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Words Remembered Fifty Years Later

Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 10.21.02 AMI saw myself as a college freshman while I watched the performers last Saturday night at the kick-off of the Tennessee Tech Centennial Celebration. When Tech marked its fifty-year anniversary, I was there. I’d graduated from Pickett County High School and enrolled in Tech two weeks later. Summer quarter felt like the days I’d spent on Tech’s campus for 4-H meetings and contests. Not many students, laid back attitudes, and I took one class, a whole year of biology.

In September, the atmosphere morphed into real college life. Hectic schedules, crowded sidewalks, full dormitories, many people. It was overwhelming and frightening for this girl who’d walked the graduation line with only fifty high school classmates.

I would’ve been happiest weaving my way on the paths I’d learned during summer school and pretending I wasn’t a newcomer, but like every other freshman, I wore a beanie, a gold and purple hat. I stuck it on the crown of my head and snatched it off in all-freshmen classes, but when I walked across campus, that beanie balanced on my head, less an upperclassman see me without it. Most simply reminded us newbies to cover our heads, but I lived in fear that one would ask me to sing the Tech hymn as had happened to a friend.

Some freshmen events were optional, but no one was exempt from the President’s Welcome Reception, hosted by President and Mrs. Everett Derryberry. We students were expected to dress up, and not wear our beanies, even though the reception was held in Memorial Gymnasium. I put on my best Sunday dress, hose, and high heels and walked with friends across campus from Unit B dorm on that warm late afternoon.

The gym was hot and packed with people. Students coiled around the basketball court and zigzagged in the middle forming a seemingly endless line to shake hands with President and Mrs. Derryberry, who stood close to the bleachers at the basketball half-court line.

Secretly, I was excited to meet Mrs. Derryberry. I didn’t know anyone from England. Senator Albert Gore had visited in my home when I was a child, and I’d shaken hands with Governor Buford Ellington. But I’d never met someone who looked like royalty, and Joan Derryberry had the look of a queen.

She wore a blue dress that day. A string of white pearls circled her neck. Her hair styled in a loose French twist and a soft wave swept over her forehead. I was nervous. What would I say to such important people? I watched as other students shook hands with President and Mrs. Derryberry. A quick handshake and a few words.

Finally, it was my turn. President Derryberry clasped my hand and I told him my name. He nodded, welcomed me, and introduced me to his wife. Mrs. Derryberry leaned toward me, her face just inches from mine. Her eyes squinted with her smile. She enclosed my right hand in both her hands and in a soft voice she first complimented me on standing tall and straight and whatever she said after that included the word beautiful. Then she asked me where I was from. “Byrdstown,” I said, and she nodded and assured me she knew exactly where it was and she wished me well at Tech.

A brief mandatory conversation. A greeting that made a small town girl feel important. Words I have carried for fifty years.

 

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