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January 11, 2011

Restoring a Lost Treasure

By: Kevin & Olivia Lightle

Kevin Lightle (left) and his older brother, Bruce, pose next to the Miles Stadium sign that Kevin Lightle found in a fallout shelter over at Burruss Hall in the mid-1970s.

It was the last night of the New Virginians’ fall concert of 1976. I was not with the New Virginians as a chorus member, but had joined them out of jealousy for a girlfriend who was having a lot of fun with the technical crew. That evening, I was relegated to what was referred to as “the dungeon.” My task was moving set equipment into a little-known area underneath Burruss Hall. Many people had walked through the Burruss tunnel and had passed by the fallout shelter sign, but I’m certain no one had given much thought to what was behind the door. I had the unpleasant opportunity that evening to move stage equipment into a part of that shelter.

After hours of taking wooden stage equipment into the shelter, I allowed my eyes to roam the confines, dimly lit, with low ceilings and earthen floor. I found some tins labeled “Survivor Crackers” and discarded pieces of hardware and equipment. While poking around, I stubbed my toe on something hard in the dirt. I scraped the dirt off and realized that this object was metal. I couldn’t make anything out because it was quite encrusted with age and dirt. In the low-level lights, I continued to scrape off enough dirt until I saw an M, a U and an I. I had a flashback to visiting professors’ offices and seeing pieces of wood from the bleachers of an old stadium that they proudly displayed on their desks. I briefly thought, “Could this be?” I quickly surmised it was approximately 7 foot by 1 foot by 1 inch and rectangular in shape. It was at that point that I realized I’d come across a treasured item of Virginia Tech sports history: the Miles Stadium sign.

At first, I was excited to have found such an historic monument and then appalled that something of such significance was relegated to the depths of an old fallout shelter. It was dumped amongst other debris and trash that, to this day, may still not have seen the light of day. Recognizing the value of such a treasure, I told another flunky working on set removal to pick up the other side of the sign and help me move it outside, threatening his life if he told anyone what we had done. We were not, especially me, equipped for the weight and bulkiness of some 400-pound, 7-foot sign. We managed to get the sign out to the front bushes of Burruss Hall and then dumped it.

Miles Stadium during a football game.

Later that night, after completing my duties with the New Virginians, I returned to my room in Pritchard Hall, where I excitedly told my roommate and a few other friends about my find. At this time of the evening, not much could excite this group. However, I managed to convince one unlucky soul to come across campus to help me bring the sign back to the dorm room.

We returned to the scene, and sure enough, the sign was still there. My friend did not really understand what it was all about, but seeing how excited I was, he agreed to help. I picked up the front, he picked up the rear, and both of us, weighing no more than 130 pounds each, realized the challenge ahead of us. We headed across the Drill Field. It was an effort that should have been applauded, as we awkwardly moved it across the campus in full moonlight with campus police circling the Drill Field. After a half hour of this effort, we had only reached the other side of the Drill Field. I recognized this was too big for us too small people. It was with despair that I gave up the hope of getting it to my room and restoring the dignity of the sign. At this point, we simply dropped the sign next to a few trees, face side down.

Two days later, I had a class across the Drill Field and took a route that led past the sign. A quick glance over at the trees surprised me that it was still there. I returned from classes, took another glance, and yes, it was still there!

The next day, I took the same route. This time, I could see that it had been moved about two feet possibly by someone who also recognized its historical value. I called my brother that evening to let him know my concern and that I didn’t think I could muster up enough manpower to get the sign into my dorm room. Could he do something about getting it to his apartment at Sturbridge Square? Being a student of mechanical engineering, he could not give me much hope of what he could do as he finished off his 10th pot of coffee.

The next day, I did not have the opportunity to go by the sign, but later that afternoon, my brother called to say he had the sign. Apparently, one of his roommates had a hatchback, and my brother and his roommates went to check out my story. There, in broad daylight, they picked up the sign, loaded it into the hatchback and moved it to his third-story apartment.

Now, I give credit to my brother and his roommates. They, too, recognized the historical significance and proceeded to restore the sign. It was encrusted with dirt, age and neglect. They cleaned and polished it until it gleamed. Then, they elevated it on cinder blocks and set it in front of their couch. Many people came through that apartment and marveled at the significance of such an historical coffee table.

Cassell Coliseum was constructed diagonally across from Miles Stadium in the early 1960s (above). To get a better indication of where Tech’s former football home used to stand, the photo below shows that the Miles Stadium south end zone was located where Lee Hall currently resides and stretched across to the back of War Memorial Gym.

That year, my brother graduated and had a party at his apartment. We did not realize how many of the graduates had parents and friends who were alumni, and we thought for certain the jig was up. To our surprise and satisfaction, the alumni were gratified and overwhelmingly supported our find and restoration efforts.

I took over my brother’s apartment lease, and with my roommates, maintained the condition and respect of the sign. Again, many people, students, friends, family, friends of family, and even those who’d heard about the sign from others stopped to see this piece of history.

I graduated from Virginia Tech in 1978 with my bachelor’s in art education, and then with my few personal belongings and the sign, moved to Lynchburg, Va., to begin my work on a master’s degree of special education. By this time, I had also acquired a dolly, which helped my roommates and me move the sign out of the third-floor apartment and into a truck to bring to Lynchburg.

In Lynchburg, I managed to roll the sign into my parent’s basement where it was propped against a wall. It went unmoved until my graduation from Lynchburg College when it was transported to Roanoke, where I began my teaching career at The Achievement Center. The move from Lynchburg to Roanoke was accomplished with the help of my girlfriend. Moving this sign from a basement to the second-story apartment above a photo shop on Williamson Rd. in Roanoke, Va., (August 1979) was the first of many relationship tests.

By this time, one of my engineering friends from Tech had dedicated himself to drawing the plans for creating a wood base for displaying the sign as a living room table. These were masterful and exact, but at this time, the sign was displayed as a table on three apple crates from my girlfriend’s parents’ apple orchard in Bedford, Va.

In 1980, my girlfriend once again proved her commitment by helping me move the sign from the second-story apartment and cart it across town to a three-story house on Willow Rd. It again found its place as a coffee table in front of a sofa and fireplace. Needless to say, having a large house and a large table meant only that large parties were held in its honor. The relationship tests of both my imperfections and attachment to a brass sign still afforded my girlfriend to now become my fiancé, as the sign could attest to this fact.

After our marriage in 1981, I began work on my doctorate in special education administration under Dr. Phil Jones at Virginia Tech. We moved to Blacksburg to (thankfully) a first-floor apartment on Meadowbrook Dr. My wife accompanied me with this move. My friend, Jeff, who was also in the graduate program, helped me get the sign off the truck. This, too, was the beginning of testing how far a friendship could go. Here, the stadium sign had made the full circle of leaving Blacksburg and returning so close to its original home. It had become a semi-annual tradition to sit down with a can of Brasso and polish and buff the sign to a glossy golden glow. The sign had now become a part of our family and was revered and respected as a family member by all who had come into contact with it.

Upon receiving a certificate of advanced graduate study in 1984, I had abandoned the thought of finishing the doctorate program, and it was time to move on in life. Olivia and I sublet the apartment, and for six weeks, toured the United States and Baja California while camping in our Dodge Caravan. Upon returning home, we had a job offer in Winfield, Kan., and promptly packed a moving van and trekked back to the Central Plains.

Here yet again is where I tested relationships. Not one for treasures, Jeff was nonetheless there to help us move into a one-story house. It didn’t take long to see that Kansas was not going to be our career or retirement state of choice. In the summer of 1986, again with the help of Jeff, we loaded it onto a moving van and moved to a townhouse in Grove City, Ohio.

In 1988, Olivia was pregnant, and a month prior to our daughter’s birth, we moved into a split-level home on Reaver Ave. in another section of Grove City. By this time, Olivia was in no shape for moving and was in no shape to help. With the aid of the dolly, I managed to move the sign to the lower-level den by myself. The Miles Stadium sign served as a favorite place for our daughter, Kelly, to cut her first teeth.

In the spring of 1989, Dr. Phil Jones called me to inquire about my finishing my doctorate, as I only had one year left before being dismissed from the program. I had a family and a career, and I could not fathom dropping all this to go back to Blacksburg. However, my respect for Dr. Jones and the school, plus the continued support of my wife, made me realize that it was important to complete what I’d started. We packed everything up and moved into a townhouse on Tee Street in Blacksburg in August of that year. Our daughter learned to walk by grasping the sign and hoisting herself up.

I defended my dissertation in the spring of 1990. The party at Tee Street was a reunion of family and friends and was an opportunity for Jeff to reacquaint himself with the Miles Stadium sign.

Soon after, we moved to southwest Virginia to a rental farmhouse in Austinville, starting a journey in which the sign followed us in four more homes in three different states, including stops in Rural Retreat, Va., Frankfort, Ky., and Liberty, N.Y.

In December of 2004, the sign found itself in a Cape Cod house in Liberty, N.Y. It is noteworthy that, for the last two moves, we had a moving company make the moves. The moving men were used to oddities, but all had to stop, discuss and eventually curse the moving of the sign.

While in New York, I did not move the sign into the living room, as I was dedicated to creating the proper stand for the sign to be displayed. The sign was relegated to our garage. More than five years later, the stand had not been completed, our daughter was preparing to graduate from college, and Olivia and I had made a conscious decision to dedicate ourselves to a simpler life with less clutter and less ownership of belongings.

It must be noted that I had never intended to “own” the Miles Stadium sign. My first intentions were to restore it, and this was my only intention throughout our travels. However, I was plagued with the very simple question of how one could get such a treasure back to the hallowed grounds of Virginia Tech without notice or blame. Over the years, hundreds of people had heard the story, touched the sign and polished it, and respected its place in history. At any point in time, any of these people could have reported and potentially received a reward for what some would have perceived as a theft. Even with the hundreds of people who had supported our efforts and stood in the defense of my actions, I knew it would not be enough to be protected from an accusation of theft. Of course, how can one steal something when no one ever knew it existed?

In 2010, during a visit with my parents in Lynchburg, Va., we were reminded of their good neighbors who were alumni of Virginia Tech and active in the sports program. That fall, I had an “aha moment” when I awoke in the middle of the night and realized I had an underground link with the ability and connections to return the sign to its place of honor. I contacted my parents and got the phone number for Dodd Harvey. I called him and left him a message. When Dodd returned my call, I told the tale of someone I knew who had an object of interest. He was intrigued, excited and assured me he would make the contacts to display the sign and protect our well-intentioned efforts.

On Thanksgiving weekend of 2010, I loaded the treasure with the dolly again into the bed of our truck. We traveled south to Lynchburg, and for the last time, made the transfer from my truck to Dodd’s vehicle. The whole family had gathered for our farewell as brothers, sisters, nephews, nieces, daughters, and sons were a part of its history. From there, we are happy that everyone at Virginia Tech, past and future, can now share the same pride we had in our 33 years of stewardship.

Thanks to Mr. Lightle, the Virginia Tech athletics department currently is in possession of the Miles Stadium sign, which marked the entrance to Miles Stadium where the Hokies used to play football before the construction of Lane Stadium. The athletics department plans on displaying the sign somewhere inside Lane Stadium, either within its own exhibit or within the athletics memorabilia area.