In the fall of my senior year at South (Knoxville) High School, I was offered a full scholarship to Berea College, a small liberal arts college in Kentucky.
I didn’t know it at the time, but Berea was founded in 1855 by abolitionists who took their beliefs seriously enough to start the first interracial and coeducational college in the antebellum South. They expanded their mission through the years to offer poor Appalachian kids like me a free college education in exchange for working at the college.
Although my father was proud of my academic accomplishments in school, he made it clear he could not help me with my college education. He was not being unkind, just stating the obvious, since my family’s income was around $7000 in 1975. I knew I needed scholarships to attend school and was especially excited about a full scholarship to Berea where everyone would be a kid of limited-to-no means like me. Coming from a family where Daddy’s father was illiterate and Daddy did not graduate from high school, I was the first person in my family to seek a college education.
Making this whole Kentucky college education dream even more appealing to a naive, hopelessly romantic girl–who had grown up on a steady diet of old-time movie romance–I had met a young man from Kentucky that past summer. His father, the pastor of the Prestonsburg Baptist church, was a close friends of the pastor of our church in Knoxville. In the mid-1970s, Prestonsburg was a small town in Floyd County with one red light–a milestone over which there was great excitement and pride. There was even talk of a second one coming soon.
Our church youth group was invited to Prestonsburg to hold Vacation Bible School classes for the kids of coal-mining families. Just down the road from town, the hollers of nearby Johnson County hadn’t changed much since Loretta Lynn–the world-famous, country music singer-songwriter–grew up there in Van Lear, Ky., 30 years before.
The young preacher’s son, Dell, was kind, attentive, also a rising senior in school, and was such a gentleman when we went to see a movie at the nearest theater in Paintsville. The West Virginia line was just 30 miles or so away. This was coal country where mining families lived in hollers (hollows) that went straight up the mountainsides. I was amazed that their front yards were mud, the houses where not much more than shacks, but there were usually several cars beside them–some on cinderblocks, but some quite pricey. What little money they had went toward wheels, either for bragging rights or perhaps to take you someplace you’d rather be.
My Kentucky gentleman and I wrote each other when I went back home to Tennessee for my senior year. My parents even took me and my sister up to see him play quarterback in a football game that fall. He had been voted Mr. Prestonsburg High, was the quarterback of the football team, and was a Baptist preacher’s son–what more could a young Southern, religious, girl like me want?
I dated no one my senior year, didn’t go to my senior prom–not that it was a terrible hardship since I hadn’t gone to many dances during my years at South. Being considered a “brain” had made me dateless for most of my high school years anyway. Instead I wrote earnest letters and dreamed of a future with such a nice guy as Dell. I must have confided to one of the girls at church about my dreams of going to college in Kentucky and a future with Dell, because she told a friend of hers in Prestonsburg, who mentioned it to Dell, and I received a Dear Jane letter. Perhaps a long-distance relationship was too tenuous to build a future on–or maybe he found someone else.
The breakup with my Kentucky boy friend made attending Berea College seem more like a pipe dream. So when I won a one-year Knoxville PTSA scholarship in an essay-writing contest, I decided to attend the University of Tennessee in my hometown.
Meanwhile life has happened over the last four decades. Busy, busy, busy. I graduated from UT where I worked for 30 years, the majority of those years spent writing for the fund-raising arm of the university. Education had been my ticket to a better life for me and my children, and I felt so fortunate to have earned a spot on the team that was working to ensure that other kid’s educational dreams could come true.
At the university I met an extraordinary man, Kurt, and we married in 1995. Ironically he had earned his undergraduate degree at Transylvania University, a liberal arts college in Lexington, Ky. This year our nephew Zach began work on his master’s degree at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, so last month the planets aligned and we gleefully set out to visit Zach and his adorable girl friend Paige at their home there.
Only a short drive from Lexington was Berea, the college that had offered me a full scholarship beginning the fall of 1975. I could have gone there, worked alongside other poor kids like me, and gotten a first-class education without debt or tuition. Of course, being such a sensitive, homesick kinda girl as I was at 17, I would have needed the additional incentive and support of a boy friend down the road at Eastern Kentucky University who was in the engineering program–which at the time was what Dell said he wanted to do.
But just for a moment, it is sweet to imagine that I had been raised by parents who knew more about the ropes of higher education, and I had been able to chart my own course at Berea. I could have become a history teacher or an English teacher, and gone on to make seemingly dry subjects shine, inspiring a few of my students to dream they could be more than the lives they were born into.
It did not happen that way for me. But last month, in September 2017, Kurt and I left Lexington, went to Berea, and stayed at the college’s historic Boone Tavern, We had a tour of the campus given by an undergraduate student who loves the school so much that she hates to leave even for holiday visits with her family! We enjoyed lunch in the student-staffed coffee shop, bought student-crafted mugs in the student-ran bookstore, and scored an organic rosemary plant from the student-ran farms of Berea. The grounds were perfect, the buildings immaculate, and everyone seemed very happy to be there.
One of only seven work-colleges in the country, Berea gives their students the highest quality education (worth approximately $100,000) and is consistently ranked one of the best private liberal arts colleges in the country. Pretty remarkable for a college that started with the dream of promoting equality by making education available to men and women of all races. Yes, men and women of all races.
There is more than one way to make a dream come true, and the road to fulfilling Berea’s full egalitarian, interracial mandate was littered with roadblocks–such as Kentucky’s law in 1904 forbidding the co-education of blacks and whites. But 46 years later, in 1950, Kentucky amended the law to allow co-education above the high school level, and Berea again accepted black students.
Soooo, I was not able to go to Berea in 1975, but 42 years later I arrived–a bit late for sure. But so excited to see the college for myself at last. The huge old trees dotting the campus were planted by students we were told, some of the buildings were built by students, and we watched as students mowed the college grounds. Talk about sweat equity. This is triumph of the spirit. Of course, not everyone who begins as a freshman makes it to graduation at Berea. Some students cannot keep up with the rigorous academic standards and work responsibilities. But for those who have the work ethic, determination, and heart, Berea is the train they can take to where they want to go which gives them more power over their lives. For that is what education does–gives you more power over your life.
Berea College was never able to make my dreams come true, but as an adult–with some occasionally disposable income–I can support Berea and help other ambitious young people of limited means to realize their hopes for a better life.
As the famous primatologist and conservationist Jane Goodall recently said in an interview printed in the October 21, 2017, edition of The New York Times:
I meet so many incredible people doing amazing things, saving animals on the brink of extinction, restoring the forest, cleaning up a river. It’s knowing what can be done that gives people the courage to fight.
Here’s to having the courage to fight and make a difference! And here’s to finally arriving!
Anna// ~ 10/31/2017