By James Mack Adams
I am thankful my public school years provided me with what some have called a classical education. Part of that education included Greek and Roman literature and mythology. I have also benefited from the study of Latin. All of these have been assets in any writing I have done since.
During those public school years, I was introduced to the Greek philosopher, Diogenes. Living in the fifth century BC, he was a practitioner of what was called cynic philosophy. Diogenes was known to indulge in some strange behavior in promoting his beliefs. One of his most well-known acts was carrying a lighted lantern, even during the day, and holding it up to the faces of random strangers. He said he was looking for an honest man. I don’t remember if he ever found one. Being a cynic, he probably was not expecting to find one.
This leads into the theme of this column. If I were asked to name the most honest person I have ever known, it would have to be my grandfather. It is too bad Diogenes could not have run across Joseph Preston (J.P.) Adams. He could have then extinguished his lantern and stopped looking.
My grandfather considered service to Wise County and the Commonwealth of Virginia to be a calling. Other than for a short time as a mine superintendent, J.P. was employed in some local or state government position.
My earliest knowledge of my grandfather, or ‘Big Daddy’ as we grandchildren called him, was the 1930s. During that decade, J.P. served as sheriff of Wise County, Virginia. He was at times referred to as the ‘High Sheriff.’ That was a title, common in early England, that made it into the vocabulary of our Appalachian region during the early settler migrations from Britain.
It seemed to me, as a youngster, that Sheriff Adams and his deputies spent much of their time locating and destroying moonshine stills. Moonshining was a big industry in those parts during that era. Prohibition ended in 1933. However, it was still illegal to make and sell unlicensed and untaxed alcoholic beverages.
I always knew when my grandfather was getting ready to go into the hills to search for and destroy a still. He would sit in a chair while buckling his leather leggings. I have a photo of him and his deputies standing beside a still. He is wearing the leggings. I have another photo of J.P. and his deputies dressed in suits and hats and posed beside an old car. That photo reminds me of Eliot Ness and his men.
Later in his government service, my grandfather became an inspector for the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Board. Part of my grandfather’s job was investigating and approving the issuance and renewal of licenses for businesses to sell beer and wine. He became famous for his very tough and thorough inspections.
J.P. was given a state-owned car to travel his extensive Southwest Virginia territory. No one drove or rode in that car but my grandfather. The state car never, and I mean never, left the driveway except on state business.
My grandfather worked out of his home on the west side of Norton. I remember the large roll-top desk with all the cubbyholes and the squeaky wood desk chair. Sundays were the days grandfather worked on the reports that he either sent or took to Richmond. When my cousins and I were at his house on Sundays, we knew to be quiet because Big Daddy was working in his home office.
Joseph Preston Adams was an avid Democrat. Hanging above the fireplace in his living room was a large framed portrait of President Woodrow Wilson. When election time came, grandfather made sure all of his children and voting-age grandchildren were properly registered to vote.
In appearance, Joseph Preston Adams had a striking physical resemblance to President Harry S. Truman. President Truman had a sign on his White House desk that read, ‘The Buck Stops Here.’ The same sign would have been appropriate sitting on my grandfather’s large roll-top desk in Norton, Virginia.