TAZEWELL, Va. — People throughout the coalfields were shocked this week when they learned of the passing of one of the region’s best known and most colorful individuals, Arthur M. “Smiley” Ratliff Jr. Ratliff, 83, of Tazewell, died Oct. 31, in a Kingsport, Tenn. hospital.

“We thought he would live forever,” Sam Varney of Vansant, Va., said. “I think the entire region is in a state of shock. It’s a void that will be there forever. We’ll miss Smiley in so many ways.”

Ratliff was truly a Renaissance Man who was proud of his Buchanan County and Southwest Virginia heritage and equally proud of his humble origins. “He would say he was a poor, ignorant hillbilly out of Slate Creek,” Varney said. “He had an analytical mind and a photographic memory. He could remember anything. If he had a goal in mind and set out to do something, he would do it.”

Ratliff was a gifted athlete in his teens, and helped organize the Hurley High School football program in 1951. “I played fullback for him in the 1952, ‘53, and ‘54 seasons,” Varney said. “He was a tough disciplinarian. He had a blood and guts philosophy. He said the best defense against a passing team was to pound the quarterback. He was a genius in football. He was a genius in everything he did.”

Ratliff received 19 medals for his service during World War II and the Korean War, including the Bronze Star he received for capturing a machine gun nest in Korea in 1950. He received the United Nations Service Medal, the World War II Victory Medal and two Purple Hearts.

In addition to his love of sports, Ratliff was a teacher, a successful businessman and an author. After leaving the Hurley football program, he entered the coal mining business in 1955, founded the Miners and Merchants Bank of Grundy, the First Bank and Trust of Lebanon, the Big Stone Gap Bank and Trust.

As his businesses grew, he expanded his interests into cattle and land empires. Ratliff was the largest individual land owner east of the Mississippi River and owned, at one time, the fifth largest cattle outfit in the United States. He was also part owner of the Tanglewood and Crossroads Malls in Roanoke, Va.

“I remember one time, I think it was during the Carter Administration, when interest rates had climbed to 21 percent,” Varney said. “At the same time, the government was lending money to farm investments at three percent. Smiley called his banker and told him to borrow $3 million from the government and to put up the Old Stuart Farm in Elk Garden for collateral. He put that money in the bank and said he was making 18 percent just from borrowing the money.

“He told me he earned about $300,000 off of that investment until the interest rates started dropping,” Varney said. “When they got to the point where he wasn’t making any more money, he took the money out of the bank and paid off the loan. It was all perfectly legal, but that was the way his mind worked.”

Although he was most well known for his business prowess, he was well known for his humanitarian efforts for helping causes and individuals. He received an honorary doctorate from Emory and Henry University.

“He was no politician,” Varney said. “People who knew him had a lot of respect for him, but he didn’t have political influence. He liked State Senator Harry Byrd, but he didn’t like too many other politicians. He said they weren’t statesmen.”

Ratliff was a world traveler and visited each of the seven continents. He enjoyed visits to New Zealand and Henderson Island off the coast of Australia, but he made his home in the Whitten Valley section of Tazewell County. He was still operating the Anchorage Shopping Center and Anchor Motel in Grundy, Va., as well as several rental properties at the time of his death.

Funeral services for Ratliff will be at 2 p.m., Sunday at the Grundy Funeral Home Chapel.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com