By Debbie Adams
Ralph Chumley was one of the friendliest and most familiar faces in downtown Vinton, as owner
of Citizen’s Upholstery for over 58 years. He passed away on June 6 at the age of 84.
In December 2019, Chumley talked with The Vinton Messenger about his “good and fulfilling
He was the sixth of 13 children, a native of Hurt, Va., born to Clifford and Laura Chumley. The
children walked to school and then returned home to work on the family tobacco farm in the
He completed sixth grade and then quit school to work on the farm. When he was 17, he wanted
to do something different, and “set off to see the United States.” He left with $10 in his pocket
and traveled with two cousins and a friend in a 1947 Cadillac looking for adventure and work.
For a while, he said their address was “Cadillac USA.”
The group stopped in Baltimore to earn more money working for the railroad. After two months,
they lost those jobs when the railroad discovered they were underage. The young men traveled
on through Detroit and Chicago taking small jobs to earn enough money to keep going. In Utah
they helped dismantle a carnival show and then traveled to the next town and helped set it up
again – earning a grand total of $80.
They eventually made it to Sacramento and got jobs on a fruit ranch picking apricots. Until their
first payday, all they had to eat was apricots. After a couple of months, Chumley’s cousins and
friend decided to go back home to Virginia. Chumley, who was “almost” 18, decided to stay in
He got a “pretty good job” at a warehouse and then a heating company.
He described himself as “unschooled but not uneducated” as he picked up a great deal of
knowledge along the way. He said he learned “by doing and by trial and error,” and learned
something new every day of his life.
When Chumley’s grandson, Josh O’Leary, was a fourth grader at Bonsack Elementary he wrote
a biography of Chumley’s “interesting life” entitled “A Kid Named Ralph” dedicated to his
O’Leary described his grandfather dressed in the “snazzy” style of the times – long sideburns,
wavy hair, and white buck shoes – applying for a job at a Ford Motors factory in California. The
manager took one look, said “Come on, Elvis,” and gave him the dirtiest job in the plant
assembling truck tires and motors. Chumley stuck with the job and the two became good friends.
He married in California and had two children, Kim and Dwayne.
Chumley returned to Virginia in 1962 and met his wife Mary by happenstance when she was just
about to graduate from high school. Chumley said he believes “the Lord had something to do
They married four months later and went on to have three children – Cliff, Clint, and Paige. They
were married for 56 years when she passed away in June 2019.
The Chumleys first lived in Danville where he worked for a heating company. When it went out
of business, they moved to the Vinton area where she had family who worked for the railroad.
Unfortunately, Chumley discovered he was four months too old to be hired by the railroad
himself, so he ended up with Johnson Carper Furniture (Singer). He worked there for 13 years,
beginning on the production line and then as supervisor for seven years.
Chumley said he was a hard worker and learned fast – about furniture making on the line and
about operations as supervisor. He learned the skills that enabled him to fulfill his dream and
open a business of his own. He started in the upholstery business part time in southeast Roanoke
while still working for Johnson Carper. For several years he didn’t get home before 10 p.m. as
they worked nights and weekends. “I intended for the business to grow.”
He “met a fellow who had a little business with a Sears contract. I bought him out for $1,000 and
renamed the business.”
In 1965, Chumley and his wife decided to move their business to Vinton where business licenses
and taxes were cheaper, and the rent was lower.
“Everything about Vinton clicked for us,” Chumley said.
His first business in Vinton was located in two rooms upstairs at 117 ½ Lee Avenue in what was
once a bake shop. He took over the downstairs when the former occupant moved to a new
In 1975 Chumley bought 125 East Lee where Citizen’s Upholstery is now located and added
more commercial work to his business. He bought some nearby properties and business remained
steady through the years.
At the time of an earlier interview with The Vinton Messenger in 1977, Chumley owned five
lots, three buildings, and one parking lot. The business had grown from a man-and-wife operation to a company with several full-time employees and three trucks to serve the valley and the surrounding area.
He was proud to be able to offer customers about 500 different styles of furniture and fabrics.
“If a customer could draw it, or describe it, we could build it, and to fit a certain room.”
He expanded his work into medical offices and restaurants. They did the furniture repair and
upholstery work for Sears for a time and made connections with their customers. At one time
they sold carpet and drapes. For a time, the business had a manufacturer’s license and built
custom-made furniture on the premises.
Chumley attributed his success over the years to “hard work and help from the Lord. I give God
the glory for anything I have accomplished. I haven’t done a thing on my own.”
Mary Chumley was a valuable asset at Citizen’s Upholstery. He said she was able to do
everything in the store. As the business prospered, his wife was able to spend less time with the
company and more time at home with their children. She was dedicated to their church, New
Hope Christian, and in general was the “Energizer Bunny” in whatever she was involved with.
He also credited his son Cliff with being an integral part of the family business, stopping by after
school to help.
Chumley was an elder and Trustee at New Hope Christian Church for 50 years and served at the
Woodmen of the World (WOW) as State Representative and on the Executive Board and held
many other offices at the WOW.
At one time, he was president of the Downtown Merchants Association, formed by local
businesses. They sponsored festivals and special events such as the Bluegrass Festival held on
the Vinton Farmers’ Market for 20 years.
Chumley loved bluegrass music. He and Mary sang with “Leon Richardson and the Bluegrass
Gospel Singers” on Saturdays and they were featured on a local bluegrass radio station. For most
of those years, he emceed the gospel sing on Sunday night. He played for a while with the
Bluegrass Boys but gave up the guitar when his wife became ill.
Chumley had many loves and passions but his family, his church family, and his customers were
everything to him.
Over the years, Chumley had many people working for him in the business that aided in the
growth of his business. The most recent employee was Jessy Gira, she brought a ray of sunshine
to the business, and he was extremely appreciative of her.
He was predeceased by his parents; his wife, Mary; his sons, Dwayne and Clint; his brothers,
Carl and Billy Ray; and his sisters, Penny, Bobbie, Tootsie, and Teeny.
He leaves behind his children, Kim Rosa and (Don) of Watsonville, Calif., Cliff Chumley and
(Jennifer) of Roanoke, and Paige O’Leary and (Tim) of Blythewood, S.C.; his grandchildren, Joseph, Ann, Janelle, Kristy, Nicole, Evan, Joshua, Lori, Jenna, Kenny, Emma, and Jacob; and his great-grandchildren, Trenton, Myra, Bauer, Hudson, Sutton, and Leah.
He was surrounded by his children in his final hours. His final words to everyone were, “See
ya!” He had a full expectation that if you said to him, “See ya,” you would join him in Heaven