GHS Class of 1958
By Nancy Hicks Williams
Special to The Enterprise
Lawrence Edward “Sonny” Spears was born in Newtonville, Ohio, on May 2, 1941. He was the third-born of Jim Cecil and Ruth Cherry Spears’ seven children. In 1945, the family moved to Tennessee and settled on Old Liberty Road, Dresden. His paternal grandfather, James Spears, was a prominent tobacco farmer near Cumberland City, but they chose to relocate further south.
Sonny attended Liberty Country School from 1945 until 1949. “I started school when I was four years old. Mama and Daddy sent me to walk with my sister because she was afraid to walk that mile by herself. There were not a lot of laws or rules back then, so the teacher invited me to stay and start learning. Mrs. Vera Morris was my 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade teacher.”
“Liberty was a long, narrow, white, shotgun-type, two-room schoolhouse. Classes were in one room and a lunchroom in the other, managed by Mrs. Kate Young Bullock. She always had good country cooking, like Mama’s — potatoes, beans, and cornbread.”
“There was no front porch, just two front doors. The classroom door opened into the back of the classroom. Four or five long, parallel rows of wooden desks with black filigree iron frames and legs were nailed onto 2x4s to keep them from being shoved around, out of line. The room was always neat and orderly.”
“All desks were facing the opposite end of the room where Mrs. Vera was stationed in front of the blackboard, sort of like a pulpit in church. She would work with three or four grades at a time, assigning our individual sections in our workbooks from the board. One row of kids never paid attention to what another row was doing. She would give the arithmetic lesson, check it, grade it right then, and one at a time show each of us what we missed and how to correct it. She would do this over and over until we could consistently do the work correctly for that assignment, at that grade level, for that day. No one was ever left behind.”
“I loved her spelling bees. She balanced the competitions between grade levels as well as boys versus girls. I guess you would call it individualized instruction in group learning. Mrs. Vera treated everybody the same way. She was a good teacher.”
“Outside recess was also a serious business – we had a baseball team, second to none. Our boys would play against the Hilltop boys after school hours. Of course, these were the older boys, equal to Junior All-Stars today. These same boys built a little brush-covered hut outside, down behind the schoolhouse. They would get in there so the teacher couldn’t see them smoke. She would ring the bell and here they’d come. They rebuilt their smoke shack every year.”
“One day during recess Howard Dudley decided to climb this elm tree. He’d had polio. One of his shoes turned out to the left, but that never slowed him down. The trunk of the tree was about the size of a stove pipe but narrowed upward near the top. There he was, like a squirrel sitting in a tree, until the tree began to bend and bob and sway through the air, up and down, left and right. Kids were laughing, clapping, and cheering him on, Mrs. Vera is running around, screaming, trying to grab him and throw sticks at him as he nears the ground, but he is always just out of reach. We went back in and began our studies. Howard decided to come back down around lunch time.”
“We all had chores at school. Older boys would build the fire in the pot-bellied stove in the middle of the room and fill a can with water to place on top of the stove to serve as a humidifier. Others would clean the wooden-planked floor by sprinkling ‘stuff’ mixed with oil and then sweeping. This would pick up all the dust and dirt along with the oiled particles. Worked good,” said Sonny.
Those floors were cleaned for the last time in the Spring of 1949 when Weakley County closed the school. Sonny and his dozen or so classmates were bussed to Greenfield Elementary that fall. Years later, Sonny’s beloved teacher and her husband were killed in a tragic home gas explosion near Martin, Tennessee.
Eight-year-old Sonny cut out the Blue Horse coupons from the packaging of the slick-type, school notebook paper and saved enough of them to order his first pocketknife. He ordered a 22 Rifle for $12 from Sears & Roebuck mail-order catalog and established credit with the help of his family. “They would bill us for 7-8 months with small installments. Then, in the fall, we would harvest the cotton patch and pay the bill off.”
“I always worked and made my own money to buy my own clothes. Mama made the girls’ clothes to wear to school on the treadle sewing machine, which was fine, but I didn’t like the shirt she made for me. I would pick cotton for Ben Bullock and Earl Young. That’s a cash crop and you got paid instantly. I would order me three-four pairs of blue jeans and shirts, about $50.00 worth, every year.”
The family moved down the road a few miles to have more acreage. With this move came more responsibilities for young Sonny. “We now had six cows that my sister Fay and I milked twice a day. We poured the milk into a ten-gallon metal can with lid, lifted it into a wagon to transport to our neighbor’s house on the main road. Jim Brassfield had these big, iced-down wooden barrels that we put our milk can into for pick-up by a delivery Pet Milk System. We would swap-out for the empty can and do it all over again the next day.”
“It was ’48-‘49, and we had no electricity yet. The Aladdin lamp was better than the kerosene lamp, brighter. Had a tile well, drew water with a rope pulley and a good-sized, round chunk of wood to wrap the rope around -real good cold drinking water.”
“I loved hunting and fishing. In the summertime, the creek would sorta dry up, but, every so often, these holes in the creek bed would hold water and would be full of pollywogs and mudcats to fry — a good life.”
“I loved to read, and read ‘Black Beauty,’ ‘Tom Sawyer,’ and ‘Huck Finn’ many times. There were few books at home, so I would read can labels in Mama’s kitchen — cans of corn, potted meat, or Vienna sausage, keeping in mind we were a poor family, so these were imitation Vienna sausages. Well, by the time I read the contents of those Vienna sausages, I knew that people had no idea of what they were eating, nor did I ever want to eat any more either.”
Sonny was only eight years old and getting ready to attend a new school. His teachers at Greenfield Elementary were: 5th grade, Mr. Phil Barton Harris; 6th and 8th grade, Mrs. Ruby Wash Ford; 7th grade, Mrs. Fannie McDearman Moore.
In-class learning was never a problem for Sonny, but recess was even better. Sonny mastered the art of playing marbles, a basic children’s game of intelligence, thought, and perception. He was a winner, a “Shooter.” Even the high school boys would come over daily, join in, and go back to their classes with empty pockets.
One night at home, Mr. Spears saw Sonny empty his tobacco sack filled with marbles to count them. When Daddy asked where they came from, Sonny explained he had won them. Mr. Spears said simply, “Give them back.” Sonny replied, “Yes sir.” I asked Sonny, “Did you give the marbles back?” Sonny laughed, “No. I just never brought them home anymore.”
Sonny’s pre-teen/early adolescent summers were well structured. He regularly attended all services at the Liberty Pentecostal Church near his home.
His family grew produce which was picked on alternate days and carried either to Aikens (no “Porter” yet), or to the Greenfield train depot. Aikens paid instant cash, whereas the train carried the produce North, and, then a check would be mailed to them. Sonny explained, “The cash up there was three times greater. Our immediate needs determined which place we delivered the produce.”
So, Sonny picked okra, three-four different kinds of crowder peas, dug Irish potatoes, set sweet potatoes, and gathered muskmelons, cantaloupes, and watermelons. When he worked “for hire” at area farms, he helped cut, rake, and load hay, paid by the day. He picked peas for $3 per bushel.
He picked strawberries for Earl Gearin in the Wingo Levee Road area for five cents a quart. “Each carrier held six quarts. I could usually pick two carriers, plus one extra quart for five cents more. Mr. Earl had our lunches from Green’s Grocery right there in the field. The bologna sandwich cost fifteen cents and the pop was a nickel. We had our money ready. The last of the berry crops were taken to the cannery, but first we had to ‘cap’ them – a messy job.”
One vivid memory of his years at Greenfield School was a school bus incident: “Wayne Williams, the driver, had thrown a rowdy, unruly boy off the bus. The next morning, the boy’s father boards the bus, with something shiny nestled in his fist — brass knuckles — sucker punches and completely knocks the driver out cold. The father exits the bus and walks away. Bobby Yergen, a young boy, walks up the aisle to the bus driver’s seat, gears down the four-in-the-floor, heads toward Greenfield with a bloodied, unconscious driver and a busload of kids, and pulls into the unloading lane with no problems. Not sure what came out of all this, but I have my suspicions.”
Sonny’s family moved to the Gleason Sandhill community in 1955. At just 16 years old Sonny became in 1958 one of the youngest GHS graduates in more than 100 years.
After graduation, Sonny and John Thomas White paid Donnie Stewart $5 each to drive them to Chicago in his ‘49 Ford. They were hired by Seeburg Corporation, which manufactured juke boxes, cigarette machines, etc. Other Gleason guys already working there were Billy Stigall, Lewis Upchurch, Jimmy Cunningham, Joe Summers, and Jim Black.
He worked at Rainbow Laundry as a driver for pick-ups and deliveries. Sonny then worked for UPS, driving a 1939 truck that was older than Sonny by two years, until a German Shepherd bit him. He next drove a tractor-trailer rig for the Railway Express Company.
Marrying Lois “Kate” Etheridge and having a new-born son redirected his life thereafter. By the mid-60s, they were Tennessee bound for his son to attend school. Sonny was hired by the Milan Arsenal as an X-ray technician until the big lay-offs with bonuses.
From 1971-1981 he worked at Halls Printing Company, after which he decided to return to farming and selling produce, like old times. MTD hit the scene in Martin and hired Sonny immediately, benefitting from thirty years of Sonny’s service as a “spotter truck” driver from 1984 to 2014. Sonny is also a certified electrician and renews his licenses yearly.
Sonny enjoys attending the Martin Apostolic Church four times weekly. He tries to do something constructive every day. He hopes that “others see in him, even through his wrongs, something that might help each to have a better life.” His lifelong work ethic has set some mighty fine examples.
I had never met Sonny Spears, but I dialed his number, introduced myself, listened to him for about one minute, and knew he was something special — an outstanding conversationalist, totally informed, and filled with delightful local color, instant recall, and insightful wisdom. But with each interview session, I patiently waited for the answer to my overarching question — how was this gentleman so very learned and conversant on any and all topics?
I called Sonny one last time before I began drafting. Mrs. Lois answered, as Sonny was out. I shared with her how much I had enjoyed talking with him, and she replied: “Sonny can do just about anything. He is a good provider, sometimes has his faults, but he’s a smart man. He reads the Bible, and has read every one of those 25 or more complete sets of encyclopedias we have here in the back room. Every time we go to a yard sale, Goodwill, or We Care, Sonny heads to the book section and buys everything he finds worthy to read.”
Lois continues, “Back in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, his mama subscribed to the ‘Commercial Appeal’ and his grandmother subscribed to the ‘Tennessean.’ They would each read their newspapers from the front to the back and back to the front, over and over. They saved all their papers and then swapped with each other on their monthly visits.”
And I had my answer. The power of reading. The love of learning. A self-made man.