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Volume 26, Number 5 — May 2019

Payback: Former Student Says Thanks to VHCC Teachers

Richard Leigh (inset left), author of such songs as
Richard Leigh (inset left), author of such songs as "Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue," performed on April 17, 2008 at Virginia Highlands Community College during a fundraiser in honor of his former teachers, Gary Aday (center) and William Van Keyser (right). (Contributed photos)

Concert a Fundraiser for Proposed Keyser-Aday Theatre at VHCC

By Tom Netherland | Special to the Herald Courier | April 28, 2008

*** This story appeared in the Bristol Herald Courier on Thursday, Apr 10, 2008. ***

Three minutes or 30 years. Which amount of success would you rather have? Songwriter Richard Leigh chose 30 years and then some.

Chances are that most who read this will have little to no recognition of the name Richard Leigh. However, most fans of country music will have heard his songs. Recall Reba McEntire's "The Greatest Man I Never Knew." Leigh wrote that. With purpose ? as he has since writing his first hit 32 years ago.

"I want to write songs that people will sing 30 years from now," Leigh said recently by phone from his home outside Nashville. "I want them to last generations, not three minutes."

Leigh grew up in Northern Virginia, but has a deep affinity for Abingdon, in part from his time spent acting at Barter Theatre. He attended VHCC [Virginia Highlands Community College] from 1971-1973 before moving on to Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond. However, mention Southwest Virginia, and Leigh lights up.

"Abingdon changed my life," Leigh said. "It's the town that gave me confidence. I'm coming home to honor my two friends ? my two professors. [One of my professors] got me my job at Barter."

Leigh moved to Nashville shortly after graduating from VCU. Guitar in hand, songs in his head and dreams enough to fuel his drive. His ambition was to write songs, and boy, did he. Hits came fast for Leigh. Much more quickly than normal, he hit big right out of the box.

" 'I'll Get Over You' by Crystal Gayle was my first cut," Leigh said. Gayle rode Leigh's song to No. 1 on Billboard's country singles chart on June 12, 1976.

"The good Lord made it easy on me at the very beginning," he said. "My first four cuts were two number ones and two nominations for song of the year."

Gayle also recorded the second of those first two chart toppers. When Loretta Lynn's little sister struck with Leigh's "Don't it Make My Brown Eyes Blue" in 1977, she struck with a monster. "Don't it Make My Brown Eyes Blue" won Leigh a Grammy Award and changed his life.

"Winning the Grammy was a great thing because I had the worst year I'd ever had in the music business the year after," Leigh said.
Come again?

"It was a great lesson," he said. "The year after that worst year I thought, 'Get back to work you lazy guy.' It confused me. I won it just three years after I got to town."

Leigh has since written a steady stream of hits. He wrote or co-wrote such hits as "Cold Day in July" for the Dixie Chicks, "Life's Highway" for Steve Wariner and "Somewhere in My Broken Heart" for Billy Dean.

Life is good for Leigh. "I've sold more than 50 million records as a songwriter," Leigh said. "I've got an 80-acre farm and a nice house, and I've got an ex-wife who lives in a nice house, too."

Oh, and Leigh was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1994.

And so Leigh will pack his bags and return to Abingdon. He will pack his songs. He will pack his car. And among those items will be that guitar with which he first encountered Nashville back in 1974.

Ah, Abingdon ... and Leigh's beloved Martin D-35 guitar. "The people that first believed in me are in Abingdon," Leigh said. "They bought my guitar that I wrote all of my hits on."

Leigh grew up in McClure, Va. and lived for decades in Nashville, but Abingdon, well, that's different. "I'm coming home," Leigh said. "That's how much Abingdon means to me."


In the early days of Virginia Highland Community College, administrators wanted to create a theater program that could partner with the Barter Theatre and build on its success. At that time, the community college system was just being started in Virginia, and there were strong efforts to establish programs that would benefit the community. [Barter Theatre's Artistic Director] Robert Porterfield agreed to work with VHCC if they found the right person to lead the program.

Van Keyser, a graduate of Emory & Henry [College], was leading the theater program at another Virginia community college. He was recruited to VHCC to start the theater program, officially joining the VHCC faculty in September 1970. His talents are in dance and performing.

Two years later, as the program grew, another theater instructor was needed. Keyser met Gary Aday in the summer of 1972 while they were both taking courses at Northwestern University. Aday's strengths are in voice, diction and stagecraft. Aday arrived in the fall of 1972.

Since that time, the pair has overseen more than 100 theater productions on the VHCC campus. They also have taught drama and speech courses to thousands of students and provided opportunities for the community to audition for parts. Keyser retired last year, and Aday continues to lead the program.

VHCC hopes to raise $90,000 to name a new theater the Keyser-Aday Theatre at VHCC. Proceeds will be used to establish an endowment that will provide student scholarships for those pursuing careers in the arts, to support arts events on campus and to establish a campus art collection.

To donate to the fundraising effort, call the VHCC Educational Foundation Inc., (276) 739-2473, or e-mail