Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

March 25, 2013

Tidbits: Keep Sgt. York's legacy alive

By Heather Mullinix
Assistant editor

CROSSVILLE — I'm going to start this column off with a disclaimer. I am an alumnae of Alvin C. York Institute. I believe in the dream of Sgt. Alvin C. York, and I believe the state made a promise to him that needs to be kept more than 70 years later.

State Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, and state Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, have introduced legislation to return operation of the state special school to the Fentress County Board of Education.

This is not new news. Several years ago, then-Gov. Phil Bredesen proposed ending state funding of the school and returning it to the county. That move was postponed but the effort has been revived. It's to be discussed in the House education subcommittee today and in the Senate government operations committee tomorrow.

The bill as introduced would form a transition committee charged with developing a plan to send the school to the county for operation in the 2014-'15 school year.

For those that don't know the history of Alvin C. York Agricultural Institute, it was formed in 1926 by the World War I hero, Sgt. Alvin C. York.

Sgt. York had opportunities to capitalize on his fame following his heroic actions in France. He returned home to a hero's welcome, with parades and offers to turn his fame into fortune.

He declined those offers, saying, "This uniform ain't for sale." He was modest about his accomplishments, often saying, "It's over; let's just forget about it."

He returned home and married his sweetheart, Gracie Williams, and went to work farming a piece of land pledged to him by the Nashville Rotary Club. When the money pledged didn't come in as expected, the young couple was saddled with a hefty mortgage, yet he still refused to use his fame for personal profit.

He dedicated himself to improving educational opportunities in a corner of the state that was rural and hard to get to. He toured the country raising funds for the school, raising $10,000 in 1919. He also received funds from the Tennessee General Assembly and from Fentress County.

At the school's dedication, Sgt. York said, "To the end that my people of Pall Mall and of Fentress County and the boys and girls of this mountainous section may enjoy the liberating influences and educational advantages which were denied me, I dedicate this institution and my life to its perpetuation and seek from the American people support in keeping with the great need."

The school opened in 1929 as a private school but financial pressures of the Great Depression made its survival difficult. York at one time mortgaged his farm to pay the teachers and keep the doors open.

In 1937, the state assumed control of the school. Before it did so, the state sought an opinion from the Tennessee Attorney General who, in 1936, wrote, "There can be no question but that the management of ... (York) ... rests upon the state Board of Education." That's what the board did, adopting a budget, selecting a principal and creating a new curriculum.

This move was added to Tennessee Public Acts in 1937, Chapter 33, which states, "The state Board of Education shall continue to supervise the administration of the state teachers' colleges and normal schools and the Alvin C. York Agricultural Institute; provided, that hereafter the Department of Administration shall prescribe the budgetary, accounting and financial reporting procedures for these colleges and schools."

It's been operated in that manner since that time.

The campus is unique. At more than 400 acres, its said to be the largest high school campus in the world. It includes a working farm and is designated as a wildlife management area by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

In addition to a robust academic curriculum, the school also has a fully functional career and technical education program and a Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps program. Students can take advantage of dual enrollment and dual credit classes and vocational certifications.

It continues to be an example of successful rural education. It's been recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence and was recognized by Redbook magazine as one of "America's Best Schools." The school was named a Reward School for 2011-'12, a status reserved for those schools scoring in the top five percent across the state in academic achievement and academic growth.

The school is a gem and a feather in the cap of our state education system. It's also a living memorial to Sgt. York.

The school has almost 700 students learning and growing on the campus, becoming adults and taking their place in the world. That's what Sgt. York wanted. That's his true legacy. I hope our legislators see that legacy continues.

There are many in this community who attended YAI. I hope you will contact the Tennessee General Assembly and Gov. Bill Haslam to support continued operation of the school by the state. Email Haslam at bill.haslam@tn.gov. You can call legislators toll free at 1-800-449-8366. Press 8 to connect be connected to the legislator you wish to talk with.

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Heather Mullinix is assistant editor of the Crossville Chronicle. Her column is published on Tuesday. She may be reached at hmullinix@crossville-chronicle.com.