Thursday, October 30, 2003

Byron Herbert Reece: Balladeer of the Blue Ridge Mountains

The Juan Wellborn Reece and Hannah Emma Lou Lance Reece Family about 1925.
On Emma's lap, Emma Jean Reece (b.03/29/1923).
Standing (l. to r.): Eva Mae Reece b. 08/25/1911); Byron Herbert Reece (b.09/14/1917); T. J. Reece (b. 07/30/1915); and Nina Kate Reece (b. 06/16/1914).
The first born child in the family, Alwayne, died at age 13 months with meningitis.

He was tall and lanky, a man of the earth, a mountaineer. He was a farmer, a poet, a genius, a novelist, a philosopher.

Union County has a right to be justly proud of the work and accomplishments of Byron Herbert Reece, poet, lyricist, extraordinary balladeer of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Byron Herbert Reece was born on September 14, 1917 in a one-room log cabin that stood in a meadow now covered by the waters of Lake Trahlyta at Vogel State Park in Union County, Georgia. The community where he was born was named Choestoe after the Cherokee Indian word meaning “The Place Where Rabbits Dance.” Intrigued by his place of birth, he memoralized it in a poem by the same name, “Choestoe.” In the long poem published in 1944 in The Prairie Schooner are these lines:

It’s not that rabbits ever really danced here,
Though sometimes in the dusk when nothing happens
We could believe they danced and wish them dancing;
They came to sport forever in the name our country bears,
One that the Indians gave it.
The son of Juan (pronounced Jew-ann) and Emma Lance Reece, the poet-to-be, had one brother, T. J., and three sisters, Eva Mae, Jean and Kate. Another sister, Alwayne, died in infancy.

Life was hard on the dirt farm along Wolf Creek in the shadow of Blood Mountain where they lived on acreage that had belonged to Emma’s ancestors. Emma cooked the family’s meals in a lean-to built onto the cabin by her grandfather.

Emma Reece recognized early-on the precociousness of her son, Byron Herbert (whom they had named—not for the noted English poets Lord Byron and George Herbert, but for Byron Mitchell, a hog trader from Gainesville, and for Herbert Tabor, an insurance salesman from Ellijay, both of whom were friends of the Reece family).

Emma read to her children from the King James Version of the Bible and from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Before “Hub” (as Byron Herbert was called) began school at Choestoe Elementary School, he could already read from both books. He loved the cadence and rhythm of the 1611 King James Version of the Bible, and in that metrical tone many dramatic stories would be turned into ballads later as Hub’s poetic genius budded and grew to fruition.

Days found Reece working hard on the farm. His parents were both beset with tuberculosis and more and more of the farm work became Hub’s responsibility. As he worked, he listened to the melody of Wolf Creek singing against the rocks. A keen observer of nature, his natural introspection turned his insights into poetry.

At night by an oil lamp, he wrote with a passion and expertise uncharacteristic of one with his limited education. That is why, when his poems began to be published, some critics questioned both his genius and his ability to phrase such flawless verse.

The lyrics of literally hundreds of poems came from his pen. Ballads, sonnets and lyrical verse were his forte. He pursued themes of death, wind, time, the brevity of life, changing seasons, nature, beauty and innocence. Many of these thoughts tortured Reece in his life. And upon reading his poetry today, his concerns haunt readers as they contemplate his short life and tragic death.

Nights were short on rest, days filled with tasks taxing to his waning health, for he himself contracted the dread tuberculosis. He arose to seasonal duties: turning the land, harrowing, seeding the rows in spring, cultivating in summer, harvesting in fall. Winter had its tasks: wood to keep the fires going in the Reece house, livestock to feed and tend, fences to mend, and poems and novels to write.

Many of his poems speak of the earth and its call upon his time and energies. In “The Stay-at-Home” (1955) he wrote:

The fields of Hughly held him,
The land where he was born;
With fence to mend,
And cows to tend,
And care of wheat and corn.

He had no lief to wander
Beyond his place of birth,
But often he would ponder
The luring lands of earth.

When a critic claimed Reece’s farm life was just a pose and wanted to know ‘Why not write full-time and leave the farm work to someone else?’ Reece’s cryptic reply was, “Anybody can plow potatoes, but no one is willing to plow mine but me.”

In an article he wrote for The Atlanta Journal and Constitution Magazine for August 16, 1953, he stated: “On a small farm on Wolf Creek in north Georgia, I combine writing and farming. Here, in the last few years, I have grown several crops of corn and vegetables and four books of fiction and verse. By nature, I would rather cultivate a cash crop than the critics; and in my own way of life, a garden is equally as important as a garland. Reviewers have sent raspberries my way, but I am more familiar with those that grow on vines.”

[Next week: More on the life and works of Byron Herbert Reece.]

c2003 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Oct. 30, 2003 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

The Life and Times of Dr. Mauney Douglas Collins – Part 5

Major Contributions as Georgia’s Superintendent of Schools

Dr. Mauney Douglas Collins (1885-1967)25 years Georgia's Superintendent of Schools, 1933-1958

From the hills of Choestoe to the capitol in Atlanta--the journey had been arduous but focused. Dr. Mauney Douglas Collins was sworn in as Georgia’s Superintendent of Schools on January 11, 1933. His tenure in that office extended over a quarter of a century until his retirement ended an auspicious career on January 13, 1958. Following his retirement, he was named Superintendent Emeritus, a position he retired from on July 31, 1963.

His retirement at age 73 highlighted a distinguished career that spanned fifty-six years as an educator, from a one-teacher school at Old Liberty in Union County at a salary of $22.50 per month to the highest educational office in the state.

One of his favorite expressions in his tenure as superintendent was, “We deliver the goods, express charges prepaid.” He had Georgia’s children and teachers at heart, with grass-roots knowledge of how education could work for the best good to the most people. Some of his favorite expressions have often been quoted:

“Georgia has sometimes missed a crop of cotton, but has never missed a crop of children.”

“Education does not cost; it pays.”

“Everybody is somebody.”

“A teacher can only teach two things: What he is and what he knows.”

To encourage those who often sought him out in the state’s highest educational office with what seemed to them mammoth problems, “Doc” Collins would send them away with his characteristic smile and “Attaboy! You can do it!” ringing in their ears.

Speech writers were often concerned that he read their painstaking research, tucked the manuscript into his pocket, and went onto a podium to make a speech, filling it with his own home-spun philosophy that often ended with his favorite comparison of two things of like nature going together “like grits and gravy.” Some of these were: education and the community; teachers and pupils; hope and determination.

His favorite themes were expressed in his speeches:

“We must have equal educational opportunities for all the children of all the people.”

“I had rather pay the bill at the schoolhouse than at the jailhouse.”

He entered his job as state school superintendent the year Franklin Delano Roosevelt became president and Eugene Talmadge was governor of Georgia. As the nation and Georgia were coming out of the Great Depression, could he fulfill his campaign promises? Achievements during his quarter century tenure are proof that he delivered the goods for educational advancement.

From 1933 through 1958, he led Georgia to adopt the Minimum Foundation Program for Education; free textbooks for all public school students; school, public and regional library services; bus transportation; surplus commodities; state teacher salary scheduled increases; school lunch programs; expanded vocational education; establishment of regional technical schools at Clarkesville and Americus; vocational rehabilitation programs; twelfth grade added to high school; curriculum expansion; school terms extended from three months to nine months; Georgia Teacher Retirement System (TRS); state employees’ retirement system; state merit system; high school equivalency program for veterans and other adults (GED test for high school diploma); a $200 million school buildings program; and a state audio-visual library with the largest educational film loan system to schools of any state in the nation.

Georgia’s education budget rose from $6 million allocated in 1933 to over $140 million in 1958. One of his favorite platforms was teacher salary increases. He loved to tell the story about a teacher who went to the bank shortly after the Depression to deposit some money from her meager salary. As she counted out the bills, she would lick her finger and lift the next dollar. The bank clerk asked her if she were not afraid she’d get germs from the bills. “Not on your life,” was her reply. “Not even germs could live on my salary!”

As he pushed for teacher salary increases, he also encouraged teachers to get better training for their jobs and initiated a stricter teacher certification program for Georgia educators. In a Reader’s Digest article in February, 1947, “How Georgia Teachers Got a Raise,” he was lauded for asking for a 50% teacher salary increase for 1948.

One perilous hurdle for Georgia education was desegregation. “Equal but separate” was no longer adequate education. Dr. Collins defied state political leaders in 1954 as he openly opposed the “private school” amendment, stating that it would seriously undermine and eventually destroy Georgia’s public education system.

In higher education, he was one of the founders of West Georgia College (now West Georgia State University) at Carrollton. He served as a trustee of Mercer, Oglethorpe and Bob Jones Universities, each of which conferred upon him, a distinguished alumnus, honorary degrees. He brought the Cave Spring School for the Deaf under the administration of the Georgia Department of Education. He was a member of several professional organizations, and served on the Board of Directors of the National Education Association from 1934 through 1957.

He died March 9, 1967 at age 81. He was interred at Westview Cemetery, Atlanta.

Dr. Mauney Douglas Collins exemplified in his life and service the spirit of individualism, self-discipline, hard work and ambition. These are often characteristics of persons reared in adverse circumstances and determined to achieve. He was mountain-bred and people-oriented. He left a rich legacy from which Georgians are still benefiting today. Indeed he was a noble mountain man, a person of vision, fidelity and attainment.

c2003 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published October 23, 2003 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

The Life and Times of Dr. Mauney Douglas Collins – Part 4

Continuing the story of a Choestoe lad who, despite grave circumstances, received a good education and became Georgia’s state superintendent of schools for twenty-five years, this segment of his biography views briefly his marriage, work as an editor and as an administrator.
Mary Louise Jackson Collins was mother of Mauney Douglas Collins and six other children. This valiant widow reared her large family and saw that each of them received the best education possible for the era in which they lived. Norman Vester became a medical doctor. Mauney Douglas earned his PhD and became state superintendent of schools. Nina Idaho Dyer was a homemaker who reared four children who were outstanding teachers. Laura Collins Shuler was a teacher and poet. Kate Collins Reed was a teacher for awhile and a homemaker who reared a son who became a doctor. Son Jean Benjamin had a 50-year career with the Southern Railroad. Dora Dorothy Collins Sims became a teacher, a poet, and married a banker.

About 1910, Mary Louise Jackson Collins, M. D.’s mother, sold most of her property at Choestoe and moved to Broxton, Georgia, where her son, Mauney Douglas, was teaching and preaching. She became his housekeeper. The move also provided better educational advantages for three of her children still at home: Callie Kate, Dora Dorothy and Jean Benjamin. This arrangement continued until after M. D.’s marriage, after which Mary Collins relocated to Flowery Branch.

Mauney Douglas Collins married Winnie Byrd on December 31, 1911. She died on November 22, 1912. Their only daughter, Fannie, died in infancy.

Mauney Douglas Collins and his wife, Mary Jeanette Cochran Collins

His second marriage was to Mary Jeanette Cochran of Palmetto on September 15, 1921. Mary was a graduate of Cox and Shorter Colleges. Their marriage ceremony was performed by Dr. Fernando C. McConnell, noted Baptist preacher and first cousin to Dr. George W. Truett. Dr. McConnell’s father, W. R., had helped the young M. D. Collins while he struggled financially to finish Hiawassee Academy years before. The union with Mary was a happy one, continuing until her death in 1958. They had no children.

Ever versatile and involved, M. D. Collins wrote for the Union County paper before leaving Choestoe. Later he was editor of The Campbell County News (1926-1930) in Fairburn and concurrently The Fairburn Messenger for five years (1926-1930). He was also a reporter for The Atlanta Journal for a short while.

One of the incidents he liked to recall as a Baptist preacher was performing the marriage ceremonies for eight couples in one day, Christmas Eve, 1927. This was a noteworthy event that caught the attention of Margared Mitchell (who later became author of the famed Gone with the Wind). She was then a reporter for The Atlanta Journal and wrote an article about “The Marrying Parson”. Most of the couples he married that day had been his students in high school.

Continuing as pastor of the Friendship Baptist Church in Fairburn, he also expanded his work in education. From teaching, he went into school administration, first as a principal and then as superintendent of schools. In 1927, when he was superintendent of Campbell County Schools, he took a firm stand against a gambling and dog-racing syndicate. Others in the community, when asked to sign an injunction, backed down, but not Dr. Collins. His signature alone withheld operations. He won the case in both Superior and Supreme Court where records label the case “M. D. Collins vs. St. Louis Dog Racing Company.” His astute sense of morality could not propose a high value system for Georgia’s youth and condone a means of revenue coming from a syndicate with questionable activities.

From 1921 through 1932 he was superintendent of Campbell County Schools. When Campbell was merged with Fulton County in 1932, a merger Dr. Collins favored, his job then became that of an educational supervisor in the Fulton County School System.

His political career began in earnest as he sought the office of state superintendent of schools. Conducting a “grass roots” campaign for this highest state educational office, he promised the people of Georgia improved schools, better trained teachers, salary increases for teachers, and more money for education. He had confidence that he could fulfill his campaign promises. He was elected in 1932 and took office as state superintendent of schools in January, 1933.

Perhaps he did not dream when he began his duties as superintendent that he would lead for twenty-five years, a period of vast changes and improvements in education in Georgia. The next segment of this biographical sketch will give some of the major milestones in his quarter of a century as superintendent at the helm of Georgia education.

[Next week: Concluding installment of the Life and Times of Dr. Mauney Douglas Collins]

c2003 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published October 16, 2003 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 9, 2003

The Life and Times of Dr. Mauney Douglas Collins – Part 3

For four years, from July 1902 through 1906, young Mauney Douglas Collins taught at Old Liberty School in Union County for short five-month terms. He often had as many as eighty students in seven grades.

Among his students were his own brothers, sisters and cousins, and persons who became notable in Georgia. One student who later distinguished himself was William Henry Duckworth who served as Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court.

In 1906 M. D. Collins began what is probably a record for a teacher. He taught three terms at three different schools in three counties in Georgia in the same fiscal year. On July 23, 1906, he began a five-month term at Mountain Scene School in Towns County, finishing that contract just before Christmas. At Sugar Hill School, Gwinnett County, he taught two months. Then he moved on to Oakwood in Hall County to teach a five-month term. By teaching on Saturdays as well as week-days, he was able to clock up what amounted to thirteen months (that is, 13 school months of twenty-days per month). He was not dismissed from either school, but as procedures were then in one-teacher schools, he followed the terms set by the local patrons and the availability of the teacher. During that phenomenal year, he turned twenty-one years old.

One day back home in Choestoe, M. D. Collins was taking a “turn” of corn to Souther’s Mill to be ground into cornmeal. He passed by the Twiggs residence where, the year his father died in 1897, the highly respected Rev. John Twiggs had come out to the road to talk to him. At the time of the conversation, Collins was a lad of eleven. But in 1907, on the same road and on a similar errand to the mill, he recalled with clarity what the Rev. Twiggs had said to him: “Apply yourself and work diligently. Remember always that it is not luck but pluck that counts, and that both inspiration and perspiration are necessary for success.”

He pastored several churches in Georgia while also teaching school. In this photograph he is pictured with some of his young church members whom he had also taught in school.

At the age of twenty-four, Collins recalled every word of that conversation with the Rev. Twiggs. Having felt the call to the gospel ministry, Collins was ordained by Old Liberty Baptist Church in 1909. Thus he began another career as a preacher and pastor while continuing to teach school.

In 1908 he returned to Hiawassee Academy and completed requirements for graduation. He entered Mercer University in the fall of 1908 where he hoped to pursue studies for a Bachelor of Arts degree and a ministerial course of study. However, his brother, Norman Vester, was a student at Atlanta College of Physicians and Surgeons. Knowing that his mother was having a very hard time financially trying to keep two sons in college, and with other children in school, M. D. dropped out of Mercer and again became a teacher, helping his mother and siblings.

The roster of places that employed him as lead teacher sounds like a geography of north and central Georgia: Fish, Broxton, Oakwood, Harmony Grove, Loganville, Social Circle, Fairburn, Union City.

While teaching, he was also gaining additional college education by going to a semester or summer session. Among the colleges he attended were Young Harris, Mercer University, Columbia University, and Oglethorpe University. From Oglethorpe he earned three degrees: Bachelor of Arts in 1931, Master of Arts in 1932, and Doctor of Pedagogy in 1933.

Running concurrently with his teaching career and his college education was his work as a Baptist pastor and evangelist. He favored country churches and pastored several. In 1924 and 1925, the churches he pastored held the statistical record in the Georgia Baptist Convention in number of baptisms. He was pastor of Mount Olive Church near Fairburn. In October, 1930, he became pastor of the New Hope Church in Old Campbell County.

Before the term “Church Planter” came into usage, he was starting new churches and helped to found thirteen churches. His last pastorate was the Friendship Baptist Church in Fairburn where he was the minister for thirty-three years. Upon his retirement from the church, he was made Pastor Emeritus.

His work in education was conducted concurrently with his pastoral duties. He became known as “the marrying preacher.” Many of the young people he taught wanted him to perform their marriage ceremonies. They were assured of a strong counseling session on the seriousness of marriage and family and then he “tied the knot” for them.

[Next week: More on the distinguished career of Dr. M. D. Collins.]

c2003 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published October 9, 2003 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 2, 2003

The Life and Times of Dr. Mauney Douglas Collins – Part 2

Front row, left to right: Dora Collins, Mary Louise Jackson Collins, Jean Benjamin Collins (holding dogs, Tip and Tige); Albert Dyer (Mary's son-in-law); on Albert's lap, Watson Benjamin Dyer (Mary's first grandchild) Second row, left to right: Mauney Douglas Collins; Norman Vester Collins; Laura Collins; Callie Kate Collins; and Nina Collins Dyer. In this family portrait, Mary Collins was holding the family Bible. The children are holding ceramic objects they wanted to display. Some are "a hen and chicks," an indication that they had survived a chicken pox epidemic.

Death by typhoid fever had claimed the life of Mauney Douglas Collins’ father, Archibald Benjamin, on April 4, 1897. Being the eldest boy in the family at age eleven (his older brother, Francis Arthur, had died as a one-year old), and his mother, Mary Louise Jackson Collins having seven children to raise, the young M. D. (as he was called) buckled down to responsibility and hard work. Some would say these hardships made a man of him. An examination of his subsequent life shows that, indeed, he did become a man—and an outstanding one at that.

Herself recovering from typhoid and the birth of Dorothy Dora one month earlier, Mary Jackson Collins faced her grief in a weakened condition. But with sheer determination she assessed her possibilities.

First under consideration were the two country stores her husband Ben owned, one at their home in Choestoe and one at the Coosa Gold Mines. With no one to take over the management, go to Gainesville for supplies, and tend the stores—combined with the deficits of thousands of dollars “on the books” which she could not collect from debtors, Mary Collins decided to close out both the stores. She then concentrated on the farm and livestock. Her frugality, hard work and good management kept the large family from starvation.

In each of her children, and especially in Mauney Douglas, there came both from precept and example a strong sense of work ethic and responsibility. Mauney plowed the fields, planted crops, cultivated them and reaped a bountiful harvest, enough to keep the family going from year to year.

Education was a very high priority with Mary Collins. All of her children finished grammar school at Old Liberty, mainly under the tutelage of her brother, Thomas K. Jackson, a good teacher. As they finished seventh grade, she began to seek ways to educate them further.

When M. D. finished Old Liberty School, Mary Collins went with him by wagon to Hiawassee, Georgia to the Hiawassee Baptist Academy, a school founded in 1886 by Dr. George W. Truett, noted Baptist leader who had been born in nearby Hayesville, NC.

At Hiawassee, Mrs. Collins rented a small house. They took provisions from home for M. D. to live on at that small cabin near the school. At the time the young Choestoean entered Hiawassee Academy, tuition was $1.10 and rent on the cabin was fifty cents per month. Students had to purchase their textbooks, provide their furnishings, fuel and food. It was twenty miles over a rough mountain road by way of Brasstown from Choestoe to Hiawassee.

M. D.’s first roommate at Hiawassee Academy was another Choestoe lad, Jack Lance, who would in the future himself become a noted educator and president of Young Harris College. The boys got along well as they “batched” in the small cabin, doing their own cooking and studying by the light of an oil lamp. Trips back to their respective farm homes in Choestoe replenished their supplies of food. They did not live in luxury by any means, but they got by. And both did extremely well academically.

M. D. Collins had $14 in cash in his pocket when he went to Hiawassee Academy. Somehow, he made it stretch over five months of his first term there.

His first teachers at the academy were the president, Professor A. B. Greene; Mr. Leonard Kimsey; and Mr. Frank Lloyd. Through those excellent teachers, M. D. was introduced to the classics of Latin, Greek, the world’s great literature, and “higher” mathematics, social and physical sciences, and archaeology.

He distinguished himself both in academics and in the debate society. At the end of his first five-month term, his business acumen had been so frugal as to allow him to purchase at Berrong’s Dry Goods Store his first “store-bought” suit for $2.75. His new suit was striking, with pin stripes. He completed his ensemble with tie and a dress shirt with a celluloid collar. Up to that time, his dress suits had been made by his mother from cloth woven at her home loom from wool gathered from their own sheep.

In the summer of 1902, Mauney Douglas Collins began his own teaching career back at Choestoe at Old Liberty School from which he had graduated seventh grade. His uncle, Tom Jackson, was still the teacher there. That summer, a record of over 100 pupils were enrolled. Mr. Jackson needed help so he enlisted his nephew as the second teacher.

M. D. Collins was seventeen when he began teaching at Old Liberty. He kept this job for four years. His beginning salary was $22.50 per month, $112.50 annually for a five-month term of school. He taught in the summer when crops were “laid by,” and again in the winter months.

Spring terms, he again attended Hiawassee Academy, continuing his own education. When he was home at Choestoe, he helped his mother with farm tasks. Life was hard, but the family had plenty to eat and Mary Jackson was a good manager. She and her children kept lofty goals as a major priority. Propelled by his drive to learn and to achieve, much lay ahead for M. D. Collins, intelligent and aspiring lad.

[Next week: The Life and Times of Dr. M. D. Collins will continue.]

c2003 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published October 2, 2003 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.