When Last Is First

On a crisp fall day during my first year at Westhampton College (University of Richmond) I attended a football game with Bill Dillard, a fellow-student and an avid Richmond Spiders fan. I was ill-prepared for what I would see and feel at this, my first college football game. While Bill was jumping up and down shouting, all I could see on the field was body bashing and flaring tempers. I couldn’t associate this behavior with sports. I was many miles away from Oak Hill, the Baptist academy where I received my high school education and my training in what sportsmanship means. It means, or so I was taught, to play fairly, to win humbly, and to lose gracefully.

At Oak Hill we had plenty of practice in the art of losing gracefully because we seldom won a game. Mr. Ussery was the coach of the team as well as Bible and geography teacher and the Dean. Our team played without uniforms and with antiquated equipment. Losing gracefully was something we knew how to do.

As a coach, Mr. Ussery stressed the ideals I came to associate with the word “sports.” He insisted that the team and the student body regard the opposing school with respect. In fact, a thoughtless word of insult or a careless act that in any way demeaned either the school or a player of the opposing team would get one of our players suspended from the team or a spectator sent back to the classroom. Mr. Ussery often quoted:

When the One Great Scorer comes
To write against your name,
He marks not that you’ve lost or won
But how you played the game.*

Win or lose, football games were occasions for excitement at Oak Hill. Traveling with the team to away games was a perquisite enjoyed only by the seniors, but the whole student body cheered the team at home games. The girls always checked out the young men on the visiting team. On one occasion Mr. Ussery took advantage of this. Our geography class was in progress when the bus carrying the guest team arrived. As if on cue, all female heads turned toward the window. Mr. Ussery said, “All right, peninsulas, give me your attention.” He then answered our puzzled expressions by reminding us that the definition of “peninsula” is “a long, narrow neck, jutting out to sea (see).” I wonder if any of my classmates ever forgot that bit of information.

One day Mr. Ussery was lecturing on the Sermon on the Mount, particularly Jesus’ admonition to love one’s enemies and to pray for them. At the end of the session he asked one of the boys, Bill Flemming, to lead a prayer. World War II was in progress and all prayers during that time included our fighting men. So Bill prayed for the boys in service. Then came a long pause, and he very deliberately prayed “And bless the Japs (Japanese, the enemy) too.” Another pause, then “The dirty little rats, they ought to be shot, but I guess You love them, too.” When the prayer ended, Mr. Ussery stifled a grin, but he didn’t comment. At least, in his own way, Bill had gotten the Bible message.

The teachers at Oak Hill were all extraordinary people, each one dedicated to serving the disadvantaged youth in this remote area of the state. Their model was Mr. Hash, an elderly gentleman who served as principal until his retirement early in my high school career. I can almost hear his soft-spoken voice in chapel, saying as he often did: “Listen, boys. Listen girls. To return evil for evil is beast-like, but to return good for evil is Christ-like.” The way he stressed both syllables of the word evil made even the word sound sinister.

Diminutive Miss Hall taught science and math. She was from Richmond and never lost the accent associated with eastern Virginia. We often mimicked her pronunciation with such phrases as “There’s a mawse (mouse) in the hawse (house). Get him awt (out).” Though she was small, she maintained a disciplined classroom. Some of the students were married adults returning to school to complete the education they had missed when they enlisted or were drafted into the Armed Services during the war. One such student struggled with the basics. He had never learned to write. He went to her and asked if he could take the tests orally. She said, “Certainly not. You will write just like all the other students.” She peremptorily answered his protests with “Then you will learn to write.” And she saw to it that he did. He spoke in chapel just before his graduation, relating this story and his deep appreciation for what she did for him.

Although Oak Hill was a boarding school, buses were sent into the surrounding communities to bring in day students. My sisters and I rode a bus approximately 18 miles. By today’s standards that would be a a short trip, but it was not so for us. We rode over dirt roads that were often difficult to maneuver because of mud, ruts or snow drifts.

Some of the boarding students were there because of broken homes or discipline problems. For them the teachers were like surrogate parents. It is nothing short of miraculous how they managed to smooth out so many rough edges for all of us.

We had a class clown. His name was Clayton, and he came from the Troutdale community. To him nothing was ever serious or sacred. His school work was definitely not a priority.

Mr. Halsey, the history and civics teacher, was the newest and the youngest member of the faculty. He lacked the patience the other teachers had. He was quick-tempered, and most of us had a healthy respect for that character trait. But not Clayton!

Mr. Halsey required us to prepare news briefs each Friday and share the “current events” with the class. One particular Friday he called for my report first. I gave a summary of an article I had read in Reader’s Digest on cancer research. I always went to great lengths to prepare something unusual because it was a challenge to me to earn a “well done” from Mr. Halsey, who was frugal with words of approval. When I finished, he nodded at me briefly, and I gratefully interpreted that as approval. Then he called on several others, all of whom were unprepared. It should be said that coming up with a news report was not easy because there was no daily paper. We had to be alert and catch the radio news reports. Whatever the excuses that morning, Mr. Halsey was not pleased. I watched a progressive build-up of anger in his face, knowing that an explosion was sure to come sooner or later.

He called on Clayton, who picked up a piece of paper from his desk and strolled to the front. He cleared his throat noisily, looked at the blank paper in his hand, and said, “The temperature in Troutdale dropped to 30 degrees this morning. It is expected to drop even lower if it gets any colder.” No one moved as we waited in stunned silence, watching Mr. Halsey’s face take on various shades of red. With lips tightly closed he waited until he gained control before calling the next name.

Miss Ruth, the English teacher, turned things around for Clayton in our Junior year. She selected him for a major role in the Junior play. Most of us thought she was destroying the play, but she saw something that we didn’t see, and Clayton became the star of the show. From then on, we regarded him with more respect and, although he remained the class clown, he began to carry himself with more confidence and to apply himself a bit more to academics. Maybe the change was in how we perceived him as someone who did, after all, have more going for him than clowning. Maybe it was his realization that did not have to rely solely on ill-timed humor to find his place. The next year we applauded Miss Ruth’s selecting him for the lead role in the Senior play. He played an English gentleman with top hat, cane, monocle, and the accent which he mastered to perfection. Again, it was his performance that made the play a success. I wonder how many agonizing nights Miss Ruth spent trying to figure Clayton out, and how much prayer went into the taming of this one student.

The best part of my education at Oak Hill was what I learned about life, and about winning and losing. The final score isn’t always an accurate measure. Often the real winner is the one whose distance run was the hardest and the longest. The real winner may even cross the finish line last.

March, 1997

*From “Alumnus Football”, by Grantland Rice (1880-1954)