EMORY, Va. — Nearly 50 Emory & Henry College alumni recently got a taste of history, science and a little bit of suspense from presenters who shared little-known stories about people with ties to Southwest Virginia.

The presentations were part of a yearly tradition for the college community: For four days each summer, alumni and friends of Emory & Henry College gather on campus to continue their commitment to the pursuit of knowledge. Participants in this year’s More Than a Vacation (MTAV), held the last week of July, took tours of new facilities, visited cultural landmarks in the region and participated in exclusive learning discussions to share the area’s unique history.

Alumni came from as far away as Illinois and as close as Abingdon.

According to Monica Hoel, alumni director at the college and organizer of More Than a Vacation, the annual event has been going on for 26 years and features a range of topics and ideas. “We do really neat and interesting things. This year, we learned about science, history and true crimes.

“We find something new to talk about every year.”

This year, three presenters piqued the curiosity of the audience members as they told their stories.

“We have hosted so many talented people who are willing to come to campus and share with us what they know and what they do. It’s an incredible gift. We’ve had people come from all over the country to talk about their projects,” said Hoel.

Beulah George ‘Georgia’ Tann

Hoel stumbled on the story of Beulah George “Georgia” Tann, an American child trafficker who operated the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, an adoption agency in Memphis, Tennessee. Her black market adoption scheme operated during the 1920s.

“Tann stole babies from the poor and sold them to rich families,” said Hoel. “It’s a horrible story.”

Hoel learned that Tann graduated from Martha Washington College in Abingdon, majoring in music in 1913.

Barbara Bisantz Raymond is the author of “The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption.” The story is on its way to being made into a movie starring Octavia Spencer.

“After I learned this story, I found the author’s website and told her I had some of Georgia Tann’s college photos from her yearbooks at Martha Washington College. She agreed to talk to the participants by way of Skype,” said Hoel.

Gina Renee Hall

Ron Peterson Jr. visited campus during the event to talk about his book, “Under the Trestle,” the true story of the murder of Gina Renee Hall, who attended Emory & Henry College in 1979 before transferring to Radford University. After Hall went to a Blacksburg, Virginia, nightclub, she was never seen again.

The body of Hall was never found, but the man who killed her became the first person in Virginia history convicted of murder without the victim’s body.

Laura Lu Scherer Copenhaver

Sandra Treadway, the librarian of Virginia in Richmond, presented via Skype a discussion on the Virginia Women’s Monument, 12 interactive sculptures of Virginia women that will be on view for visitors at the historic Capitol Square in Richmond, Virginia.

Laura Lu Scherer Copenhaver, a Marion, Virginia, woman who contributed significantly to Virginia’s history, will be among those women immortalized in bronze in one of the first monuments of its kind in the nation.

Copenhaver’s family was present during the event.

The Virginia Women’s Monument, “Voices from the Garden,” is an oval garden space that will recognize a full range of women’s achievements. The women’s contributions throughout the state represent more than 400 years of Virginia history, and their stories will serve as an inspiration for women and girls today. The monument will be dedicated on Oct. 14, and several statues, including the statue of Laura Copenhaver, will be on display at that time. For more information or to make a donation toward funding the final group of statues, visit www.virginiacapitol.gov.

Copenhaver was director of information for the Marion-based Virginia Farm Bureau Federation in the early 1900s. The Smyth County native, who lived from 1868 to 1940, paved the way for local farmers to flourish during poor economic conditions.

Through her work as director of information for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, Copenhaver managed to create a mountain craft industry for families who were suffering from low prices of commodities after World War I. It is believed she was instrumental in founding the Virginia Farm Bureau organization in Virginia.

26 years of More Than a Vacation

Hoel said it’s common for colleges to offer alumni the opportunity to return to their alma maters to spend additional time learning new things and making new friends.

“Most colleges called it their alumni college. Emory & Henry hadn’t done one since the 1960s when we decided to bring ours back to life,” Hoel explained.

“More Than a Vacation is a little less serious than our earlier events. Activities overlap with the Virginia Highlands Festival, and we always include Barter Theatre in the schedule.

“Participants are informed of what’s new on campus, and we also take trips into the community to see the countryside and meet the people in Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee,” she said.

“This year, we also visited Erwin, Tennessee, a town in Unicoi County that is making efforts to erase a bad reputation acquired in 1916 when they hanged an elephant for killing someone. The good news is the town raises money from elephant statues placed throughout the town and donates the money to an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee.”

During the event, participants interacted with Emory & Henry alumni: Stephen and Jessica Callahan at their Tennessee Hills Distillery; Dr. Emma Sturgill from Marion, who has founded PurSolutions, which collects and markets cytoskeletons; Lindsey Layman, who is an environmental engineer for Virginia’s only cement company; and the Rev. Wil Cantrell and the Rev. Paul Seay who recently co-authored a book on the real meaning of Christmas.

Hoel never ceases to be amazed at the camaraderie that forms during each More Than a Vacation.

“The first participants were from the classes of 1981 and 1933. The man who graduated in 1933 was a retired minister. I couldn’t imagine how these people were going to get along,” said Hoel. “One of the surprises of this event is many people come every year, and they have become like family.

“That retired minister and that younger person from 1981 that I thought weren’t going to hit it off became members of each other’s families.”

Hoel already is planning events for next year’s gathering.

“We don’t cover topics more than once. There are still so many great topics to explore,” Hoel said.

“Every year alumni say there’s no way there is anything else in Southwest Virginia for us to talk about. And, every year, we find something new.”

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Carolyn R. Wilson is a freelance writer in Glade Spring, Virginia. Contact her at news@washconews.com.

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