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Sowing Seeds of Success: Teachers Leave Untold Legacy in Eastern Kentucky Communities


By Samantha Lynn Cole

The volunteer fire department that stands in Avawam, Kentucky, a small community just a few miles from Hazard, serves as a bingo parlor meant for fund raising, as well as a community gathering spot. On October 21st, around 30 people assembled there to reminisce about what was once the real community center for many neighborhoods in the mountains of eastern Kentucky: the schools.

Former students of the Eversole & Whitaker Schools gather at the Avawam Fire Department

All of the people collected together here have, at one time or another, called Big Creek their home. Many of them lived there in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Since that time, the area has certainly changed. Coal has been hefted out of the ground and scraped from the land by the ton. Roads have been paved where they once were just gravel and dirt. Larger consolidated and county public schools have opened in the area that now bus in students on a daily basis. Many of the places where these then-same students once played basketball, took notes, studied, and recited lessons have been flooded or demolished in the years since. Even though most of the school buildings on the creek are all gone now (Big Creek was once home to 4 or so schools, all offering up to an 8th grade education), the knowledge that educators passed on to each of their pupils is alive and well. What they learned in small schoolhouses has helped to shape their lives. And what those same educators brought to and did for the community is something people living in the area will never forget. Not only does the reunion of the Whitaker and Eversole Schools serve as a time to come together with one another, to talk about how things once were, and to see old friends and family members, but it also serves as a time for community members to give thanks for the great teachers and educational leaders they had during their school days. Two educators who really made a mark in this community were Troy and Mildred Fields.

Troy and Mildred were active in their community in a myriad of ways. They were educators, active church members, servant leaders in the community, truancy officers, members of the school board, and parental figures for children all up and down the creek. Just mention their names and you will hear a hundred different stories, big and small, about how they taught, helped, preserved, saved, and inspired those in the local community. Here are just a few of such examples:

When acting as a truancy officer, Troy agreed to be responsible for one young man, Coy, who had run into legal trouble. As a result, this young man did not face jail or prison time for the things he did as a teenager. Later, the same man went on to attain his high school diploma, which he proudly displays in his home and looks at every day. He feels that Troy was key in his achieving this goal.

Troy once advocated for a very traditional family to allow their daughters to attend high school because he saw potential in everyone, not just a select few. Despite his advocacy, Troy was not successful in convincing the father to send his daughters to high school. But this did not deter the women in the family from seeking the education that they would need later in life. Eventually, all of these family members went on to work in various fields that required degrees, including the medical industry, education, and public health.

As part of his work on the School Board, Troy and Mildred worked to distribute Christmas presents to the children enrolled in various schools along the creek. One of their students, Hulda, recalls fondly how Troy presented her with her very first item of store-bought clothing: a dress. It was a green and gold checked shirtdress that Hulda wore out and that, later, her mother incorporated into a quilt.

Another student, Virgil, recalls fondly how Troy introduced him to beekeeping, a hobby that he still enjoys.

Even though she did not know them, personally, another student, Anna Belle, speaks fondly of both Troy and Mildred, whose daughter she used to play with. Again and again, she saw these educators open their home and hearts local children. She feels that just hearing what the Fields did for others in the community is a real inspiration.

RJ was not one of Troy’s students. But he did attend church and sing in a gospel group (the Prayer Notes) with him that toured through several states. Troy, he says, was an excellent singer and a very humble man who had a special talent for smoothing issues out between bandmates.

Probably the biggest testament to the legacy of Troy and Mildred Fields is to be found in Bruce Boleyn, a Kentucky native who now lives in Indiana. Bruce was himself a teacher for a few years in Perry County, Knott County, and, later, in Indiana. He has been an educator for over 35 years, now. Bruce was only a young teacher in Perry County when Troy Fields took him under his wing as a mentor. Troy was like a father to him and provided him with very fatherly advice in a number of areas, chief among them, how to be an influential educator. Troy’s advice included teaching students in Eastern Kentucky schools Latin and Greek, reading to them from the Bible and Aesop’s Fables, and teaching them new words daily. Even after all these years, Bruce can still quote many of the tidbits of advice that Troy offered to him:

“Trust your better judgement.”

“In pleasing everyone, you learn to please no one.”

“If you learn to teach in such a way that the students do not need the teacher, you will have achieved a great deal.”

Both Troy and Mildred taught Bruce that the way to have a happy life was through reason, righteousness, and service to one’s greater community. And Bruce’s own dedication to students in Perry County and beyond proves that the legacy of both Troy and Mildred Fields will continue for generations to come. Just like Troy and Mildred, Bruce’s students can speak at length about all the ways that he helped them, other students, and the community. They are in awe of the fact that, even after decades, he still recognizes them and calls them by name. And they can also speak about just how Bruce has touched their own lives and help them to achieve their dreams.

Tonight, in a room of the Ponderosa Steak House in Hazard, around 20 or so former students of Bruce’s gather to share fellowship, reminisce about times gone by, and talk about how knowing Bruce has changed their lives for the better.

Former students of Bruce Boleyn at the Ponderosa Steak House in Hazard

“He is the stars, moon, and universe all rolled into 1,” says Shelby Crank, the salutatorian of Bruce’s 8th grade class. “He has a great spirit with grows on you.” Upon her graduation from 8th grade, Shelby gave a speech entitled, “How to Succeed in Life,” informed greatly by what Mr. Boleyn taught her in the classroom. Because of Bruce’s guidance and investment in her life, Shelby was able to face many challenges and ultimately achieve her dreams: working with disabled children and adults, being able to change lives through kindness, care, and support. And Shelby was worked in this field for years, touching many lives in countless ways.

“He taught me to learn and study. My grades got better after I took his course. You just have to work hard. He taught me that,” recalls Dr. Matt Heller. He attributes his success as a medical doctor to those very skills he learned in Bruce’s class while in 5th grade at Leo Elementary in Leo, Indiana. “Many people that he has taught have gone on to be successful.”

“Bruce was the first teacher who showed interest in me,” William Williams says. He had Bruce as a teacher in the 6th grade, and his experience in Bruce’s classroom changed his attitude toward school, as well as his overall grades.

In addition to supporting numerous students in the classroom, Bruce is also working to help educate the next generation of potential leaders of Appalachia through a fund that he has established at Berea College located in Berea, Kentucky. This scholarship fund, named the Troy and Mildred Fields Memorial Endowed Scholarship Fund (in honor of the educators who had such a profound influence on his life) will go to support students as they pursue a degree at Berea. Berea awards all admitted students a full-tuition scholarship and recruits primarily from the southern Appalachian mountains, as well as nationally and internationally.

With the proper education, the tools for success are passed down from one generation to another. Educators like Troy and Mildred Fields, as well as Bruce Boleyn, have made a real difference in the lives of their students and their communities at large. Clearly, teachers change the direction of lives in an untold number of ways, from passing along hobbies, to believing in their students and advocating for their education, or by just passing along simple words of encouragement. Every day, educators work to create a lasting legacy in the schools where they serve. And these legacies live on for generations untold, spreading from the mountain communities to well beyond.

LEFT: (left to right ) Loyal Jones, Truman Fields, and Louise Sizemore have a chat at the Eversole & Whitaker School reunion

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