During a recent visit with Thomas resident Vincent DiBacco, he reminisced about his days as a student at Thomas High School and in particular, fondly recalledJ. H. Patterson, his Latin teacher and school principal. At age 94 and a graduate of the class of 1939, Vincent remembered that Mr. Patterson had written a book about his many years teaching in West Virginia schools, including 21 years at Thomas High.
Vincent’s recollections about Patterson kindled a curiosity to learn more about the man who had spent so many years as a schoolteacher in Thomas. Although he couldn’t recall the exact title of Patterson’s book, it was quickly found on Amazon.com and in a few days, a well-worn and autographed copy was waiting at the Davis post office. With the rather unusual title, “Of Me I Sing or Me and Education”, the 300-page book is filled with Patterson’s interesting and often humorous commentary on the state of education in West Virginia in those days and particularly in Thomas. Along with the humor, his story is also laced with pointed criticism of local teaching practices and operating procedures in the Thomas schools at that time.
After a few days spent reading the book cover to cover, a copy of Patterson’s obituary was found that appeared in the April 14, 1949 edition The Advocate. It gave an interesting account of his life as an educator and noted that he had written a lengthy article for The Advocate in 1947 about his career in the Thomas schools. That article too was promptly found and judged to be worth reading by anyone interested in the state of our schools more than 75 years ago. Here in his own words, the entire article that appeared in The Advocate on February 6, 1947, is J. H. Patterson’s story of his experiences in the Thomas schools from 1921 to 1941.
The editor of the Advocate has asked me for 3,000 or 4,000 words about my twenty-one year stay in Thomas as teacher, principal, district superintendent or what have you? He had read of some of my doings in Richwood, but did not know that the story was from my book, “Of Me I Sing.” It was a breach of the copyright law but I do not hold that against them. In fact, I do not see the need of a copyright law as anyone who writes is only too anxious to have somebody else want it badly enough to steal it. Mr. McClain kindly permits me to make selections from the book concerning my stay in Thomas. This will be hard on Thomas people as every one there has read it. It may do some good in the rest of the state and the nation. There is one copy in Europe.
As I leafed through my book for parts to use I realized as I had learned in my sales campaign that I had not personalized enough. Everyone named in the book hastened to buy it. If I had named one thousand persons I would have sold the whole edition instead of having to give away about half of it. I find that there is really not so much about Thomas as a town only as its school is concerned in the demoralizing education influences it shared with the remainder of the state. But all that will show up later if indeed the article gets into print.
It was a queer system I had come into. There was a superintendent, high school principal, junior high principal, and a principal for the other six grades, or four bosses for fewer than four hundred children in our building. There was the infamous system of keeping all children two years and a good many of them three years in the first grade. They called it first and second primary but there was only as much work done as should be done in one year if pupil and teacher took it seriously. The school life of many a child is ruined in the first year. The parent pities the little thing, the teacher pities it, and pretty soon it gets to pitying itself and when that happens there is very little hope left. If a child is too immature to send to school, keep it at home, but if it is old enough to go, make it understand that school is its business and hold it to it. As I have said before, most of the rogues and truants of the later grades are made in the first year or two of school.
I was glad to find that the district was one of the few in the state civilized enough to buy textbooks for the children–all the children. They cost about $1500 a year or a little less than a dollar a year per enumerated pupil, a little more than that on the enrolled children. As I have fulminated on this subject before I pass on remarking that it seems impolitic to spend ninety-eight cents on schools and stop on the two cents that will make the other ninety-eight effective.
We are unconscious of progress. Two or three things happened the first month or two of my life in Thomas that seemed natural enough then but in the light of today seem unbelievable. On the first trip home, the principal of the high school and another teacher told me that they and some of the boys were driving back in a truck on Sunday, as they were coming to Morgantown to see the football game. We were to start back at eight o’clock but at that time one of them came to me and said the car had been arrested and the key taken and they could not get away. At about two they told me that they had stolen the car away and had it outside of town and for me to come on. I did and found them on the Kingwood pike. They had no key but had arranged the wires so that one of the boys could turn on the current when necessary. It took us four hours to reach Kingwood as we had two blowouts and some other mischances before we arrived. Liston bought an inner tube and thus strengthened, we started down to the river and up Caddell. Darkness came on and we found our lights practically non-existent. We sneaked through Oakland somehow and had the dark drive to Thomas. We were merry enough at first but the fun soon wore out and it was a weary load of teachers and boys that arrived in town after a dangerous journey. Anybody drives it now in two hours; fools in an hour and a half.
While I was in New Albany, Ohio, very early in the century we lost several days of school on account of the inadequacy of the furnace. Presently there was installed an ample Columbus Heating Company product. After that we had no trouble. In Thomas we had a good furnace by the same company but in many cases pupils and teachers had been forced to turn out on account of cold rooms. This leads me to remark that the personal education cannot be left out in considering the behavior of houses. Thomas winters are something for the book. What I am trying to get at is this. There are three factors in the heating question. They are the winter with its varying conditions of cold and wind, the apparatus for heating, and the man who is to make the two work together. In my opinion the man is the main factor. While the best janitor can not heat a building with a toy stove, a poor one will not heat it with the best furnace. There were, are, five units in our heating plant. In the days before I came to Thomas there were many days in which school was dismissed because of insufficient heat, so much so that the kids looked at the thermometer and finding the weather cold, did not try to be dismissed, they stayed at home. I am loath to say that some of the teachers developed the same attitude so that there were many days of illegal vacation. The same condition was present in my first four months in Thomas. There were many mornings of chilling discomfort and others on which it was necessary to send the children home. The problem was solved, as the Capone problem later was solved, by indirection. They did not put Al in prison because he murdered folks but because he did not pay his income tax. The board did not fire our janitor because he did not fire the furnace properly, but because he was making or at least drinking illegal firewater in the basement. Anyway he got thirty days and a hundred dollars fine which necessitated a new hand on the shovel and a new ringing point on the time clock. In the seventeen years since that, we have at times been too warm but never cold enough to make school impossible. In all the years since, two men, father and son, have contributed more to the success of the school than many of us teachers. In any community in which some of the children are not well clad, parents must know that there will be proper care for the comfort of the children while they are in school or they will not send them.
I want here to render a tribute to the memory of Bruce Bennear, the father spoken of above. He was unfailingly faithful in the interest of the school and did much more for the school than was nominated in the bond. When his health failed, his son Roy Bennear took his place and was equally faithful in performance of duty. When he had to go to work on the railroad to make a living it was a serious loss to the school.
While in the reminiscence business I wish to speak of other worthy men. Grant Smith was secretary of the board the first twelve years of my twenty-one. He knew more about making not very much money go a long way than all the rest of us together. Perhaps some do not know that Fairfax district paid $55,000 a year for its schools, and it was its own money, not taken from other parts of the state. Now, the whole county raised about fifty thousand dollars or five thousand less than our one district, in ’45–’46. It gets two hundred thousand from the state. Mr. Smith and I had to try to make our money reach; now, nobody cares. It always reached, thanks to Mr. Smith.
Senator Helmick was too well known as a friend of the town and county to need any encomium from me. I valued his friendship highly and was a sincere mourner at his passing.
For twenty years Nick DiMaio, one of nature’s noblemen, at considerable inconvenience to himself, supplied us with goods, the sale of which taken with the proceeds of plays, bought seven pianos and hundreds of books for the library and all the little things no school should be without but can’t buy. He was and is one of the best friends the school has ever had. He is too modest to like this, but it is true.
In the trying days of the early thirties, many a child would have gone hungry and shoeless had it not been for the efforts of Bill McVeigh and Virginia Currey. Mrs. Currey headed the women of the town in supplying hot meals for hungry children at school. Mr. McVeigh helped the Friends get interested in us and did much in many ways to make life a little easier for those who had it very hard indeed. By the way, Mrs. Currey gave the town almost perfect hotel service for a number of years. It would have been perfect if she had had a Statler building.
The so-called library in the Thomas High School was in a ten by ten room on the first floor as far from the high school as they could get it. It was opened once a week–Friday after school for a few minutes, if it can be called opening for a teacher to sit inside a locked room and hand out of a little window a book that the pupil had had no chance to see. It was not strange that not many books were called for. There were not many readable books as they were thought hardly necessary and the room was nearly full of school books not in use at the time. If the library had been full of the best titles, the way it was managed would have kept anyone from getting any good out of it. I decided to move it upstairs to a room four times the size in which the kids might sit and read. It took us most of the winter to get the books cataloged and to secure enough new titles to make it profitable as a reading room. Then we had only to induce folks to come up the hill in the evening, as we had no teachers to keep the library open during the day.
It’s a strange notion that some principals have that books should be kept away from he kids and that they must be fingered only by the sacred hands of the librarians who adopt the creed of school inspectors in one county who raised a row because the books looked worn. He wanted them to look bright and shiney. Great heaven! What is a book for but to get worn and look disreputable? That’s what the matter is with text books. The kids get the notion that the textbooks must be shiney too and they keep them only too much that way. I saw a library recently in which all the books shone like a patent leather shoe. I felt like crying because in the craze for neatness the children were being cheated out the chance to feel books, to browse among them, to taste many before choosing one. We pretend to want libraries and when we get them we don’t do the one thing for which they are intended–wear them out by many readings by all sorts of people.
In 1923 Doctor Miller stepped from the frying pan of president of the school board to the fire of the mayoralty of Thomas. He is a glutton for punishment and I like to think that having given the children into safe hands he wished to help the town. Most of the town’s children and many of their parents had been helped into the world by him. He was and is the chief man in the town in many ways. There are some with more money–he never tried to accumulate–but there is none more widely known and appreciated. His house is a treasury of rare books–with many incunabula, books that date back almost to the invention of printing.A few years ago he gave a library of rare medical books to his alma mater. They were valuable enough to call for the building of a structure to house them. For more about him, read my book. You can probably borrow one that has never been used.
One more item in the personnel line: Mr. Troyer with his colored pupils, grade and high, prepared a play and brought it to the local theater. The house holds more than 800 and was filled long before time for the play to begin. More than a hundred were turned away. The total receipts were more than $250 with a net of $204. That was more than we whites had ever done and more than we or he could now with Helen Hayes in the cast. Mr. Toyer used the money to start a one room addition to his one room building and argued the board into completing it. He put in cooking lessons and hot lunch and made his school the center of all the activities of the colored people of Thomas and Davis. He was, with the energy that a great many other teachers might use, a one man faculty, not waiting for work to be dished out to him but going after it with his own spoon. A local man wanted his job and under the beneficent orders of the county unit got it in 1935 after Mr. Toyer’s fourteen years of magnificent service. Sic transit gloria mundi.
The year of 1935 – 1936 was the only one in which I lost any members of the faculty by death. The proverb “death loves a shining mark” was doubly true at this time as we lost two principals within two months. The first to go was Henry Black who had gone through the local schools and afterward had graduated from Fairmont State College for teachers. He was the principal of Pierce school and already good, gave promise of being much better at the time of his death. He was young; the other, Mr. Fortney was very much older. His was mostly a common school education plus some summer school work. His work as principal was excellent. He was his own truant officer and had the best attendance in the district. There were no lawsuits either. They just wanted to come. I know they are happy. Teachers just can’t go to the other place.
The latter twenties were given over to a spread of palace building. Each city wanted to outdo the other in the grandeur of its high and grade school houses. There was a rather mischievous belief aboard that fine buildings would make fine students; that fine furniture could take the place of good teaching; that playgrounds and gymnasiums were the school. I have no reason to believe that the people in these places have changed their minds. To fill the larger buildings on foundations we run smaller buildings on wheels. To replace the former small wooden buildings we employ wooden spared education on one hundred and ten hours of anything in the lower half of any classes he may have been in, put him in a school room where, if he can get the kids to buy the proper workbooks and not ask HIM any questions, he turns to wood head first. We are drifting, no, plunging to a mechanistic education as fast as our educational leaders and bus builders can take us.
I got around a little in the summer. One year it seemed specially desirable to attend the NEA meeting in Portland. The Round Table was to pay part of the expenses but did not, the county association was to pay part, but could not, the board of education was to pay a part and did, a token payment, so that I had the pleasure of paying for the trip myself, but did not know it till afterward, which was just as well. I quote one passage from my book on this trip. The big trees are the most beautiful things I have ever seen. To me, who in my section of my one time heavily timbered state rarely sees a tree more than six inches through, they were a revelation. We stood at the foot of one that measured eighty feet around and was three hundred feet high. Beside it stood a tree in a thousand years could not be fifty feet high or a foot across the stump. And there were teachers standing between the two who think that by some kind of pedagogical hocus pocus the schools ought to make each, well almost each, almost as large as the other. Instead of encouraging each to go ahead and be the best he was born to be, we try to squeeze him into impossible shapes and spoil all.
Teachers have a right to look as intelligent as anybody else. They probably are but if they try to prove it, they are handicapped by old prejudices that bars them from the frivolities and privileges of ordinary humanity, and forces them into poverty and celibacy. Some principals try to make frumps of their teachers with the notion that they are improving the service when they are really depriving the children of the championship of glowing, wholesome young women and giving them spirit-broken slaves.
This is a big world filled with much war and little peace, with growth and decay, with life and death. There are in it certain rare, adventurous spirits who live on the dateline ever abreast of the sun trying to light the darkness not yet touched by his rays. They are the prophets who see the truth but are never believed; the poets who sometimes make us see a little of the meaning of life; the historians who recreate a period to make us see that its whole pattern of disaster fits exactly the doings of today; the biographer who makes a man and wraps around him a fabric of understandable history; the novelist who in his wisdom makes himself as vain and foolish as we and reveals to us the moods and motives of men so that he may entertain many and perhaps instruct a few; the playwrights who break our hearts with tragedy or for a time obliterate our troubles with the froth of their comedy. The cultured people are they who enjoy as well as they may the labors of these gifted ones, and I am asking the teachers of my state to come out of the literary untouchables and take their place among other folks with the same quality and weight of brain.
My ideas about education are not those current now. But they will be again. The demoralization of education has proceeded with the regularity of a Greek tragedy: In 1932 we voted away our right to run our own schools. We saved in direct taxes but we lost our schools. God can’t make two trees alike but we give our education schools the right to declare all teachers with a degree to be alike as long as they live. We refused to recognize and reward merit. And last, we made it impossible to get rid of worthless or vicious teachers without tearing the district asunder. We blamed the war. It would have happened anyway.
J. H. Patterson
In his book, J. H. Patterson devotes nearly 100 pages to telling about his more than 20 years as an educator in Thomas. It is funny, witty and wry in his exploration of what he thought was right and wrong in the educational system in the town and county at that time.The article transcribed here from the original that appeared in The Advocate in 1947 only scratches the surface of the topics he put in the book.
Although J. H. Patterson’s full name could nowhere be found in searching the internet, it was finally found on his death certificate located in the Vital Research Records Project of the West Virginia Division of Culture and History. From it we learned that James Howard Patterson was the son of William and Susan Ray Patterson, born February 8, 1867, died April 12, 1949.