Teacher Town, USA

By David Hill — October 01, 2000 22 min read
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Emporia, Kansas, a small city smack in the middle of nowhere, aspires to be the nation’s capital for teaching. And why not?

“National Teachers Hall of Fame—10 Miles.” The sign on the interstate told me I was close to my destination: Emporia, Kansas, a prairie town, population 28,000, about an hour south of Topeka. Another billboard announced that I was in the Bible Belt: “Accept Jesus Christ and You Shall Be Saved—Or Regret It Forever!”

For years, Emporia was known—if it was known at all—as the home of William Allen White, editor and publisher of the Emporia Gazette. White, who died in 1944, was dubbed the “Sage of America” for his books and editorials, many of which extolled the virtues of small-town America. At the Gazette‘s office in downtown Emporia, you can gaze at White’s legendary roll-top desk.

I had come to Emporia for a different reason: to attend the ninth annual Hall of Fame Weekend, during which five teachers would be recognized for their outstanding work. Formed in 1989 by administrators at Emporia State University, the nonprofit Hall of Fame is still relatively unknown—and underfunded. Unlike the glitzy Disney American Teacher Awards or the slick Milken Educator Awards, the National Teachers Hall of Fame is a low-budget, home-grown affair. Case in point: Inductees and their families stay at the Ramada Inn, apparently Emporia’s best hotel—and a perfectly adequate establishment—but not exactly the Ritz. By contrast, Milken honorees are put up at the plush Century Plaza Hotel, in Los Angeles.

As I drove into Emporia, I could see that the town had pulled out all the stops. A banner that read, “Welcome National Teachers Hall of Fame Inductees,” had been strung across Commercial Street, the city’s once-thriving main strip. American flags were waving in front of nearly every business. At the Ramada, the sign said, “Welcome Nat Teachers Hall of Fame.”

I confess I was highly skeptical. Sure, great teachers deserve to be honored, even rewarded with cash. The old cliché about teachers being “unsung heroes” is absolutely true. But a hall of fame? If you go to the Baseball Hall of Fame, in Cooperstown, New York, you’re going to see familiar faces on the wall: Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson. But teaching has no superstars, no celebrities. OK, it has one: Jaime Escalante. And when I looked at the list of the 40 previous Hall of Fame inductees, his was the only name I recognized.

On the other hand, there are halls of fame for just about everything. There’s the International Frisbee Hall of Fame, in Lake Linden, Michigan; the International Bowling Museum and Hall of Fame, in St. Louis; the National Inventors Hall of Fame, in Akron, Ohio; the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, in Oklahoma City; the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, in Hayward, Wisconsin; the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, in Burns, Tennessee; and, my favorite, the National Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame, in Euclid, Ohio. (Why it’s not in Cleveland is a mystery.) There must be hundreds, if not thousands, of others. Surely if there’s a hall of fame for Cleveland-Style polka music, there ought to be one for teachers.

Still, I wondered. Was this just a chamber of commerce ploy to lure people off the interstate and into Emporia’s shops? Besides, why Emporia, a place that can honestly be described as being in the middle of nowhere? This had to be some kind of joke—or so I thought.

Notebook in hand, I headed over to the Hall of Fame, housed in the nondescript library of the former College of Emporia, which closed in 1973. It had been a typically hot and muggy June day, but now, in the early evening, the temperature had cooled considerably. About 100 townspeople were gathered under large oak trees, sipping root beer floats and listening to the Emporia Municipal Band play familiar tunes, including “Whistle While You Work,” “Pop Goes the Weasel,” and, just before the inductees were introduced, “When We Were a Couple of Kids” (“School days, school days, dear old golden rule days. . .”). Several dozen American flags fluttered in the cool breeze. In the distance, I could hear the sound of a train whistle blowing. It was like a Norman Rockwell scene come to life.

At one point, I was pulled aside by Jeff O’Dell, news director at KVOE-AM (“The One You Depend On”), who had decided that my presence was newsworthy enough for an interview. I mumbled something about how pleased I was to be in Emporia and how nice everyone seemed and how teachers are rarely treated with this kind of respect and hospitality. Sure enough, the next morning, as I drove from the Ramada to the Village Inn Restaurant for breakfast, my remarks were part of a story about the band concert. It was somewhat unsettling to hear my voice on the radio before I’d even had my first cup of coffee.

The cliché about teachers being “unsung heroes” is absolutely true. But a hall of fame? I was skeptical.

The municipal band concert was just a taste of things to come. Held on a Thursday evening, it was a chance for the five inductees to relax a bit before a busy weekend, which would include a tightly scheduled series of events. On Friday, they would attend a luncheon at Emporia State University, followed by an afternoon of workshops with young teachers from all across Kansas. In the evening, there would be a barbecue at the historic Z Bar Ranch, about 30 miles west of Emporia in the Flint Hills. On Saturday, the inductees would be interviewed by O’Dell on his public affairs radio program, “The Talk of Emporia.” Afterward, they would have lunch at the home of Kay Schallenkamp, president of Emporia State and president of the Hall of Fame’s board of directors. Then, that evening, the big event: the Hall of Fame banquet at the university, followed by the induction ceremony.

And those were just the Emporia activities. Two weeks earlier, the inductees had been flown to Washington, D.C., where they met and chatted with U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley and other Clinton administration officials.

On Friday morning, I went back to the Hall of Fame to talk with Dave Eldridge and David Jahn. Eldridge, a plain-spoken man who bears an uncanny resemblance to Republican vice presidential nominee Richard Cheney, has been the Hall of Fame’s executive director since 1994. Jahn, who was wearing a splashy red tie and round designer glasses, was recently hired to replace Eldridge, who is retiring.

The Hall of Fame, Eldridge told me, was conceived in the late 1980s, when he was Emporia State’s director for alumni affairs. He and others thought honoring teachers this way could win publicity for the university, which had been founded as a teachers’ college back in 1863. It could also bring tourists to Emporia. Eldridge was asked to put together a task force to launch the project. “We just felt that we could do it,” he said. “So we put our stake in the ground, and with the money we had and the drive and determination, we just went for it.” I had been told that it was Eldridge who dreamed up the Hall of Fame concept, but he declined to take full credit.

“Dave is being modest,” Jahn insisted. “He really was the driving force behind it. This was his baby.”

Eldridge, who grew up near Cooperstown, told me he was inspired in part by the Baseball Hall of Fame. “Plus, my parents were both teachers, and so was my wife,” he said. “So I’ve been around them. They really are the ones who make a difference in people’s lives, yet we don’t do the proper recognition.”

From the beginning, the mission of the Hall of Fame was to honor great teachers, but Eldridge and the other founders also wanted to create a museum of American education and a conference center, where teachers could come together from around the country and share ideas. The university even had a spot in mind for a brand-new building: It would be on the edge of the campus, just next to the interstate, sitting behind an old one-room schoolhouse. Those plans remain unrealized, though Jahn says one of his goals is to build a new facility.

The current building, donated to the Hall of Fame by an Emporia businessman and his wife, has a small teaching museum, lovingly curated by volunteer Bill Samuelson, a retired professor of education. The most prominent display is a floor-to-ceiling collection of classroom artifacts, including a wooden yardstick, a manual typewriter, an English textbook from 1928, a school bell, a box of flash cards, a record player, and a microscope. There’s also a sort of Hall of Champions, with photographs of each Hall of Fame member and accompanying biographical information. Still, it isn’t exactly a hot spot on the tourist trail.

‘[Teachers] really are the ones who make a difference in people’s lives.’

Dave Eldridge,
Executive Director,
National Teachers Hall of Fame

Horace Mann, an insurance company for teachers, was an early corporate donor to the Hall of Fame. It gives each inductee a $1,000 check. Other sponsors include Scott Foresman, the textbook publisher, which donates $1,000 worth of reading material to winners; ServiceMaster, a janitorial services company, which contributes a $1,000 scholarship to a student in each honoree’s district who aspires to be a teacher; and Herff Jones, makers of class rings and yearbooks, which gives each inductee a gold ring. The Hall of Fame’s annual budget is about $500,000. That’s small potatoes compared to what the Milken Family Foundation spends. Just days after the Hall of Fame weekend, the foundation held its awards dinner—hosted by Larry King—in Los Angeles. Decked out in tuxedos and formal wear, 172 teachers each received a check for $25,000. That’s $4.3 million in prize money alone.

Candidates for the Hall of Fame, who must have at least 20 years of classroom experience, are usually nominated by someone else, say, a superintendent or a principal. They may, however, put themselves up for the honor. Each year, Eldridge told me, the Hall of Fame receives about 100 nominations-a surprisingly low number for an organization with national aspirations. A selection committee whittles the list down to 40 or 50 teachers, who are asked to produce videos about themselves and their teaching. Then, in the spring, the committee chooses five inductees based, according to promotional materials, on a number of factors, including “extent of dedication to the profession of teaching,” “depth and breadth of knowledge of teaching,” and “significant contributions” to students.

This year’s group of honorees comprised five women: Debi Barrett-Hayes, a high school art teacher from Tallahassee, Florida; Nancy Berry, an elementary school principal from Logansport, Indiana; Susan Haas, a kindergarten teacher from Corona, California; Leslie Revis, a high school Spanish teacher from Beaufort, South Carolina; and Sandra Worsham, a recently retired high school English teacher from Milledgeville, Georgia.

“The evaluation of teachers is subjective,” Eldridge conceded. “These are among the best, but we can’t say these are absolutely, positively the best. Nonetheless, it’s extremely important that these top people get this kind of recognition. And hall of fame recognition in any profession is the top rung.”

I asked Eldridge if it was frustrating to compete with the big boys: Milken, Disney, the National Teacher of the Year program, and others. “Sure,” he said. “We could use a full-time person just to work on publicity. And we don’t have the money to throw at teachers like some of the other programs do.” Last year, he said, the Washington trip was added in part to increase the program’s visibility. “We’re making strides, but we still have a long way to go.”

Jahn, whose most recent job was president of Children’s Hospital Foundation and Norton Hospitals Foundation, in Louisville, Kentucky, wants to take the Hall of Fame to the next level. That means raising enough money for a first-rate facility, which he believes will help distinguish the Hall of Fame from other teacher recognition programs.

“The Hall of Fame,” he noted in a press release just after taking the job as executive director, “should be much more than a place to be enshrined. It should be a place that’s alive, touching the lives of people of all ages every week, month, and year. Ceremonies are important, but they tend to be what they are-a fleeting moment of recognition one evening each year, not an everyday, enduring testament to the teaching profession.”

I was surprised to hear Jahn raise the possibility of moving the Hall of Fame out of Emporia. “We may find somebody who wants to write a check,” he told me, “and if they do, we might put it where they want it. That’s open for discussion. As an old fund-raiser, when somebody says, ‘I’d like to give you several million dollars, and here’s what I want,’ you at least pay attention.”

‘A teachers’ hall of fame doesn’t have to be at Disney World or in Washington, D.C. What sets us apart is that we’re in the heartland.’

Dave Eldridge,
Executive Director,
National Teacher Hall of Fame

Later, he amended his statement somewhat: “The local folks want the Hall of Fame to stay here. That’s the commitment. You can build a facility in a small town, and, sort of like Field of Dreams, ‘if you build it, they will come.’ Certainly the intent is to keep it here.” Still, Jahn would like to find partners with big bucks—maybe even Disney—to help put the Hall of Fame in the national spotlight. Another idea would be to use the Hall of Fame building to honor award winners from all the teacher recognition programs.

“Can I just say something about location?” Eldridge interjected. “It’s in Emporia right now, and I don’t think you should suggest we’re looking to move or anything like that. I don’t think we are. And frankly, I hope it stays here. I mean, a teachers’ hall of fame doesn’t have to be at Disney World or in Washington, D.C. What sets us apart is that we’re in the heartland. There’s a lot of merit to where we’re located.”

The next day, I met Helen Case, a retired Kansas teacher who was part of the first group of Hall of Fame inductees in 1992. She’s been back to Emporia every year since. Case told me that she was “disturbed” to hear talk of joining forces with other recognition programs. “I think it would be a mistake,” she said. “You can’t compare the other awards with the Hall of Fame. This is the highest honor that teachers can get.”

On Friday evening, I drove out to the Z Bar Ranch, established in the 19th century by cattleman Stephen Jones, a pioneer from the South, and now part of the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. In front of the old ranch house, where a group of middle school students, dubbed the Hall of Fame Chorus, was setting up for a concert, I met Sandra Worsham, one of this year’s inductees. A handsome woman with short gray hair and wire-rimmed glasses, she spent 30 years in the classroom before retiring in 1999. For most of her career, she taught high school English to at-risk students in Milledgeville, Georgia. Her list of previous awards is impressive: She was Georgia’s Teacher of the Year in 1982, a Milken Educator in 1992, and, last year, she was named to Georgia’s Teachers Hall of Fame.

I asked her how the National Teachers Hall of Fame compared with the Milken honors, established by fallen junk bond guru Michael Milken and his brother, Lowell, and well-known for the lavishness of its awards banquet and accompanying three-day education conference. “They’re both wonderful,” she told me. “You can’t really compare.”

She added: “I love Emporia. My town of Milledgeville is similar in size. You always hear about Southern hospitality. Well, I think that the people in Emporia know a whole lot about Southern hospitality. They just make us feel like they really value teachers. They make you feel famous.”

As we talked, a woman walked up to Worsham and said, “You were on the front page of the paper today.” A photographer from the Gazette, it turned out, had snapped a picture of her at the Municipal Band concert.

“I was?” Worsham asked in her Georgia drawl. “Well, when do I get to see that paper, I wonder?”

‘[As teachers], we have to produce from the heart.’

Leslie Revis,
Hall of Fame inductee

The woman offered to get her a copy.

“Thank you so much,” Worsham said.

Nearby, Leslie Revis, another of the five inductees, was keeping an eye on her 2-year-old son, Adam, who was desperately trying to get closer to a group of horses that had appeared on the scene. Revis, whose long, dark hair was tied back in a ponytail, began teaching in 1973, shortly after graduating from the University of California at San Diego, a school to which she was initially denied admission because of low entrance-exam scores—even though she had straight A’s and was the class valedictorian. She wrote a letter to the dean, arguing that a two-hour test couldn’t possibly measure “four years of excellence” and that, if accepted, she would never let him down. The university reversed its decision, and Revis kept her end of the bargain. She likes to tell the story to inspire her students. “We have to produce from the heart,” she said, “and we have to show people the wholeness of our being and not just what we can do by bubbling in a score sheet.”

Like Worsham, Revis has received a number of awards and honors. But she, too, marveled at the way she and the other teachers were being treated by the people of Emporia. “Oh, my gosh!” she said. “When they picked me up at the airport in Kansas City, my name was on the side of the car. It said, ‘Leslie Revis. National Teachers Hall of Fame Inductee.’ I couldn’t believe it! It’s just very touching and very moving.”

Our conversation was cut short when the Hall of Fame Chorus broke into “This Little Light of Mine.” After a short set, it was time for the 100 or so guests- which included the inductees, their families, former inductees, university administrators, corporate sponsors, and Hall of Fame volunteers-to move into the nearby Spring Hill Barn, an enormous three-story limestone structure built in 1881, for a barbecue dinner. Long tables with red and white checkered tablecloths had been set up at one end of the barn, which was full of antique farm equipment. Mary’s Place, a restaurant in the nearby town of Cottonwood Falls, had provided the food-beef brisket, corn, green beans, dinner rolls, and chocolate cake. It was a beautiful night on the prairie-off in the distance, a thunderstorm was moving across the Flint Hills-and though the barn was hot and stuffy, no one seemed to mind.

By Saturday afternoon, the sweltering Kansas heat and humidity had returned, leaving members of the Hall of Fame Chorus sweating through their rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” as they awaited the arrival of the newest Hall of Fame members.

“The limo’s coming!” someone yelled, and, just then, a long, white, well-used Cadillac Fleetwood pulled up in front of the Hall of Fame. The driver opened the door, and out came Sandra Worsham, elegantly dressed in a dark suit, followed by the four other inductees. Their teenage escorts-nonsinging members of the chorus-took them by the hand and led them slowly up a ramp to the entrance of the building while friends and family members snapped pictures.

Once inside, the teachers were taken aside for formal photographs. Meanwhile, Dave Eldridge and David Jahn, both dressed in tuxedoes, mingled with the guests, which included a number of Hall of Fame members. The fare was no-frills: cheddar cheese, Ritz crackers, chips and dip, beer, and chilled wine from a box.

I bumped into Joseph York, one of the first Hall of Fame honorees. A heavyset man with a neatly cropped beard, he was wearing a black suit and a crisp white dress shirt with French cuffs. Like Helen Case, he’s been back to Emporia every year since 1992, and he plans to come for as long as he can. York, 56, was Tennessee’s State Teacher of the Year in 1991. He won a Milken award in 1993, and he’s attended the Milken awards and conference twice since then. “But that’s enough,” he told me. “I’m not going again. It’s nice, it’s great, but it does not have the depth of meaning that this does. You don’t form the friendships there with the people of Los Angeles that you form here with the people of Emporia. There’s a lot of glitz at the Milken awards, and the money’s nice. The pin is nice.” He pointed to a small Milken Educator Awards pin on the lapel of his jacket. “Bill Cosby was the MC the year I got the award, and that was special. But this is something that has more lasting value. I’ve already spent the $25,000 I got from Milken. It’s gone.”

‘[The Milken Award] is nice, but it does not have the depth of meaning that this does.’

Joseph York,
Hall of Fame honoree and Milken Award recepient

On his right ring finger, York was wearing his gold Hall of Fame ring. (“They didn’t give these out the first year,” he said, “so they let me buy it at cost.”) On his left hand, he was wearing two rings: a Kappa Sigma fraternity ring, a reminder of his college days, on his pinkie, and his state Teacher of the Year ring on his ring finger.

“The Hall of Fame is the top,” he said. “This is the summit, the pinnacle.”

I was beginning to realize that the National Teachers Hall of Fame had a lot going for it. I attended the Milken awards ceremony in 1997. (“The $25,000 Question,” March 1998.) And though it was clearly a thrilling and meaningful event for most of the honorees, the Milken family—not the teachers—seemed, oddly enough, to be the main attraction. Lowell Milken even showed slides of himself as a baby and pictures of his wedding. In Emporia, that would never happen. Dave Eldridge and the others involved with the Hall of Fame were reluctant to put themselves in the spotlight, while the teachers were made to feel like royalty—even if they weren’t given checks for $25,000.

The Hall of Fame, I thought, had somehow managed to capture the essence of a noble profession. Teachers, after all, do one of the few jobs that is still referred to as a “calling.” Likewise, the people of Emporia weren’t doing all this for fame, or money, or even for their egos. They were celebrating teachers for the best of reasons—because they deserved to be celebrated. If it helped put Emporia on the map, so much the better. And if it didn’t, well, that would probably be OK, too.

I remembered what Eldridge had told me: “We do this with class and dignity, and I think teachers appreciate that. It’s genuine, it’s real, and it involves a lot of people doing it from the heart.”

After about an hour or so at the reception, it was time for the weekend’s two final events: the Hall of Fame banquet, followed by the induction ceremony. Both were to take place at the university, a short drive away.

About 400 people were on hand for the dinner, held in a large ballroom. The guest list included many of Emporia’s civic and business leaders, including the president of the university, the president of the chamber of commerce, and the publisher of the Gazette. But there was also a large contingent of teachers and prospective teachers.

As the guests dined on steak, green beans, roasted potatoes, and chocolate cream pie, Lori Hutchinson, a television news anchor from Topeka who had been asked to serve as host for the evening, introduced the five inductees, who received a standing ovation.

On each table was a centerpiece consisting of three wooden schools: a circa 1900 one-room schoolhouse; a 1950s-era, flat-roof building; and a futuristic “school of tomorrow.” The centerpieces were handmade by Harry Hart, a retired high school art teacher and longtime Hall of Fame volunteer. According to the program, the table decorations could be purchased for a $40 donation to the Hall of Fame. (Hart’s centerpieces, I was told, have become collectors’ items.)

The Hall of Fame had somehow managed to capture the essence of a noble profession.

After dinner, everyone filed to a nearby auditorium for the induction ceremony. To the tones of Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major, the five honorees were escorted to their third-row seats by university students. What followed was something like a high school graduation ceremony with five valedictory speeches. Kay Schallenkamp, the university president, and Gary Sherrer, Kansas’ lieutenant governor, presented the teachers with Hall of Fame plaques.

“I hereby induct you into the National Teachers Hall of Fame,” Schallenkamp told them. “I commend each of you for being an exceptional teacher.” Then, one by one, each inductee stepped up for her moment in the spotlight. In one heartfelt speech after another, the teachers seemed overwhelmed by Emporia’s outpouring of love and affection.

“Thank you for opening up your arms and your hearts to all of us,” said Nancy Berry, as tears streamed down her face. “It’s been such a wonderful experience.” She added, “The responsibility of being a teacher is so great. I don’t take it lightly. We touch lives.”

Susan Haas, who seemed on the verge of crying whenever I talked to her, fought back tears as she recounted, in a rush of words, her first moments in Emporia, driving down the main strip, seeing the flags flying, and entering the museum. “I felt like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz,” she exclaimed, “as if a tornado full of love had suddenly swept me off my feet, and I felt an indescribable joy for the teaching profession.”

Debi Barrett-Hayes, too, found the Wizard of Oz metaphor irresistible. At the end of her speech, she pulled out a pair of ruby-red slippers, a gag gift for Dave Eldridge. “No matter where you go, Dave,” she said, “you can simply click these heals three times and know that there’s no place like Emporia.”

Leslie Revis, who was wearing a long purple dress over a simple white blouse, told how she became a teacher in part to honor her parents, who died in a plane crash when she was a girl. Through tears, she said: “Thank you for taking the time to say that it matters. Because you have said that the path I have followed, in honor of my parents, mattered.” The Hall of Fame, she said, is “a treasure to the nation.”

Sandra Worsham said, “Thank you, Teachers Hall of Fame, and sponsors, and this wonderful city of Emporia for recognizing and lifting up the profession from which all other professions grow: teacher. Listen to it: teacher. What a beautiful word.”

As Worsham sat down, Hutchinson announced, “Ladies and gentlemen—the 2000 National Teachers Hall of Fame inductees!” The audience members jumped to their feet for a standing ovation. Then, as the applause died down and the teachers were escorted back to their seats, Hutchinson noted, correctly, that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.


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