Monday, July 16, 2007

My Old Kentucky Home

I spent part of last week taking my wife, father, and mother to eastern Kentucky to visit the Hartley family cemetery which I discovered several years ago. "Bert" Hartley (who introduced me to the final resting place of my 19th century ancestors) died last year after a long bout with prostate cancer. The terrain in this part of the country is mountainous and somewhat isolated--good country for making moonshine and hiding from the rest of the world. One has to want to get to Oldtown--a community about 15 miles south of Greenup. There are the remains of a general store and a few remnants of old tobacco barns but, otherwise, it is stony backwoods farmland.

It was a special joy to help my father put these pieces of the family puzzle together. The key was an entry in the 1880 census I found which listed my great-grandfather (Clyde Centennial Hartley) as a four-year-old boy. When he ran away from home at about age 16, he left that part of his life behind so it took some sleuthing through old records to discover his mother (America Wheeler) and father (Abraham Goble Hartley). His dad had remarried after the death of his first wife and was 59 when his son was born. When his mother remarried a few years later after his father's death, young Clyde reported that his step-father beat him unmercifully. Hightailing it to Oklahoma to drive a mule train probably appealed to his zest for adventure.

So it was that he lit out for the west in 1892, the same year that the trustees bought Almira College and renamed it "Greenville College." Meanwhile, over in the Ozark hills of Arkansas, my maternal great-great grandfather was riding a circuit as a Free Methodist pastor, leaving his wife and children behind for long periods of time. Putting these pieces of the family tree have helped me to gain a perspective on the humble roots from whence I come. There are no college graduates whatsoever until my father labored for ten years at a degree as a non-traditional student--finally finishing during my years as an undergrad at Greenville. So, for both my wife and I, we are, literally, the first in our families to go off to college.

This makes me appreciate the struggles for those who come into my classroom without a history of family success in college. Earning a degree was the first step for me on a wonderful journey of discovery that led to Princeton, Oklahoma State, Toronto and London. I hope I can share something of that joy with the new freshmen who will arrive in a few short weeks.