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Bill Hight named grand marshal of Oyster Festival

by Larry S. Chowning

Bill Hight and his deadrise “Allison”

Even though William C. (Bill) Hight is not a native of Urbanna, his town roots run deep. He practically grew up in this small waterfront town and, as an adult, became a business leader and a positive force in the expansion of the Urbanna Oyster Festival.

This month the Urbanna Oyster Festival Foundation honored Hight by naming him grand marshal of the 51st Annual Urbanna Oyster Festival, which will be held Friday and Saturday, November, 7-8.

Hight, owner and operator of Urbanna Auto and Marine, grew up in North Carolina but as a boy spent his summers in his maternal grandmother’s hometown of Urbanna.

“I’ve been in Urbanna off and on for most of my life,” said Hight. “My grandmother was the granddaughter of Dr. William (Billy) Christian and we spent our summers here on the river.”

After the Civil War, Hight’s great-great grandfather, Dr. Christian, was the local medical doctor. Dr. Christian also gained recognition as founder of Company C of the 55th Virginia Infantry, first known as the Middlesex Southerners. Dr. Christian’s portrait hangs on the wall of the old Middlesex County Courthouse.

The Hight family was in the North Carolina tobacco business. During summers when his father was away from home on business, the rest of the family would come to Urbanna.

The Hights owned a log cabin on the Rappahannock River in Urbanna and it was there Bill developed a love for the town, river and wooden boats.

“I grew up in that log cabin on the river and that was home to me,” he said. “As children we spent lots and lots of time on the river crabbing and fishing. In September we’d go back to North Carolina to school.”

Hight graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in business administration in 1966. He spent three years in the U.S. Army.  His last year was spent in Vietnam with the 44th Medical Brigade.

After his stint in the Army, Hight moved to Urbanna permanently in December, 1969. In January of 1970 he went to work for Allen Waddill, who owned Urbanna Auto and Marine, which was then located outside of Urbanna across from where Dr. James Robusto’s office is today.

In 1971 Hight bought the business from Waddill and in 1975 he moved his business into Urbanna where it is located today on Prince George Street.

Hight got involved in community activities very early in his Urbanna life. He is a longtime friend of Rusty Ryland, and Ryland’s father Bill was very involved in the Urbanna Merchants Association. The association sponsored the Urbanna Labor Day Boat Races, a forerunner to the Urbanna Oyster Festival.

“Mr. Ryland was very involved in doing charitable work,” said Hight. “I remember as a boy helping him sell hot dogs and stuff at the Labor Day Boat Races.”

Once Hight moved permanently to Urbanna he started helping Ryland at the Urbanna Chamber of Commerce raw bar booth in the early years of the Oyster Festival.

“Stanley Carter, Mr. Ryland and I shucked oysters at a booth in the Urbanna Exxon parking lot,” said Hight. “It was one of the first raw-bar booths in the festival and we did that for two or three years.”

In the early 1970s, oystermen were still coming to Urbanna to work in the winter oyster fishery on the Rappahannock River. “My business was very involved in supplying oystermen with hardware, parts and motor oil,” said Hight.

Through his business, Hight got involved in the Urbanna Chamber of Commerce, and the main job of the chamber at that time was running the Urbanna Oyster Festival.

The early meetings of the chamber were dinner meetings held alternately at the old Urbanna Beach Hotel and Urbanna Inn. “There was a great group of people involved in the festival,” he said. “In the early 1970s, the festival was really in its infancy, but we could see that it had great potential.

“We had a beautiful small town and oysters. These were the two main drawing cards for adults, but we wanted to offer more,” said Hight. “We started a carnival for the kids and every year the festival just got bigger and bigger.”

In the mid-1970s, Hight, Bobby Mills, Gene Folliard and other young men who grew up in Urbanna became more involved with the festival.  There also was a group of people who had moved from Richmond to Middlesex who wanted to become more involved.

In 1977, Hight, Mills and Thomas Maeder were named tri-chairmen of the festival.

That same year R. McLean Duke, who had moved here from Richmond, began going on television and radio promoting the Oyster Festival.

“Mr. Duke was extremely effective in promoting the festival,” said Hight. “He had worked in the advertising business in Richmond and knew a lot of people. Also, his personality and voice were just right for television and radio.”

During the years Hight was active with the festival, PBS did a documentary on the festival; the oyster festival program and print were introduced; hats with the festival logos were sold; vendor fees were introduced; the waterfront opened and the Pride of Baltimore was the first large vessel to come; the Oyster Festival 7-mile run was started; and the carnival expanded to feature elephant rides for children. 

An estimated 30,000 people attended the 20th annual festival in 1977.

“From 1970 we had gone from opening an oyster bar on the corner of Prince George and Cross streets and maybe having 10,000 people in town, to dealing with 30,000 people,” said Hight. “We had all kinds of new issues to deal with and it took money to deal with those issues.”

Hight said the infrastructure running the festival had to grow to make it all work. The State of Virginia was putting more and more pressure on the Urbanna Chamber of Commerce in the areas of traffic and crowd control.

“We had a real need to generate money to pay for the Oyster Festival,” Hight said. “The only money makers we had were the carnival, our raw-bar booth and selling advertisements in our festival program.”

Hight indicated that the most money the chamber ever made in the three years he was a tri-chairman was $4,000. “That was good but it was getting more and more costly to run the festival,” he said.  “One year we lost money and we owed most of it to the Urbanna Lumber Company. They carried us for a long time until we could raise enough to pay them back.

“Over the years, people have given a lot in different ways to make this festival work,” he said. “The early years of the festival were simpler times in Middlesex County. The things we were celebrating in the 1970s by having the festival were still here and the festival had more of a local flavor. 

“We owe a great deal to all the volunteers who have been involved in the Oyster Festival Foundation for carrying on the touch and continuing to make this thing work,” said Hight. “I feel an extreme amount of gratitude and appreciation for having been selected grand marshal of the 2008 Urbanna Oyster Festival.”

Charles Bristow, chairman of the board of directors of the Urbanna Oyster Festival Foundation, said that Hight was selected grand marshal because of the important role he played in laying a foundation for the modern-day festival.

“Bill recognized the potential of the Oyster Festival,” said Bristow.  “Many of the things that were started when he was chairman we are still doing today.”

Hight was a tri-chairman of the festival in 1977, 1978 and 1979; president of the Urbanna Chamber of Commerce in 1977; and chairman of the Festival Carnival Committee in 1975 and 1976.

Hight previously served on Urbanna Town Council for two terms.

He is an active member of the Urbanna Masonic Lodge #83 AF & AM; a former director of Tidewater Marine Trade Association; and a former member of the advisory board of First Virginia Bank.

He helped in the re-establishment of the Urbanna Merchants Association in the early 1990s and served as president for many years.

Hight also ran a club for teenagers, “The Balcony,” in the old Rappanna Theater in Urbanna for several years. 

Hight is a member of Lee Jackson Camp Sons of Confederate Veterans; former secretary and treasurer of the Central Middlesex Volunteer Rescue Squad; and a member of the Virginia/Carolinas Automotive Wholesalers Association.

He has two children, Allison McCue and Christopher Hight, and two grandchildren, Meghan and Declan. He is married to the former Pat Donovan.

posted 09.25.2008

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