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By Marc Jennings
In 1951 my family moved from Dayton to Tennessee. We lived in the little community of Roddy, which was, by then, just a sign along US Route 27. Our house was at the end of a dirt road on a bluff overlooking Watts Bar Lake, a creation of the TVA during the Depression. My father worked at the US nuclear facility in Oak Ridge and he wasn’t allowed to say what he did there. Roddy is in Rhea County (pronounced ray). In 1925, the Scopes “monkey” trial took place at the Rhea County courthouse in Dayton, TN. Even today, Rhea County is as conservative a rural place as you can find. Not much has changed.
In the fall of 2008 Darlene and I drove through Rhea County and saw occasional signs urging voters to write in the name of “Cornbread” Williams for County Road Commissioner. Cornbread’s pledge was:
” keep the roads fixed, and the ditches clean!”
Some of my friends and I would play marbles in the dust in the middle of the road. Our neighbor was a man named Harley and he always had a couple of beat-up dirt track race cars in his front yard. He also had two daughters. We worshiped at a little Southern Baptist church down the hill. It was a pretty simple affair and there was fire and brimstone on Sunday mornings enough to make me feel guilty until the next Sunday. My grandfather, a Justice of the Peace and sometimes County Commissioner, had a beautiful 400 acre farm just the other side of Route 27, with a huge white farmhouse and a porch around the house. The barn was big enough to host a small county fair. In the distance behind the farm was a steep ridge where began the Cumberland Plateau section of Tennessee.
This was a pretty good place to be a boy. My grandfather “gave” me a calf to look after. Just down the road lived my friend, Buddy Baker. I learned to say “yes ma’am” and “no sir”, learned how the “boys” (confederate soldiers) suffered during the war having nothing to eat but parched corn, and I got a good spanking from my Aunt Maurene when I let the screen door slam one too many times. My grandmother told me what a beautiful place heaven was, and that I might be a preacher some day.
The fall of 1952 was the appointed time for me to start school. I was 5, but would be 6 on November 14th. The county had no kindergarten so I climbed on the school bus, carrying a Hopalong Cassidy lunchbox and a pencil and went off to the first grade. The school was a low brick building like schools everywhere and it is still standing, although abandoned and serving as a partial storage area for hay bales. Nobody bothered to tear it down like the City now does in Dayton, OH.
I liked this going to school thing OK, but would have rather played with friends and wandered around the countryside, seeing what I could see. One day I came home from school and learned we were moving back to Dayton. We moved to an area that later became Kettering, and once settled, I had to go back to school.
This time it was Van Buren School that I attended. My mother took me to school the first day and had a conference with the principal. He explained that the birth date cut off for first graders in the public schools was November 1st. Since I didn’t qualify, by fourteen days, I had to go to kindergarten. So I went to kindergarten, which was fortunate, otherwise I would have been in the class of ’65. My teacher was Mrs. Young and it was a lot easier than the first grade. All we did was have snacks, take naps and occasionally make things.
I believe I successfully completed kindergarten, despite my late start. After school had ended our family moved again, into an area whose school was Gettysburg Elementary. When I began the first grade for the second time my teacher was Mrs. Groff.
Mrs. Groff was a tall, trim and stately dark-haired woman. She was warm and gentle yet had the respect of her young students. I felt safe in her presence and she was a very talented teacher. She is one of just a few teachers that to this day, I can recall specific things she taught us. She wore a dress, hose and high heels every day.
One day, to place an item on a cork strip above the blackboard, Mrs. Groff removed her shoes and stood on one of the little chairs we sat on in class. When her back was turned I made a big show of holding my nose, to the giggles of those seated around me. With her back still to the class, Mrs. Groff said in a gentle voice, “do you think my feet smell, Marc?” The class laughed and I was shocked, wondering how she caught me. She must have had some sort of special powers, was all I could figure. I was also sorry that I had violated her trust and I never misbehaved in her class again.
Mrs. Groff’s brother-in-law, John, was a heart surgeon who practiced at the Mayo Clinic before moving to Dayton. John’s son, Tom, went to Ohio State, undergraduate and dental school, and later established a successful practice on Clifton Ave, adjacent to the University of Cincinnati. Tom and his wife Ann had two children, David and Katy.
Thirty-eight years after I left Mrs. Groff’s first grade class, I escorted my daughter, Amy, down the aisle of the chapel at Miami University where she would be joined in matrimony to a fine young man named David Groff.