Velma Buck loves being in school.
She earned two degrees in math from Vanderbilt University, a business diploma from the Nashville Business College and completed coursework toward her doctorate. She took more classes in computer programming as technology began to evolve so she could stay current.
“I love to learn,” she said. “I’d go back right now if I could.”
After 56 years in the classroom, the long-time educator retired from Cumberland County High School at the end of the 2020-’21 school year. She’s taught thousands of students and there’s one thing she knows without a doubt.
“Our students can compete with anybody,” Buck said. “I can go through a list and say I’ve had students go to MIT or Harvard or wherever they wanted. They became doctors, dentists, teachers, scientists, engineers and more.
“We have a lot of smart kids in this school. I’d bet on them anytime.”
A Cumberland County Girl
Buck attended school in Cumberland County, graduating from Crossville High School.
“So many teachers, from elementary all the way through, guided me,” she said, adding her mother had died when she was young. “They became my moms. I wanted to be just like them. But I’m not nearly as good as they are.”
One of those teachers, Diane Brown, took a particular interest in Buck — then Velma Neely — and helped her continue her education.
Buck was a stand-out high school basketball player for the Red Devils.
“I loved the game of basketball and played every weekend in my spare time,” she said.
Brown had helped Buck secure a scholarship to a college in Kentucky, but Buck was scouted for a women’s basketball team in Nashville. At that time, colleges didn’t have women’s basketball teams and Buck knew this was her only chance to keep playing.
“I knew that I had to tell Diane that I had accepted a scholarship to play basketball and would not be going to college in Kentucky,” she said. “I expected her to be upset, but she was not. Instead, she suggested that I attend Vanderbilt University while I was playing basketball.”
Brown wrote the reference letter, and Buck was accepted to Vanderbilt where she earned her degree in mathematics.
The team was supported by H.O. Balls, president of the Nashville Business College and Nashville Auto Diesel College. Other players either attended other area colleges or worked in the area. The team included some of the best women’s basketball players of the era, including Nera White from Lafayette, who was one of the first two women inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame and named one of the Top 100 athletes of the 20th Century. White led her team to eight straight national titles.
“I was fortunate to play with her at some of these championships,” Buck said.
Another player on the team, Sue Gunter, helped launch women’s collegiate basketball, and beloved University of Tennessee Coach Pat Summit was on the team at a later time.
“I didn’t know how good they were until I came back home,” she said. Brown had gifted her a book that detailed the history of the team, helping Buck see her place in athletic history.
Buck was injured midway through her third season and chose to leave the game — something she still thinks back on today wondering if she could have played another year.
“I had a chance to make All American if I had played just a little bit more,” she said.
A Career in
After graduating from Vanderbilt in about three and a half years, she returned to Cumberland County where she taught English for a teacher on maternity leave.
After that, she married her husband, Larry, and they planned to move to Brooklyn, NY. His father owned a printing business in Manhattan, and Buck was set to start teaching in Westchester County.
Just days after moving into their Brooklyn home, someone attempted to break into the house where they were staying. Larry decided they should return to Crossville.
“It was not easy getting out of these two commitments,” Buck said.
They called then-Superintendent O.C. Stewart. There was an opening for an algebra teacher at CCHS for her and a teacher/principal position at Cline Elementary for him. Larry served as the principal/teacher at one of the last one-room schools in Cumberland County before becoming a teacher and principal at Pine View Elementary.
It was 1964.
Buck taught various math classes, soon taking on advanced math and college-level courses as those were added to the curriculum.
Students are the best part of teaching, according to Buck.
“It’s the interaction with the kids,” she said.
When schools closed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Buck missed her students.
“It just wasn’t the same,” she said.
She penned a letter to each of her students and presented them with a graduate card.
“I realized how much I missed them. It’s like when you stand by the door and say good morning, or you hear them laughing — it’s all of that,” she said. “Of course, I like to teach them and see them be good mathematicians. And I like to learn from them. They teach me sometimes.”
Buck believes every student can learn — including learning math.
“They might not learn at the same rate or in the same amount, but they can learn,” she said.
Buck said she wasn’t sure about offering college-level courses in high school when it was first proposed.
“I said they’re not ready. But I said, ‘Let’s give it a chance.’ And they did fine,” she said.
She’s heard from students over the years that they were well prepared for their college courses, skipping introductory or foundation courses, or finding the curriculum was what they had always covered.
Principal Jon Hall — who taught math before becoming an administrator — said he found his college calculus class was a repeat of his high school course. If there was a topic he needed a refresher on, he would take off early from Tennessee Tech and return to Crossville.
“I would come home and ask for help from the absolute best math teacher ever,” he said.
In addition to teaching, Buck also coached the CCHS girls basketball team for 12 years.
“It was a good experience,” Buck said.
High school girls basketball has changed quite a bit. It wasn’t the five-on-five full-court game of today.
She also served as sponsor of the Math Club for more than 30 years and the math department chair for 20. She organized math competitions at Tennessee Tech, Roane State, UT and the Tennessee Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges, and conducted the countywide eighth-grade math contest for many years. She also organized reward trips for the Math Club, including trips to Six Flags in Georgia, and the Huntsville, AL, Space Center. She helped raise money through car washes and various sales.
She served on many school committees, including helping with homecoming activities or reviewing textbooks. She served as a class sponsor to numerous CCHS classes. She was chairperson for curriculum for the Southern Association of Schools accreditation process.
Velma and Larry had three children, Tina Ricky and C.W., granddaughters, Madison and Ainsley, and grandson, Trip. Larry passed away in 2011.
Buck’s accolades include being named an Outstanding Educator Honoree by her alma mater, Vanderbilt University, and was among three state finalists for the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, a two-time honoree as Teacher of the Year, and a Career Level III teacher.
But for Buck, teaching has always been about the students. They chimed in to share their memories of being her student and, in many cases, her colleague.
Hall credits Buck and Blaine Moore for inspiring him to enter the education field.
Keri Campbell Phipps, chief information officer at Roane State Community College, earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science and math.
“Mrs. Buck was one of the best teachers I ever had,” she said. “She took the time with her students to explain when we were not understanding. She was always so patient and calm. She is a true legacy for Cumberland County.”
Shannon Franklin Shelley took calculus with Buck in 1998-’99.
“As someone who always always had trouble with math, she made it make sense to me,” she said. “Her class is one of the only math classes I remember not crying my way through.”
Buck’s patience and encouragement made Shelley believe in her math abilities as she pursued a career as an optometrist.
Matt Selby said being one of Buck’s students was one of his best memories of high school.
“I always tell people I thought I was good at math in high school,” he said. “It turns out I just had a really good teacher.”
Glenn Thompson, whose mother taught Algebra II at CCHS at the time, said, “Mrs. Buck was my mother’s best friend and they ate lunch every school day for 27 years. I think the world of her. She was always a caring teacher, an amazing educator, and an immeasurable friend. Though she was soft spoken, her words changed the lives of thousands of people. I wish her the happiest of retirements!”
Kelly Wyatt Barger said Buck’s class prepared her and other engineering students to be successful in calculus 1, 2 and 3 at Tennessee Tech and remains, in her estimation, the very best calculus teacher.
“Many fond memories of her classes and learning how to program the TI-85,” she said.
Nancy Hyder was scheduled to take geometry the year Buck would be out for maternity leave. She said she changed classes and took chemistry that year, instead.
“I wanted Ms. Buck,” Hyder said. “She could get you to understand a difficult subject.”
Hyder became a teacher and returned to CCHS herself, teaching alongside Buck for many years.
“She is the nicest, most kind person I have ever met,” Hyder said.
Amanda Houston, local accountant, said Buck talked her into taking calculus, saying she would need it for a business degree like accounting.
“I told her that sounded boring and I wasn’t majoring in business,” Houston said.
Some 20 years later, Houston is a CPA. The foundation she gained in Buck’s class helped her be successful in her college classes.
“She was calm, thorough, kind and very good at explaining and writing many examples on the board,” Houston said.
Kevin Dean, planning administrator for the city of Crossville, was in advanced math and calculus classes taught by Buck. As a high school student, he had been planning to study medicine.
“She’s the reason I switched to engineering,” he said.
Daryl Bush added, “I remember her explaining math as just a problem or puzzle that needed to be solved. Every problem has a solution. It just takes determination and sometimes patience to figure it out.”
He’s using those problem-solving skills to this day.
Dr. Cosby Stone Jr., an instructor in medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said Buck’s instruction in precalculus, statistics, and calculus offered him a great foundation for his continued education.
“I remember really loving that advanced math because she was the one who taught it,” he said. He started college in another field but says he went back to math, armed with the confidence he gained through his classes with Buck and Thompson.
“I attribute a tone of credit to Ms. Buck and Ms. Thompson who both believed in me as a math student,” he said.
Teacher Me’Haley Babich added, “Mrs. Buck believed in all of us. She bought my entire Calculus 2 class duffel bags with luggage tags of our intended university attached to them. She knew we would be successful and wanted to support us in our dreams. I still have that duffel bag and use it even now as I pursue my Ph.D. in an education field.”
Buck turned 80 last December. Having worked for most of her life, she’s adjusting to retirement and looking for activities. She enjoys tennis and still likes to play basketball. An injury to her wrist has kept her sidelined for a bit, but she’s hoping she can get back on the court — the half-court — for senior games.
Looking back, Buck’s only regret is that she didn’t continue her basketball career a few more seasons. But she has no regrets about her 56 years in education.
“As a teacher, I have had the unique opportunity to impact the lives of many students in the same way that teachers like Diane Brown influenced my life. Teaching has been my passion for the past 56 years, and school is my happy place!” she said.
Cumberland County High School is hosting a retirement reception for Buck on Sept. 16 from 4-6 p.m. in the CCHS Library. Former students and colleagues are invited to stop by and wish her well.