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War hero Sergeant York still helps a few good men & women find Berea

“Sergeant York is the Berea kind,” proclaimed a promotional flyer Berea College mailed to prospective donors in 1919. “Sergeant York, whom the world takes note of as the doer of the greatest personal exploit of the war, is quite a typical mountain man.”

The exploit, dramatized a generation later in an Academy Award-winning feature film, won York a Congressional Medal of Honor, some 40 Allied decorations, and enormous popular acclaim upon his return to the United States after World War I ended. A hero-seeking American public, craving reassurance that American involvement in the war had been worthwhile, wanted to know not only what York did, but also who he was.

Alvin C. York was a 30-year-old draftee from Pall Mall in Fentress County, Tennessee. He appeared to derive his strength from a staunch Christian faith and a deep pride in his rural Appalachian roots. Americans quickly demonstrated their approval of these qualities by their willingness to pay to hear York speak and buy products that he endorsed. But with hostilities ended, where was this man to go?

He went home, where his postwar accomplishments stamp him as one of the greatest Americans that Southern Appalachia has produced. York biographer John Perry has written that “Sergeant York is not a hero only because he killed about two dozen Germans, captured 132, and saved the lives of eleven American soldiers, including himself, one autumn morning in France. That proved his patriotism, bravery, and resourcefulness, not his heroism. He is a hero because he felt a burden to use his fame for the benefit of the mountain children of Tennessee – rather for his own comfort and security – and acted on that burden.”

York directed his greatest efforts toward the establishment of a high school. The school still exists and continues to send some of its most promising graduates to Berea College. Phil Brannon is the current superintendent of that school, which is located in Jamestown, the Fentress County seat.

“Sergeant York hunted in these mountains and he farmed, like everybody did back then,” Brannon says. “But then he went off to war, and he saw big cities like New York and places overseas, and he realized that without an education, our people weren’t going anywhere. When the sergeant came back here, he decided he was going to find a way to educate the mountain boys and girls.”

York returned to a Fentress County where grades one through eight were taught in one-room schoolhouses, and no kindergarten or high school existed. While working tirelessly to raise money to acquire land and erect buildings and hire teachers for a high school, York was obliged to overcome the opposition of local power brokers content with the status quo. He persisted. In January 1926 he declared, “When I die, I had rather it be said about me that I gave my life toward aiding my fellow man than for it to be said that I became a millionaire through capitalizing on my fame as a fighter.” The York Institute opened its doors that fall.

“The Alvin C. York Agricultural Institute is a public high school,” Brannon explains. “We accept any student with no restrictions. Right now our enrollment is about 700. We’re unique because we’re completely state funded. I don’t have to deal with a school board, and I’m under no pressure to create jobs and hire somebody’s cousin or friend. We try to spend every penny we possibly can on students.”

Mining is not a major industry in Fentress County, whose population is about 15,000. “Our biggest employer is the school system. The next biggest is the hospital. Over 50% of our households have some type of farming operation. They may have a few goats or chickens, a few head of cows.

“Almost all of our manufacturing jobs have gone. This county has little to offer young people in the way of jobs unless they want to be teachers or get into the health field. Our students realize they’re going to have to go out into the world. This is a world economy now.”

Brannon presides over the largest high school campus in America. Its 450 acres include a 90-acre farm that produces angus cattle and hay. There are some garden plots, some chickens and rabbits, and a new horse science program. About 70 students participate in agricultural programs.

“Our curriculum includes a wide variety of offerings: vocational, technical, business, college prep. We’re moving our students as rapidly as we can into the world of technology. We preach at our students that they’re not going to make it in this world unless they go beyond high school.” He estimates that 85-90% of his graduating seniors continue their education at a vocational school or college.

“It has been more than 40 years since Sergeant York passed away, but his dream is very much alive,” Brannon adds. “I think we’ve exceeded what even he could have imagined York Institute would become.”

Fentress County sits squarely within Berea College territory, and in the past decades many YAI graduates have enrolled at Berea. Jonathan Sands, ’09, grew up on a small Fentress County cattle farm. He began raising his own chickens as a high school freshman.

“At YAI you learn about Sergeant York the first day you walk in the door,” he says. “You spend a month learning about him in your freshman English class, and you make a couple of trips to his house. He’s in your history textbooks. He did some wonderful things for back home.

“After the classes I was encouraged to take at YAI, I came to Berea prepared. I earned my B.S. degree in Agriculture. I liked the Berea course requirements. At a bigger school I could have taken nothing but ag classes, but at Berea you have to broaden your horizons. Berea won’t let you stay secluded in your major.”

In 2010 Jonathan intends to execute the business plan he formulated for his senior seminar. “I still live in Berea, and I want to start a pasture poultry operation in this area, selling eggs and some meat products. There are startup costs with chickens, but I already have some birds back home I can bring up here.”

Joey Derse, ’00, is an artist and a poet. Growing up in a mountain village where life was hard and often violent, he found beauty in the outdoors, which, he says, “will always influence my art.” At YAI, “I learned the importance of fitness, involvement, and creativity.” He earned two Presidential Academic Fitness Awards.

Joey valued Berea’s diversity. “I learned all about cultures, religions, dance, food, art, and spirituality. Berea opened my eyes as if they had been closed and taught me a lot about myself.” An Art major, “I learned how to further my conceptions of visual art. I learned that high art requires a feeling of urgency and innocence. Create beauty, and not only will you become beautiful, but you will attain patience.”

Because he sees volunteering as “a basic survival need,” Joey has worked for H.E.A.L., Students for Appalachia, Habitat for Humanity, and Ohio Citizen Action. As an artist he considers everyone his muse and “works from everything, from the resonance of sound to a piece of wood, to a paint brush and other painting materials.”

Leslie Choate-Porter, ’10, was preceded at YAI by family members who performed well academically. That gave her an extra incentive to learn, and when she graduated in 2004 she felt prepared for the rigors of college work. But college was not a fit for her at first.

“I had a tough time with the transition,” she recalls. “I lasted half a semester at Berea. I wasn’t going to class, wasn’t doing homework. I was irresponsible. Finally I chose to leave.”

Working as a waitress off and on, Leslie struggled “to figure out who I was. In August 2005 I found myself pregnant. I did not want to raise a child while unemployed and under-educated. I came back to Berea and reapplied. Some really nice people, including some of my old teachers at YAI, wrote letters on my behalf. Thankfully, I was readmitted.

“Any other college would probably not have readmitted me. But they were willing to listen to how I had grown and understood the purpose of college rules.”

Leslie resumed her education in the spring of 2006 and delivered her baby four days after the semester ended. Later she married another Berea student, and together they are raising four children.

Leslie chose Women’s Studies as her major. “Berea is accommodating and compassionate toward students who are parents,” she says. “Academically, the school is very challenging. Berea keeps its standards high.” She plans to earn a doctorate and teach at a small college someday, preferably Berea.

Like many Berea students, Jayla Pennycuff, ’11, is the first member of her family to go to college. “I grew up in Fentress County and lived in the same house all of my life,” she says. “My mother dropped out of high school, but she went back to YAI and finished when I was a small child. She urged me to finish my education, and because of YAI and Berea, I can finish. I’ve been on the Dean’s List since I got here, and the way I see it, not graduating is not an option. My options are graduating or graduating with honors.”

Jayla is majoring in Speech Communication, with a minor in Business. She’ll head to business school after earning her Berea degree.

“I’ve encouraged YAI students to apply to Berea. It’s a brilliant idea, offering students from a low-income community an opportunity at a great education. This opportunity is not unimaginable, not out of reach.

“Growing up in the mountains, I never realized the differences between there and anywhere else. But since coming to Berea I’ve made friends from all over the United States and other parts of the world, and I’m starting to see how my upbringing has shaped me. At home there’s a sense of community, of friendliness and helping others. Berea is similar. It’s close-knit. Everyone knows everybody. I appreciate the small class sizes and the small campus where I can get to know more people.”

Ashley Sharp, ’13, is the latest YAI graduate to enroll at Berea. At the beginning of her freshman year in high school, Ashley’s family moved to Fentress County from the great city of Cincinnati. The leap from middle school to high school always tests an adolescent, but Ashley faced the possibility of major culture shock.

“That didn’t happen,” she recalls, “because the people at YAI made it easy. They were all very friendly every step of the way. The students were welcoming and eager to talk to new people, and it was obvious that the teachers and the staff cared a lot about the students. Whatever you want to do or wherever you want to go, the people at YAI will help you get there.

“Sergeant York was a hero,” she asserts. “You can still see the impact he made on Fentress County in the students who come through YAI.” When Ashley heard about Berea College she read everything about it she could find. Instantly she saw parallels between Alvin York and Berea founder John G. Fee. Both were visionaries and strong Christians determined to transform faith into action. While neither man was a trained professional educator, both dedicated their lives to providing educational opportunity for those who needed it.

Ashley plans to major in Biology. “I want a high-quality liberal arts education that will teach me to think. Jayla told me that a ‘C’ from Berea would be an ‘A’ at another school. If that’s so, what will it take to earn an ‘A’ at Berea? I know the work will be demanding, but I see it as a challenge, and I’m not afraid of it.” Her ultimate goal is to pursue stem cell research.

YAI’s Director of Student Services, Larry Bruce Beaty, has worked at the school since 1967. When he was 7 or 8, he recalls, “My father was in the timber business, and when he hauled the timber off Alvin C’s place, he took me with him when he went to pay for it. Sergeant York would always get me up in his lap and talk to me. He never talked about war or being a soldier. He’d talk about life.

“Sergeant York wanted literacy to be widespread. There were a lot of illiterate people here, including him. He barely could read. He wanted to make sure that children up and coming had a good place to get an education.

“In his day and in the present day, there are a lot of kids with mental ability here in Appalachia, but that ability doesn’t get cultivated like it does in other places. But now we’re tapping that potential more than we ever have.”

Beaty adds, “Berea College is a great school, and I would recommend it to anyone who wanted to go. We’ve never had a student go to Berea who has had a bad experience. One thing that intrigues me about Berea is that every student works to help pay the bills. Students who have to work learn to manage their time. They get a better education and become better citizens.”

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The preceding article was authored solely by contributing author Tom Chase.

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