew Lewis High School. Earp remembers a student, Joe Board, from that team who later became a judge in South Carolina.
From all his coaching days, Earp fondly notes, “Kids were so appreciative to be able to participate in sports regardless of wins or losses. Their parents were supportive and so was the community.”
Joe Straub, CHS Class of 1961, was co-captain of the football team that Earp coached.
“Ask any Christiansburg male over 50 years old and they will have stories to tell about their high school experience being influenced by Mr. Earp,” Straub said. “He taught respect.”
After a couple of years simultaneously teaching and serving as an assistant principal, Earp became principal of CHS from 1964 to 1970. A 1966 CHS Demon Yearbook notes: “A high school always has a principal. Sometimes the students feel the principal to be as much a part of the building as the worn front steps. Mr. Earp has proven himself to be much more. Under his leadership, CHS has grown and improved beyond belief.”
He was also principal of Marion Senior High School in 1974 and then Glenvar High School from 1975-1985. All the while, the Earp family, now with two children, remained in Christiansburg. Earp said, “I came to stay for two years. There were opportunities to move, but I stayed here. The life and the people is what kept me here.”
Earp retired from education in 1985 and also from the Marine Corps Reserves as a Colonel. Earp is a member of the local American Legion Post 59 and VFW Post 5311. Earp himself served as American Legion commander from 1988 to 2002. Earp said, “Back then, the American Post didn’t do as much as they do now. We had maybe six to 12 people at a meeting or parade.”
Earp credits the current commander Omar Ross for the strong membership at the American Legion.
Ross also served as assistant football coach for Earp for two years.
“Certainly Buddy is an asset to me in my educational career. His advice has always been helpful to me,” Ross said. “He is quite the mentor in the VFW and American Legion.”
Earp is also a member of the Kiwanis Club. In the 1950s and ‘60s and before there was a town recreation center, the Kiwanis Club saw a need for youth sports. According to Christiansburg Mayor Mike Barber, Earp was instrumental in starting and overseeing “sand lot” teams for eight years. Earp even hired Barber over a summer when Barber was home from college to run the baseball program.
“Coach Earp was intimidating because of his Marine demeanor. He is Marine through and through,” Barber said. “Yet, he has a sneaky sense of humor and a sly grin.”
Mayor Barber remembers the 2012 Christiansburg Holiday Parade when the Alumni Return entered a convertible car. The car carried Earp among its other prominent passengers.
“An amazing amount of people along the parade route could be heard saying, ‘Hey I know Coach Earp’ “ Barber said. “Coach Earp has influenced a good many people in this town. He taught respect. He is a good man himself, with a soft heart but the Marine in him will not show it.”
Earp lost his wife of 52 years in 2006. Earp is pleased with his two children, James “Jim” Earp and Lisa Earp. Earp believes they are doing more for their children than Earp ever did. Earp is proud of his grandchildren who attend high schools where he used to work: Christiansburg and Glenvar. After a recent fall requiring rehabilitation, Earp was determined to attend the Christiansburg Veterans Day Parade in which he insisted on standing to salute at each official call.
“The Marine Corps is good for you. All I have I was taught by the Marines,” said Earp, who also credited the communities where he lived. “It has all given me an appreciation for the American way of life.”
– Lisa Bass, contributing writer