Thursday, February 23, 2006

Through mountains mists a light in the mountains Truett McConnell College, 1946-2006 Holding Forth The Flame of Knowledge For Six Decades

Last week’s column focused on the new four- year program, the Dora Hunter Allison Spiva School of Education at Truett McConnell College, Cleveland, Georgia named to honor a worthy Union County citizen and long-time educator, Mrs. Dora Spiva. The college is celebrating sixty years of continuous operation during 2006. Were there precursors to the present college? How did it all begin? Go back with me as we trace a history of this Christian institution,“A Light in the Mountains.

Looking Back

Where did the spark begin that grew into the steady light of learning produced for sixty years by Truett McConnell College? The spark, as old as humankind’s desire to learn, was passed from one generation to another, with each advancing the flame of knowledge and adding to the corpus of learning of preceding generations. Dates, places and people can be identified as igniting the particular light in the mountains that has become Truett McConnell College, now advancing to a four-year status.

Hiawassee Academy/Hiawassee Junior College, 1886-1930, and Mountain Preachers’ Schools, held for a week in the summers in certain mountain counties had great influence in starting schools. Imagine this preachers’ school in the summer of 1886 held in Hiawassee, Towns County, Georgia.

Rev. Fernando Coello McConnell a young preacher, stood on the steps of the Towns County Court House and preached an impassioned sermon. No one threatened to arrest him for using a public building for a religious message. Preachers and citizens hearing him caught his vision of a Christian school. Rev. McConnell, who had the support and financial backing (though money was limited) of his father, merchant-farmer-businessman, William Ross McConnell, proceeded to start a mountain school.

Rev. McConnell’s first cousin, George Washington Truett of nearby Hayesville, North Carolina, had just finished Hicksville (also called Hayesville) Academy. Truett was teaching at the Crooked Creek School near Hiawassee. Rev. McConnell engaged his cousin to be the first principal and teacher of the Hiawassee Academy. They secured a place to meet. It opened its doors to students on January 1, 1887. Students boarded with citizens of the town or found small cabins to rent at a reasonable rate and cooked their own meals (this was called “batching”). Rev. McConnell did not teach at the Academy, but his encouragement and his family’s support were key factors in the school’s success.

By the end of the first two years, when Truett and McConnell left the operation of Hiawassee Academy to pursue their ministry careers in other areas, the enrollment had grown to 300. Its reputation for solid education in academics and Christian education was widespread. The Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention gave support to Hiawassee Academy as one of its “Mountain Schools.” Notable persons from the North Georgia region trained there and went forth to be teachers, ministers, lawyers and businessmen. Among these notables was Dr. Mauney Douglas Collins of Union County, Georgia who was, for twenty-five years, Georgia State Superintendent of Schools.

Several factors brought the Hiawassee school to an end in 1930. One was obviously the Great Depression. Another was the gradual opening of public schools making high school training more accessible. The third and most unfortunate incident causing the closure of Hiawassee Academy was the embezzlement of funds at the Home Mission Board, which precluded financial aid for Mountain Schools.

Blairsville Collegiate Institute, Another Mountain School

Not as old as Hiawassee Academy, Blairsville Collegiate Institute operated in Blairsville, Union County, from 1904 through the end of the spring semester in 1930.

Past columns have given highlights in the history of this school sponsored by Notla River Baptist Association and the Home Mission Board. Miss Dora Anne Hunter, whom the present Truett McConnell is honoring, graduated from the Institute and taught there before it closed. She had the good academic training and the “normal school” preparation of teachers at the Collegiate Institute to qualify her as a teacher. She continued her education at Young Harris College, and later at the University of Georgia. The Blairsville Collegiate Institute basically had the same three reasons for closing as experienced by the Hiawassee Academy.

The question of a mountain Christian School lay dormant for more than fifteen years. Could the flame be renewed?
(To be continued next week.)

c2006 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Feb. 23, 2006 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Mrs. Dora Allison Hunter Spiva Honored

Mention the name of “Mrs. Dora” and many in Union County and throughout the North Georgia area know who she is: the beautiful, alert, retired teacher who worked for over forty years as an educator, the centenarian who enjoyed her 101st birthday on February 5.

This is a special “Happy Valentine’s Day” and “Happy Birthday” tribute all rolled into one for a noble teacher who was a major influence in my high school years and throughout my life.

A significant honor and well-deserved recognition was announced publicly on February 11, 2006 at a grand luncheon at Choestoe Baptist Church sponsored by Truett McConnell College of Cleveland, Georgia. The previous two-year college, now transitioning to a four-year program, has been approved by accrediting agencies to offer a four-year degree in education. The name chosen for the newly-confirmed division of the college is the Dora Hunter Allison Spiva School of Education. So as not to be such a long-drawn-out name, it may be shortened to the Dora Spiva education program. However, to those of us who have known and loved her as Mrs. Dora Allison and Mrs. Dora Spiva, we like the full name, giving her maiden name of Hunter, her first married name to the long-time ordinary of Union County, Frank Allison (1901-1969), and to her more recent (1974) marriage to her “childhood sweetheart” Daniel Spiva (1900-1985) after both lost their first spouses to death.

The event at Choestoe Church’s commodious new Family Life Center was held despite snow flurries and predictions of foul weather. Some braved four inches or more of snow in their respective locations to attend the “Dora Spiva Celebration.” Over 150 guests had made reservations to attend; some let the threat of snow hinder the travel. But still a wonderful and joyous crowd was there to enjoy the tributes to Mrs. Dora and the announcement of the School of Education to be named for her.

Pastor Dick Stillwell of Choestoe Church welcomed the guests and gave accolades to “faithful member” “Aunt Dora” who braves the elements still to be a regular attendee and participant in the services at Choestoe Church.

Her membership in and work at the church span more than nine decades, for there she has been a teacher. She helped to found Woman’s Missionary Union in 1929, and became a leader of this women’s organization in church, Notla River Association, and Georgia Baptist Woman’s Missionary Union as a divisional vice-president. She served as Superintendent of the Sunday School in a time when women were not usually elected to major leadership positions in a local church.

From Truett McConnell College were president Dr. Jerry W. Pounds, Sr. and his wife, Bayne; Dr. Sam Cash, Vice-President for Advancement Services; Dr. Susan Gannaway, Professor of Education who wrote the proposal for the four-year degree program approved by accrediting agencies; Dr. DeWitt Cox (and his wife Edna), special consultant for the campaign to raise funds for the Spiva School of Education; Ms. Edna Holcomb, now associate with Dr. Cash in the Office of Advancement as Dean of Institutional Support and long-time professor at the college; the Vice-President of Academic Studies; music professor Ms. Kathy Duren; students Rachel Bailey and Michael Bailey who sang; and student Brett Carson who rendered background piano music during the luncheon. Others from the college were present for the luncheon, with food provided by the ARAMark Food Service which also manages the cafeteria on campus.

The Blairsville Garden Club of which Mrs. Dora was a founding member made lovely arrangements not only for the speakers’ table but for each of the round tables where guests enjoyed a delightful meal, good conversation, and the program that honored “Aunt Dora.” Everywhere one looked were smiling faces, savoring the atmosphere and reveling in the association with one whom they loved and honored.

Representative Charles Jenkins of the Georgia Legislature, a student of “Aunt Dora,” Class of 1947, was present to present the Georgia House Resolution in her honor. However, the framed bill did not arrived due to the snow, because Representative Terry Johnson did not hazard mountain roads to be present.

There were light and serious moments interspersed as testimonies to Mrs. Dora’s influence came from County School Superintendent, Tommy Stephens. He said he was never known for his acumen in Mrs. Dora’s math classes as a high school student and it took a stint in the military and Truett McConnell College (he is an alumnus) to set him on the right course, as well as remembering Mrs. Dora’s sound advice when he “liked sports better than studies” in high school. Mr. Stephens lauded the integrity of Union County Schools, past and present, due to dedicated teachers. He is excited about the new School of Education which will train Christian teachers for future jobs in the county.

From her niece, Dr. Austine Hunter Wallis, an outstanding math educator, counselor, administrator and in “Who’s Who Among America”s Teachers” came funny stories about how the then near-centenarian, her real Aunt Dora and Austine’s Uncle Roscoe Collins could out-do her on trips to California and elsewhere. She said, in tribute, “My Aunt Dora inspired me to become a teacher.”

From Dr. Paul Abernathy, former student, came accolades of how Mrs. Dora inspired him to buckle down, study, seek higher education. For twenty-seven years he was on the science faculty of Purdue University.

Clyde Collins, retired educator and principal, gave a tongue-in-cheek report of how sometimes Mrs. Dora was late to first period Algebra class when he was her student, and he, therefore, just got “half a class of Algebra II.” But, before Mrs. Dora retired, he was her principal at Union County High School, and he could then tell her she must be on time, that punctuality is one of the sure marks of greatness.

In addition to Dr. Pounds, Dr. Cash, Dr. Gannaway, and Dr. Cox of the college, those on the Dora Spiva Campaign Steering Committee are Ethelene Dyer Jones (Union native now living in Milledgeville, or “yours truly”) Honorary Chair; and from Blairsville, Rev. Troy Acree, Mr. Clyde Collins, Mrs. Janet Hill, Representative Charles Jenkins, and Rev. Charles (Dick) Stillwell, and from Cleveland, GA, Rev. Doug Merck. We have a large challenge before us: Raising $1.1 million dollars to endow the newly-formed Dora Hunter Alllison Spiva School of Education at Truett McConnell College. If any of you reading this would like to show your own love and appreciation for this outstanding teacher who touched your life, you may send contributions to Truett McConnell College, Office of Institutional Advancement, 100 Alumni Drive, Cleveland, GA 30528. A million dollars is reached by small gifts and large gifts, donations of love to one who has made a difference in our lives and whose influence will continue to touch many lives in the future.

c2006 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Feb. 16, 2006 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 9, 2006

Zenobia Addington Chastain, Teacher

Two weeks ago I promised a continuation of the life and work of Zenobia Addington Chastain, daughter of March and Sarah Moore Addington of Union County who married Oscar Fitzallen Chastain on December 18, 1872.

I felt it timely to write last week about the Byron Herbert Reece Cultural Center and the grant received to assist with the work there. Today, I continue with the life and work of Mrs.Chastain, outstanding teacher, and her husband.

The work begun in the Academy founded by Zenobia Addington in Morganton, GA, was to continue. Even in those days the quality and extent of the Academy’s outreach enabled a grant from the Peabody Foundation and for a time it received funding and was known as a Peabody School.

Following her husband’s ordination to the gospel ministry on May 17, 1884, the couple’s interests continued in “Zenobia’s Academy,” but began also to take another turn. Rev. Oscar Chastain was one of the founders of the Morganton Baptist Association, and the group of churches assumed leadership of a high school already organized but needing some help in Mineral Bluff, GA.

Then, in 1899, the association voted to found the North Georgia Baptist College in Morganton. Unbelievably, the school opened in the fall of the same year. In its 26 year history, from 1899 through graduation of 1925 (when it closed, with buildings and grounds deeded to the Fannin County Board of education) the school offered classes from first grade through two years of college, with an outstanding “normal school” for training teachers. It was a natural transition that the already established “Zenobia’s Academy” could be absorbed into the new school. Classes were held in the old Fannin County Court House at Morganton as the county seat had moved to Blue Ridge in 1895.

Zenobia Chastain continued as a teacher there, with her husband a strong supporter, business manager and chairman of the Board of Trustees. At one time, the couple mortgaged their own house and land in order to provide necessary income to keep the college open. In 1906 the North Georgia Baptist College was named one of “The Mountain Schools” of the Home Mission Board. Funds were received for a new administration/classroom building, and later for a dormitory. A companion “Mountain School” was operating in Blairsville from 1904-1930 as the Blairsville Collegiate Institute.

Zenobia and Oscar Chastain opened their home for relatives and others who needed a boarding place so they could attend the North Georgia Baptist College. The couple had three children of their own, daughters Mariam E., Mary E. and Nettie A. The girls were listed as ages five, three and one in the 1880 census. The daughters preceded their parents in death. Two married, and evidently died in childbirth or shortly thereafter.

It has been said of Zenobia Addington Chastain that she was the “educational mother of the mountain area.” In a time when women’s work was mainly as a homemaker and helpmeet to her husband, she was establishing and maintaining an academy and later supporting and teaching at a college that touched countless lives. Records show that graduates of both Zenobia’s Academy and the North Georgia Baptist College went out to be teachers, lawyers, businessmen, ministers, doctors and nurses, all giving credit to an industrious and visionary mountain woman who worked hard to help them attain their goals.

This noble lady, born in Union County but spending productive years in education in Fannin County, did not deviate from what she considered her mission and calling. Her husband, the Rev. Oscar Fitzallen Chastain, died in 1906 at age 62 and Zenobia died in 1907 at age 60. They were buried near the graves of their daughters at the Morganton Baptist Church Cemetery, not far from the site of what had been “Zenobia’s Academy” and of the North Georgia Baptist College. The epitaph on the joint tombstone for Rev. and Mrs. Chastain reads: “They loved God and their fellowman.”

Zenobia and her husband had a vision and worked to make it a reality. Indeed theirs were noble lives, nobly lived.

c2006 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Feb. 9, 2006 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Thursday, February 2, 2006

Byron Herbert Reece Interpretive Center receives boost

Those of us who are avid Byron Herbert Reece fans and who appreciate his poetry and prose were elated over the recent grant of $671,072 to be used in development of the Byron Herbert Reece Interpretive Center on the farm about a mile north of Vogel State Park.

For one who struggled both as a farmer and as a writer, the amount, no doubt, would have seemed magnanimous to the humble poet. To make use of the grant from the Department of Transportation Enhancement Funds, money on the local level amounting to 20 percent of the allocated grant must be raised. The Byron Herbert Reece Society is in the process of achieving that goal. Members are confident that people will contribute so that a beautiful center at the former Reece farm along Wolf Creek just off highway 129 South will become a reality.

Thanks to those who worked hard to secure the grant. Reid Dyer and Joy Still representing Hayes, James and Associates assisted with writing the grant proposal. President of the Byron Herbert Reece Society, Dr. John Kay, has exerted time, effort and enthusiasm to the task.

Thanks are due Senator Chip Pearson and Representative Charles Jenkins for their interest in and advocacy of the project. Those from the Georgia Department of Transportation supported the application for the grant and seemed happy that Union County received the money to apply to the Reece Center. These were Harold Linnenkohl, DOT Commissioner, DOT Board member Bill Kuhlke Jr. and DOT Deputy Director Larry Dent. Members of the Byron Herbert Reece Society Executive Board which include Union County Commissioner Lamar Paris, Fleming Weaver of the Forest Service and Ben Hulsey were likewise elated over receipt of the grant.

I can envision the future when the Reece Interpretive Center is completed. Visitors can go there to walk the quiet trails along Wolf Creek and experience some of the ambience Reece himself enjoyed in the invigorating atmosphere of mountains, streams, sky and land, commodities held dear in the mountain farmer’s heart. Perhaps inspiration akin to that Reece had when he wrote his poems will happen again to a promising bard.

I thought of a mutual friend of mine and Reece’s, Mrs. Marel Brown, a Georgia poet and writer. I met Marel Brown through the Georgia Poetry Society of which we were both members. We became good friends. One of the links we had in common was our acquaintance with Poet Byron Herbert Reece. In 1979 Mrs. Brown published a book entitled Presenting Georgia Poets. One of the chapters was about Byron Herbert Reece.

Mrs. Brown tells about meeting Mr. Reece first in July 1940. She was spending a week at Vogel State Park because she had won first place in the Georgia State Parks Poetry Contest for her poem, Sonnet to Indian Springs Park. The reward was a week’s lodging at the state park of her choice. She chose Vogel because she had been told that Byron Herbert Reece lived “about a mile north” of that park. She wanted to meet him because she had read with great interest his poem, His Eye Is on the Sparrow published in the North Georgia Review.

Without a phone at the Reece house for her to make an appointment to see him, she drove from Vogel to the farm. There she met first Mrs. Emma Reece, the poet’s mother.

Mrs. Reece was delighted that another poet had sought out her son, and urged Brown to wait until her son and his father Juan would be in from the fields.

Mrs. Brown writes: “The first time I saw Byron Herbert Reece he was coming over the top of a hill, walking home from an afternoon of farm work on the far side of the ridge. Even silhouetted against the brown earth as he and his father made their way down the furrowed land, I could see he was a tall, slender young man. His pace was the slow, careful gait of the farmer who knows how to walk steady in uneven, plowed ground. He reached the almost level barn lot and approached, a question in his dark eyes.” (p. 60)

From that meeting in July of 1940 until the poet’s untimely death in 1958, Marel Brown and Byron Herbert Reece were steadfast friends. With her connections in literary circles in Atlanta, she engineered several invitations for him to read his poetry publicly with the Atlanta Writer’s Club, at the Druid Hills Baptist Church in “A Night with the Poets,” and at other venues. She tells in her brief biography of Reece how adverse at first he was to reading his own poetry, and even asked her to read for him. She encouraged him, and saw a marked improvement over the years from a shy, almost apologetic reading of his poetry to a voice that undulated with the movement and power of his poems.

With poetry in her prose account of Reece, Mrs. Brown wrote: “To me the pattern of Reece poems reveals the wise farmer in him; he guided his plow against the lay of the land, always. Where the furrows should hug the curve of the hill, they hugged; where the contour changed, his furrows swerved to the natural heave and dip of the uneven soil of what he called ‘God’s Country.’ His variation of rhythm was always in conformity to the underlying substance— never any conscious effort to be bizarre or different. His are true lines, in true rhythms, against the uneven hills of life as he knew it.” (pp. 65-66).

As a member of the Byron Herbert Reece Society, I am excited to think that many can learn more about the mountain farmer Mrs. Marel Brown met that late afternoon in July 1940. It will be good to have a place to visit where he worked the land and experienced the creativity that came from his brilliant mind to produce masterful poetry and prose. Marel Brown ended her chapter on Reece with these words: “Time will surely assay the inevitable truth: Byron Herbert Reece was a farmer first, but a poet always.” (p. 69).

(Note: If you can find a copy of Marel Brown’s book, Presenting Georgia Poets, in a library near you, I recommend that you read it. You will enjoy her keen insight into this mountain farmer/poet whom she called her friend. While you’re looking for her book on Georgia Poets, you might like to check on some of her own books. She wrote nine. A collection of her most noted poems is entitled The Shape of a Song.)

c2006 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Feb. 2, 2006 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.