Barbara “Bootie” Bell Chewning and Coach Jefferson Highfill have been named as Grand Marshals of the 64th annual Vinton Dogwood Festival Parade.
Over the years since the first Dogwood Festival in the 1950s, many individuals and even groups have served as Grand Marshals in the Dogwood Parade. Some have been dignitaries, some Hollywood celebrities; some local personalities. There were several governors, some actors and singers, school principals, and William Byrd alumni who went on to acclaimed careers after graduating.
When the Dogwood Committee considered candidates to lead this year’s parade, they zeroed in on Vinton icons, individuals with close ties to Vinton who have changed the face of the town, through “Education and Inspiration.” That’s how they came up with Bootie Chewning and Coach Highfill.
Chewning is perhaps Vinton’s most enthusiastic cheerleader and booster over the course of her life. In addition to a myriad of other accomplishments, she has been a teacher, Vinton’s representative on the Roanoke County School Board, and recently served in one of the most challenging positions– substitute teacher.
Highfill has influenced countless football and soccer players and other students in his 38 years at William Byrd High School, described by his associates as “a truly humble man who has made such a positive influence on so many lives.”
Grand Marshal Coach Highfill
Coach Highfill retired from his position as head football coach at William Byrd at the end of the 2018 season with 211 wins in football over 38 years, and 149 in soccer over 35 years, for a total of 657 wins in both sports. He accumulated 31 Coach of the Year Awards in football and soccer combined at William Byrd.
His first season coaching football at WBHS was in 1981; he became their soccer coach in 1982. Over the course of time, Highfill has coached football, soccer, tennis, and girls varsity basketball.
Highfill grew up in Salem, where he started playing football in fourth grade on a sandlot team. He played for Andrew Lewis High School during what has been described as its “football heyday” with Coach Eddie Joyce, earning All-State and All-District honors.
There, in 1969, as a freshman, he met his wife of almost 45 years, Katie— the first and only girl he ever dated. He wrote letters to her every day of his college career. They married in 1974 and have two children, daughter Owen, and son Jeff Jr., who both live out of state.
Highfill chose to attend King College in Tennessee on a Salem Sports Foundation scholarship, and majored in business and economics, graduating in 1974. He decided in his sophomore year that he wanted a career in coaching. He played soccer at King, earning All-Conference honors and was named MVP for two years. In 2006 he was named to the King College Sports Hall of Fame.
His first job in teaching and coaching was with Franklin County. He became assistant football coach and girls varsity basketball coach, while teaching business and economics.
He remained with Franklin County for five years until the opportunity came about for him to become head football coach in Floyd County. Floyd’s record went from 0-10 in his first year as coach to 8-4 in the second.
However, William Byrd Principal Bob Patterson was looking for a new head football coach. Highfill joined the staff and team at Byrd in 1981.
Highfill credits his longevity at William Byrd to the support of his family, the administration, great players, and his coaching staff which over the years has included George George, Kim Colls, Wallace Thompson, Paul Barnard, Tim Foutz, and his son, Jeff, who played football and soccer at Byrd and then returned to work on the coaching staff for seven years.
Highfill has worked for “three great principals— Bob Patterson, Richard Turner, and Tammy Newcomb.”
His wife has made his coaching career a family affair. She filmed the games and cooked Sunday dinner for the coaching staff during football season while they reviewed game film. She remains his greatest cheerleader.
Highfill retired from teaching math at WBHS in 2008.
Sports writer Brian Hoffman describes Highfill as the “Dean of Roanoke Valley coaches.”
In a broadcast interview, Highfill noted that he has spent half of his life at William Byrd. “Everything we own is maroon and orange,” he joked. Over 20 of his football players and over 20 of his soccer players are now coaches themselves.
Highfill says that he feels “surprised and honored that they asked me to be a Grand Marshal. I’m happy to do it because so many people in Vinton and that end of Roanoke County have supported me and done so much for me. The people of Vinton and William Byrd will always be a big, wonderful part of my life.”
Coach Highfill said he hasn’t been involved in the Dogwood Parade before as April is soccer season, and off-season football practice and weight lifting.
In 2017, the Roanoke County School Board recognized Highfill for his 1,000th game as a coach at William Byrd— 622 soccer games and 378 football games at that point.
Principal Tammy Newcomb said, “We would like to thank Coach Highfill for his dedication to William Byrd High School, our student athletes, and our community. The longevity of your coaching career has helped many students grow into successful adults. We are grateful that you are a Terrier and that our students have had the opportunity to have you as a mentor. Thank you for your hard work and countless number of hours to make us a better place.”
Through the years, Highfill “has shown the ability to put teams on the field that never quit.”
William Byrd honored him once again at Homecoming 2018 with the presentation of a VHSL ring for football.
“VHSL only gives one ring and he got one for soccer, so the school got his ring for football,” Newcomb said.
Bootie Chewning grew up in Vinton and has spent most of her life here. She describes herself as a “ham” and a “promoter” for as long as she can remember.
“Even as a kid, I directed and taught dancing and put on shows in the neighborhood in Vinton and in Grandma’s living room in Covington. People paid a nickel to see the shows.
“I always danced,” said Chewning. “I remember dancing on stage at Roland E. Cook Elementary in first grade.”
Chewning was the cheerleading mascot at WBHS when she was middle school aged, a flag girl, a majorette, and then drum major in high school. She graduated from WBHS in 1954, a year before the Dogwood tradition began, but she’s been in, or led, many parades.
One of her funniest parade stories is the time she got the band lost during the Christmas parade in Clifton Forge in “blustery cold weather.” She was leading the band down the parade route when the car in front of the band broke down. By the time it was moved out of the way, the rest of the parade had disappeared leaving her no clue of which way to go. She blew her whistle to get the band moving again— and promptly led them down an alley. They continued on and fortunately re-emerged back on the main street and rejoined the parade without missing a beat.
Her family laughs that after that, she went on to win “Drum Major with Best Control of the Band” honors at the Apple Blossom Parade in Winchester. For the past several years she has ridden on the William Byrd Alumni Band float in the Dogwood Parade.
Her family also jokes that after she was named Homecoming Queen at William Byrd in 1954, she “never let go of the title.” In those days, there were festivities downtown on Friday night; the Queen was named before the parade on Saturday and rode in the parade with her court. The Homecoming football game was played on Saturday afternoon, and the dance was held that evening. Homecoming Queen was synonymous with being Miss Vinton.
She went on to become one of the first five female cheerleaders at Virginia Tech in 1954 (300 tried out) when the school was still male only and Radford was its “sister college.” She starred as “Gigi” in the production at Radford, one of many roles in her years there. She graduated from Radford in 1958 and married Bob Chewning in 1961.
She taught school for several years: first grade at Roland E. Cook, fifth grade at Cave Spring, and physical education at Woodrow Wilson, until her son Greg was born, followed by daughter Angie.
She worked with her husband at their Chewning’s Interiors business and went on to own and operate two “fun” Hallmark stores in Vinton, which were in business for 17 years.
Chewning says she was not a good athlete in school, but was always recognized for her “team spirit,” which continues to this day, but is now transformed into “community spirit.”
With her background in education, she was appointed to serve on the Roanoke County School Board for 12 years representing the Vinton District.
The names of the organizations she has belonged to, served on the boards of, and always supported with maximum effort, are too numerous to mention in detail.
Suffice it to say that if there is a cause that needs a cheerleader, promoter, and hard worker, Chewning invariably receives the call. She doesn’t just belong to organizations and boards; she champions them.
Mostly recently she has worked as a substitute teacher for Roanoke County Schools– usually at William Byrd High School. When she walks down the halls, she seems to get a hug or a greeting from almost every student she passes. She has a special love for special needs students.
She writes a weekly column for The Vinton Messenger and has for decades, sharing the stories of her own family and friends, and remembering the birthdays, anniversaries, and special occasions of everyone else.
She was a founding member of the Vinton-Roanoke County Veterans “High Ground” Monument at the Vinton War Memorial, which has become an iconic symbol of Vinton.
She volunteers on the Kitchen Committee to help serve Wednesday night dinners at Thrasher Memorial and is a member of the Totera Woman’s Club.
Over the years she has been executive producer of the Vinton Junior Miss (for 34 years), and Miss Virginia pageants, involved in all aspects including production, choreography, music, lighting, and sound.
She worked for years at the polls on Election Day, slowing down the lines as voters always wanted to stop and chat. Her husband passed away in 1986 from cancer, which led to her passionate support for Relay for Life.
She has been an actor in, and involved in casting, several plays, TV shows, and movies, included “Lake Effects” filmed at Smith Mountain Lake.
Many years ago, she and the “Bootie Belles” performed in annual Lions Club shows in “poodle skirts.” For years she has loved dancing with the Roanoke Valley Shag Club.
She acts in local commercials, so convincingly at one time that her friends thought she had moved into a retirement home in Salem when she appeared in its ad.
Since she returned to Vinton after college, she has always been involved with the Dogwood tradition and has never missed a Dogwood Parade.
She recalls the huge number of bands which used to participate in the parade– 30 or so– back when the festival was able to pay for bands to travel to the parade and the Dogwood Queen was chosen from among the bands. The Woman’s Club would produce elaborate floats for the Dogwood Queen and Court to ride on.
Chewning says that her outlook in life has always been to “enjoy and promote” her surroundings. She is not just a huge cheerleader for Vinton, but a celebrity in the Roanoke Valley.
Nowadays she is a familiar face at Vinton Area Chamber of Commerce events, like Mingle at the Market, the Senior Expo, and the Grapes and Grains Festival, supporting the organization of which her daughter, Angie, is the executive director.
She enjoys her three grandchildren— Angie’s daughters Cydney McGhee (a sergeant in the Concord, N.C., Police Department) and Abbie Lewis (a student at Roanoke College), and son Drake Lewis, who works for L&W Supply— and her great-grandson Kellen.
Chewning says that she is “completely thrilled” by being asked to serve as Co-Grand Marshal of the 64th annual Vinton Dogwood Festival. It never occurred to her that she would be given such an honor.