Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Educator Thomas Harville to be honored in Elizabethton


By John Thompson
Elizabethton Bureau Chief

ELIZABETHTON — Thomas Harville has enjoyed a long list of accomplishments in his 94 years and he will certainly enjoy the honor he receives Saturday night when he is inducted into the Elizabethton/Carter County Educators Hall of Fame.
Throughout his remarkable career, Harville has been a man of faith. He always demonstrated great faith in God, in himself and in his students. That faith allowed him to see remarkable, seemingly impossible accomplishments many times in his long life.

He began his life on the Fourth of July 1915 in Plantersville, Ala., near Selma, the son of a tenant farmer. His parents had no formal education, but Harville said his father wanted him to get an education if possible. That was not always possible. The family moved to Harlan County, Ky., shortly after an incident in which a man chased 11-year-old Thomas and his 14-year-old sister Willie Nell as they were walking their normal 2.5-mile walk home from school one day. Harville thinks the man intended to rape his sister and kill him.

Harville thrived at East Bentham School in Harlan County even though he had to be put in the third grade as an 11-year-old because of the spotty education he had received in Alabama. That turned out to be somewhat of a blessing because the school only went through the 10th grade when he enrolled, but 11th and 12th grades were added during his time there and he became one of the first seven to graduate from the school in 1936. He wanted to continue his education, but his parents had no money during the depths of the Great Depression. Harville said he was going anyway. He told them “I am going by the grace of God. I just believe God’s grace and mercy will get me through.”

After completing his two years at Morristown College, Harville transferred to West Virginia College to complete his bachelor’s degree. His last year was a struggle, because at the beginning of the year his father suffered a stroke in the mines and died. His mother received a $1,000 payment from the coal mine company, but Harville refused to take any of the money, telling his mother to use the money to meet her needs and those of his younger brother. After graduation in 1940, Harville returned to Harlan County, where he was offered a teaching position. He soon began taking graduate courses in the summer, first at the University of Chicago and then at the University of Kentucky.

While taking a course under Dr. Lucille Lurry at Kentucky in 1958, Harville heard her give some advice that would change his life. She told her class that if they were teaching their classes the same way they were taught 25 years ago, they were out of step with the educational process. He took that to heart and when he returned to class at East Benham he told his students what Lurry had said and told them they were going to help him teach a better way. After recovering from the shock, the students came up with the idea to learn by creating a mural on the school wall. The mural would be on “The Exploration of the United States.”

After obtaining permission from the superintendent, the students began to conduct research on the history of each of the 50 states. The students wrote to every state capital, chambers of commerce and libraries throughout the nation. All of the research and planning was done by the students under his direction. Before long, the whole school was involved in the project. It was such a success that the Harlan County superintendent of the schools had the students to explain the method to all the other social studies teachers in the county.

When one of the social studies teachers asked the students how they had benefitted from the method, Harville said one of the boys stood up and said, “one thing about it, when this project began, I had no interest whatsoever in social studies and hardly anything else. But when we’re put on our own and responsible for getting a unit of work together, all of us students found that the teacher meant that we had to do it and we got busy and planned it. This kind of teaching has meant more to me than any I have received.” News of the successful method soon reached T.A. Dugger Jr., the superintendent of the Elizabethton City School System. In 1960, he invited Harville to come to the city’s segregated Douglas School.

Not long after he arrived at Douglas, he saw a serious problem. The fifth and sixth grade students were a year and a half behind the other city school students in English and science. Harville had long endured receiving substandard material and funding, but he would not tolerate his students trailing so far behind. He immediately went to East Tennessee State University and found help in Professor Madison Byar.

Byar encouraged him to spend time reading in the library to find an answer. After spending many hours there, Harville found his answer: team teaching. He told Dugger’s successor as superintendent, J. Howard Bowers, who endorsed the plan. Soon, teachers, students and parents were sold on the plan. Members of the community were also brought in who could provide assistance.

The results became apparent when the state report cards came out. The students in the white schools still had higher scores, but the students at Douglas had shown much greater gains than the whites over the year. The experiment continued to be successful until an unexpected event took place in 1970, the Elizabethton schools were integrated. Harville was asked to become assistant principal at Elizabethton High School, but he decided to accept an invitation from Marjorie Cardwell to become director of in-service at Greene Valley Developmental Center.

While in that position, Harville was asked if he could suggest a way to get some of the residents more involved and disciplined. After praying about it, Harville said he came up with a suggestion to organize a basketball team to compete against the other county schools. It was the first time students from other schools had a chance to interact with Greene Valley. The arrival of the big yellow buses sent a thrill through the campus and the residents would provide warm greetings.

Because of the team, the center had to decide on a team name and mascot. They chose to become the Greene Valley Green Dragons. There were soon cheerleaders cheering, often cheering the opposing team’s goals as well as their own. After the successful year, Harville got a phone call from Elizabethton’s new superintendent, Mack Pierce. He told Harville they were getting ready to open a new high school and they wanted him to be the principal.

He said he was reluctant at first because he was enjoying his frequent trips to Washington, D.C., that came with being in-service director at Greene Valley, but he finally agreed. Once again he found ways to make improvements. He led the effort to develop a student handbook and made changes in curriculum, once again enlisting the help of Dr. Byar. His efforts in improving curriculum led to his appointment as the coordinator of curriculum throughout the school system before his retirement in

Harville has remained busy during his long years of retirement and his latest efforts have been devoted to writing a book about his life and work called “Divine Guidance.” The writing has been finished and he is now searching for a publisher. When asked about the title, Harville paraphrased Psalms 127, “unless God builds it, they labor in vain.” He said that was one of the foundations of his work, along with the belief that “if you give students the opportunity to think for themselves, they will surprise you with what they will accomplish.”

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