The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

An Early Choice

By John Hassell Yeatts © 1986

Issue: April, 1986

The boys basketball team of Central Academy, 1929; the young man seated on the right is Dorn Spangler.The boys basketball team of Central Academy, 1929; the young man seated on the right is Dorn Spangler.

The trees along the ridges above Lovers Leap were still unfurnished with new leaves. Closer inspection, however, would reveal a general swelling of the buds that promised that Spring was on its way, though late, on this April morning in 1925. Over the brow of the mountains facing South and East, tree buds were larger and a few were beginning to burst into little green squirrel ears that would soon be grown leaves. Just a few hundred feet lower the red-bud bushes were in full bloom, giving a dazzlingly pink effect to the sun-drenched mountain sides.

Two riders, a man and a teenaged boy pressed their horses at a fast clip into the bright morning sunshine. Easter had come and gone and the lad was on his way to returning to the mission school at Central Academy, just 5 miles North of Stuart [Virginia]. His father had promised to take him as far as Lovers Leap and now found it hard to set the boy afoot. He was enjoying their rare conversation and the closeness that the ride had brought them, but knowing all the while that those same horses were scheduled to pull his plow later that morning. He was reluctant to press them too hard and too far down the mountain.

"Guess I'll turn around at Falling Branch", he said. "It's only about four and a half miles further and all down hill. Guess you can cut that can't you son?" The boy agreed. Then they could hear the falling water and the horses could smell it. They quickened their paces in anticipation. While the horses were drinking, the father looked deeply into his son's eyes and said, "Well it's been good having you home son. Try and be a good boy and if it's a growing spring, that corn ought to be high enough to hoe come commencement time."

"Bye Dad and thanks for the lift." Then he was off swinging his worn valise and stepping fast. When he rounded the first bend, he heard the distinct sound of the big school bell echoing up the valley, and his heart quickened. "I'll be late, but I'll be there before class is over," he thought. "My assignment paper is completed and I'll turn it in at the end of class. Bet I'll be about the only one who did his assignment during Easter," he thought. "Anyway I won't be absent." Now he was trotting and somewhat surprised at how fast the rock ledges along the banks went by. "Guess I could be a track star, if I really tried, and trained myself," he quickly thought.

He slipped through the unopened classroom door so quietly that hardly anyone noticed. The teacher, however, gave him a warm smile and said, "Good morning Dorn. Glad you could make it." That same teacher several months earlier had recognized an unusual commitment to learning in the boy, that distinguished him from most of his classmates. This made him about her most favored pupil and she derived a soul-filled pleasure from teaching him. "Going to go places, that long legged boy," she said to another teacher once as they watched him cavort down the long hall following an Algebra examination.

Well, it was along about this same time that I came to really know "that long-legged boy" when his family moved across the ridge from Round Meadow Creek to the home of his deceased grandparents that stood on a natural shelf of land above Mayberry Creek, just a few hundred yards across from my home in Mayberry. I had watched him - mostly from a distance at Mayberry school and I thought that I recognized several things quite special and admirable about the bigger lad. For one thing, everybody seemed to like him. He never fought, but still maintained the respect of boys even larger than he was at the time. One of the penalties for passing notes at the school during that period was that the originator had to stand before the entire student body and read the note if they were caught. I listened carefully one day as a right pretty and blushing maiden stood and read, "Dear little Dorn. I just can't tell you how much I really love you. It won't fit on this slip of paper." The name Little Dorn had been conferred upon him by his doting grandmother, and it somehow followed him to school. He didn't like it. But sometimes other kids would tease him by calling him that. Sometimes he would ignore them and sometimes he would "cut them down to size" with an answer. Little, he was not. Although he was slender as a chestnut sprout, he stood almost a head taller than most of the children his age.

Besides his qualities of leadership, one of the things I found most appealing about my friend Dorn was his sense of humor and quick wit. He could have a bunch of kids laughing before you could spell sassafras, and you could tell that he took pride in doing that. When we were in our teens and sometimes bored with summer Saturday afternoons, we would dress in our worst clothing. Looking a bit like Tom and Huck, and saunter along the road near Mayberry Store waiting for city tourists to engage us in conversation. It was strange how often it happened. Once a large car bearing a city of Danville tag and loaded with young people stopped. The driver said, "Say boys, can you tell us haw far it is to Danville?" Dorn, already having noted the city tag replied, "Well there's some who say 'tis and some who say 'taint but I recken there's more who say 'tis than there are who say 'taint so I just, don't rightful know." The driver, now wearing a puzzled look, engaged the clutch and moved slowly ahead torn between thinking he had discovered the original dolts of the Blue Ridge Mountains, or just maybe that he was not so smart himself as he thought. The girls giggled and the car continued on toward the Pinnacles.

My friend. Dorn once, unknown to his companions, carried a half dozen or more chicken eggs in his slicker pockets all the way to a tent show near Meadows of Dan Post Office, where he surprised, and shocked us as well, by trying to swap them for an admission ticket. When the woman rejected the offer, Dorn proceeded to give her a straight-faced lecture, demanding to know just why their show was any better than the Barter Theatre in Abington which had just established its title by accepting produce for admission tickets. Dorn finally paid the admission price and we saw the show. He says today that he doesn't remember what he finally did with the eggs, but allows that the four of us may have sucked them as we strolled through the pouring rain back to Mayberry. And I can remember that sometimes we really were that hungry. During that depression period when we had to scratch hard and dig deep and make our own simple pleasures, a group of us had already walked more than a mile toward the Dan River Falls on a Saturday all-night fishing expedition when Russell Scott exclaimed, "Boys, this trip just ain't gonna be much fun without Dorn Spangler." So we retraced our steps to find and finally coax Dorn from his cold, grapevine canopied, swimming hole in Mayberry Creek. He finally consented to join us. Dorn didn't like to fish in those days, but he later became one of the most proficient trout fishermen in the Blue Ridge Mountains. As I recall, we didn't catch many fish on that overnight trip, but we had a whale of a lot of laughs.

In just a year or so following this period, I graduated High School, and Dorn, home from college, agreed that it was time for me to see some of the historic places in our state and nation. So off we went. I had gained parental permission only because of their confidence in Dorn. We hitch-hiked, rode box cars and generally covered a fair amount of territory. Among my treasured memories of the "sights" are the nights we slept (or tried to) in railroad stations, abandoned school houses, and straw stacks. When sleep wouldn't come, sometimes we lay gazing at the stars while Dorn told me about the ancient Greeks or Romans. He introduced me to Alexander the Great, Plato, Didymus, Aristotle, and Pliny the Elder. He related some of the philosophy of Schopenhauer and William James. And his knowledge of the Old Testament opened my eyes to many interesting stories and events. Those summer nights awakened in me a curiosity to learn and a determination to see more of the world. Awakening the desire to learn was soon to become his life's calling as a teacher and administrator in Carroll and Patrick Counties.

His formal education didn't come all that easily. There were not the abundance of scholarships available in those days as there are today. He would clerk in country stores, survey land for conservation, and sometimes he would suspend his college pursuits and teach awhile wherever he could find an opening. Sometimes he performed hard, manual labor. He once left Mayberry for Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri with only $6.50 in his jeans. "Looks like I'll have to ride the box cars a little to get there, but I'll make it for opening session," he told a mutual friend. And, of course, he did. Excelling all the way. He would receive his masters degree a few years later at Duke University.

World War II divided our paths and for three or more decades we only saw each other at funerals and some brief visits during Summer vacations. But upon our retirements in the late 70's, our paths were to merge once more and we began to discover that not very much had changed. We still held the same ideals and dreams and appreciated the same qualities in humanity. We began exploring some of our old haunts. We poked among the tombstones of old cemeteries, reading the engravings and recalling events in the lives of our departed friends. And we began to explore the back roads of Patrick County where Dorn had helped to establish school bus routes to get neglected children on their way to school. He told me of some of his trials and tribulations of running a school system without sufficient funds. As County Superintendent, he was determined to make educational opportunities available to every boy and girl in Patrick County. He established programs for those not interested in books to learn trades. They built houses from the ground to the roof with teen apprentice carpenters. And they sold them. During our tours, his greatest pride though, seemed to come when he could point out some glen or hollow where a boy or girl had lived whom he had helped inspire to pursue a formal education. He had helped a few of them obtain appointments to West Point and Annapolis.

Pretty soon during our back roads travels, an answer to a question that had puzzled me for years began to show through. Why had Dorn not pursued the opportunities that had presented themselves to become a college professor or chairman of a collegiate department? Even college president? He'd have made a good one. When the answer finally took shape, it was a simple one. He had sacrificed more glamorous and financially rewarding pursuits to stay home and do a job that needed to be done. Love for a land and its people and respect for his heritage had directed him into becoming exactly what he became: one of the top basketball coaches in the state; one of the finest teachers in Virginia; and one of the better school superintendents in the Commonwealth. To find, to teach, to shape, to awaken, to inspire, and to push if needs be, young people toward greater opportunities. It was an early choice. It was a noble choice. And it was a choice that has made Patrick County a better place in which to live...