Editor’s note: Tom York wrote the following story after attending the 1964, 65’ and 66’ class reunion held in Harlan over the summer. York was an elementary and middle school student in Harlan’s independent system from 1957 through late 1962, when he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. If he stayed in Harlan, he would have graduated with the class of 1966, so he has always had a soft spot for his friends who made up that class. York’s years spent in Harlan were wonderful ones. It was a special time in a special era, the 1950s and very early 1960s.
It took a village to raise this child.
Tucked in a file of my desktop PC, I’ve squirreled away a digital copy of a late 1940s postcard of a small town nestled in the heart of Appalachia.
The postcard, depicting a winter night, captures windows aglow with bright incandescent lights and rooftops covered with a thin layer of white snow. The moon beams down, throwing a blue cast on this village.
It beckons back to another time, another place, when the world, at least my world, was a much more innocent place.
The place was Harlan, Kentucky, and the time was the late 1950s and the very early 1960s.
Through circumstances too complicated to explain in a short amount of space, my mom and I, just 7 years old, lived in this magical town from December 1955 to November 1962.
We arrived just a few months after my father had a fatal heart attack in late summer in Cincinnati, leaving us stranded in a world of shock and disbelief, not to mention much uncertainty.
But this Appalachian village basking in the moon’s night light helped ease that shock and disbelief and helped give me direction and form that have served me well for more than the past five decades as an adult.
The good citizens of Harlan, kind and loving, each in his or her small way, took on the responsibility of guiding this child toward his manifest destiny.
Many memories remain of the many instances of generosity of time and occasional money on the part of the village elders, especially the town’s educators, who were so influential.
They include Mrs. Bach, my fourth-grade teacher, who on several occasions invited me to her home, where she and her husband showered me with encouragement.
The kindness continued with the ebullient Mrs. Looney, my sixth-grade teacher, who gave me one of the happiest moments of 1959 when she appointed me to help run the class movie projector.
Then came David Davies, my seventh-grade English teacher, who remarkably remains active in the classrooms to this day. He encouraged me to study more, especially the good writers like Mark Twain, and hang out less on the streets of Harlan, advice which I took to heart. It was he who gave me the idea that I might someday attend college.
Mrs. Rice, my middle school science teacher, was so calm and professional, always teaching from her desk, never from the blackboard. And Mrs. Whitcomb, my eighth-grade English teacher, who had us diagramming and parsing sentences the entire school year. It proved to be an excellent background for a career in journalism.
I’ll never forget Mrs. Scott, my seventh-grade math teacher. I was one of the class clowns who couldn’t keep quiet, so one day she Scotch-taped my mouth to bring a little order to her classroom. I recall looking out into the class and seeing Sandy Roark Miller giggling like crazy along with the rest of the class. Even Mrs. Scott managed a chuckle or two.
Still other educators who had such a big influence include Mrs. Robinette, my articulate but soft-spoken fifth-grade history teacher, who taught with calmness and dignity. And Mrs. Abbuhl, who made us keep a small notepad full of math formulas taught during the school year. I still have it, and still refer to it on occasion, when I need a formula to measure some project.
Ed Minor, my music teacher and band director, set one of the best examples of how a gentleman should behave in a civilized world. I always felt he was an underappreciated professional musician. He disappeared in the summer months to play for famous musicians in Chicago and the West Coast. In early August 1962, he was eager to share a single record from Tony Bennett that was just out. As the record turned, he said that the song would someday be a classic. “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” did indeed become a classic, and little did I know that less than six months later I would explore the city that Bennett crooned about.
By the way, I won’t forget that trip the band took to Chicago in the summer of 1960 so that we could march with the Lions Club down North Michigan Avenue. It was the band trip of a lifetime!
Trips aside, many of the elders outside the classroom provided guiding hands.
Among the most influential was Nola Myers, Sally Myers’ mother. She was a shrewd, smart woman who made her own way in a man’s world years before Betty Friedan had ever thought of the women’s revolution. For a time, she kept me busy mowing the lawn and doing other chores. She was so kind to recognize my plight by letting me work for a little spending money.
Then there was Gene Pressnell, who served as my route supervisor for the three years I delivered the Knoxville News Sentinel. He taught me the value of keeping records and offered insights on where I needed to develop and grow as well.
My best friend in fifth- and sixth-grades was the fabulously talented Little Leaguer Mike Trosper, and it was his dad who set me up with a credit account to buy a new $50 bike for my route when my old one was crushed by a car in front of Mr. Faulkner’s old corner store in Fairview. I had just turned 12 but repaid that loan well before the final installment.
Bill Davies, who ran the grocery store on Main and Clover, emphasized the importance of hard work and a job well done, no matter how distasteful the task. One of the first was to clean out a large cauldron containing the leftovers after rending the fat from the grisly parts of a butchered hog. But he was a true friend, as well as a helpful adult. Mr. Davies sometimes let me tag along on his restocking runs to Knoxville to purchase plants and fresh produce.
Some of the citizenry gained small roles by just being nice. Mona, who worked behind the fountain at Howard’s Drug, always greeted me with a big “Hello” and friendly smile. My favorite was her chicken salad sandwiches. I loved to hang out with an African-American named Herb, who worked as a station attendant at Napier’s Gulf on First across from my apartment building, and hear him tell stories about his role in the bitter Korean War.
In the last year or so in Harlan. I became friendly with Charlie Welch, who was quite the trumpet player in the band and just generally a good-natured guy. Once I got to know him, his parents, Elizabeth and James, stepped in to offer what help and encouragement they could. Elizabeth drove us everywhere to help broaden our world, even to a concert in Pineville one late summer night where professional trumpeter Clyde McCoy gave a great concert. On my last night in that picture-perfect postcard of a town, Mr. Welch called me aside on his front porch and pressed $50 in cash into my hand to help ease my way to my new home in a distant land on the West Coast.
Early Thanksgiving Day 1962, I left Mrs. Tweed’s boarding house, where I had been boarding for several months, made my way briskly along a path between Dr. Burkhardt’s medical office and the Post Office on 1St Street to the Greyhound bus station.
It was time to depart.
I said my goodbyes to a few who came to see me off, including a tearful Emily Ledington, her mother, my aunt and uncle, not to mention a few other kind faces now forgotten in the fog of time. Emily’s mother had become another of Harlan’s residents who were supportive and took an interest in my life.
Soon after I stepped up into the bus, the driver slowly maneuvered up Mound to Main, before heading to Knoxville, and then much farther west.
Three long nights and four long days later, we finally pulled into the station in Oakland, across the Bay from San Francisco.
I was homesick for a few weeks, but that soon faded as I got on with adjusting to my new place in a new world.
One door had closed, another had opened.
Almost 15, I was no longer a boy, not quite a man. The village had raised its child.