500k Endowment Gift in Honor of Olive J. Smith
The gift was given by Dr. Farren and Lynn Smith in honor of Olive J. Smith, Farren’s mother. The endowment will support Machen Florida Opportunity Scholars majoring in the sciences.
Learn more about the life of Olive J. Smith (written by Dr. Farren Smith):
I had the great good fortune to have my mother, Olive J. Smith, as my teacher for 3 and 1/2 grades (but the good fortune was not always obvious to me at the time). This was at the Oak-Griner Farm School, a two-room school house in rural Florida. Mother was Principal and half of the faculty and I went there for the first seven grades.
Oak-Griner served students in the community of Oak. Oak was not on anybody’s map but if you asked anyone in Marion County back then, they could tell you where it was. It lay along what is now Old US 301 between Ocala and the village of Anthony. Oak was a farming community with many part time farmers who had 8-5 jobs in Ocala and farmed a few acres on the side.
As I was growing up, I gradually become aware of the impact my Mother had on most of her students. Former students would drop by just to reminisce. Others wrote letters and Mother would be so pleased to get them. Some would be from recent students but some were just as likely to be from students she taught many years ago. What amazed me was that she could still recognize their handwriting. She would pick up a letter and say, “Oh Good! Here is a letter from XXX” without needing to look at the return address. This is why I made the gift to the University of Florida and the Machen Florida Opportunity Scholarship Fund. She made a great impact on all students and I am able to honor her by continuing her legacy.
The other teacher at the Oak-Griner was Miss Ida Luffman, a distant cousin and a very formidable presence in her class. She taught grades 1-3 and half the classes for grade 4. Grade 4 was a transitional year with half the classes taught by Miss Ida and half taught by my mother.
By the 4th grade, we got to spend half the day with the big kids and we began to learn all sorts of new things. Things like sentence diagraming that helped us understand sentence structure which helped my writing skill and helped me learn foreign languages.
Under my mother, if the class had been “good” we were rewarded with stories that she read to us after lunch remember, this is well before the days of television). I remember that my mother read “Much Ado about Nothing” and made it come alive even for the kids who were not much interested in “intellectual fare”.
We also got stories by Mark Twain, Booth Tarkington and other authors. You don’t hear much about Tarkington now but his stories of life in rural Indiana resonated with us (at least that’s what I remember). And the whole class really did look forward to “story time”.
Let me digress at this point to praise one and two room school houses. It takes a good teacher to manage multiple grades and it takes a class without disruptive students. Multi-grade classrooms give younger students a preview of coming courses and it lets older students tune in when lower classes are covering things they might have missed. If nothing else, it tends to reinforce concepts covered earlier.
In my case, when I moved on to consolidated schools in Ocala, I already knew all material in subsequent English classes until my senior year of high school. To be fair, that was partly because of the dictates of a new Vocational School Principal. I had started a course in “Radio and Electricity” at the vocational school adjacent to the high school. I had gotten agreement from both principals to let me take a standard high school curriculum along with the vocational course. But a new vocational school principal vetoed that option. He said, I had to take all vocational courses or nothing.
I really wanted to continue with “Radio and Electricity” and that meant taking “Shop English and Shop Math”. In “Shop Math”, we started by computing the area of a square, and then a rectangle and ultimately worked all the way up to the area of a circle (I think the area of a sphere must have been too advanced). This was stuff I had learned by about the fifth grade. And we spent most of the semester in “Shop English” learning how to write a business letter.
Even so, I don’t regret taking “Radio and Electricity”. The skills I learned in the course more than made up for the time wasted in “Shop Math” and “Shop English”. I’ve used the basic electrical skills from this course often. But more importantly, in that class I learned to “trouble shoot” ie. to use symptoms to hone in on the problem area. I have used these skills ever since; all through Grad School and then with both GE and DuPont.
Sadly, after WWII, there was a big push to close down small schools and that was the end of the Oak-Griner. The building was auctioned off and is now an antique shop in Micanopy, Fla (photo above). Mother was transferred to a larger school in Anthony, a village of maybe a thousand people a few miles north of Ocala. And while the School in Anthony was large compared to Oak-Griner, it would be considered small by modern standards.
Mother taught fifth grade at Anthony. She said fifth was her favorite grade because students were old enough to be interesting but young enough so that they had not developed “the attitude.”
Even in this single grade, Mother found her multi-grade teaching skills to be of great value. The students in her class had widely different reading skills and large gaps in knowledge for a variety of reasons. Many families were farm workers who moved with the seasons. With frequent moves, continuity was lost and schools in different locations had different sequences of instruction. The new school might just be beginning a subject the previous school had already covered. And a lot of kids had gone to schools with poor teachers (but Mother would never have admitted this).
Mother made a special point of getting kids up to grade level in reading because reading is critical for future learning. She got reading material (probably at her expense) covering first through fifth grade - and maybe higher. And by the end of the school year, she had gotten almost all of her students reading on grade level or above. I’m sure this had a big impact on those students for the rest of their lives.
She was also skilled at dealing with trouble makers. Back in the 1920‘s, there was a large sawmill near her childhood home in Oak (and the same house where I grew up). That school served both Mill Village kids and farm kids.
When the long time principal retired, a new principle was recruited from out of state. As was common back then, he was both principal and teacher.
Unfortunately, he had not been around the rough and tumble kids like those who attended this school and quickly lost control. My uncle, John Seiler, was chairman of the school board. He said, “We’ve got a real problem at the school but I know just the person who can correct it.”
He wired my mother, who was teaching in South Florida, saying, “Your parents are getting older and need someone around. It would be good if you could come home. Plus, we need a new principle. I’ve got a job waiting for you and it will pay $10 a month more than you are getting now”.
Mother accepted. But she made a point of nosing around before the start of the school. It didn’t take her long to discover the problems at hand. On the first day of school, she “laid down the law” to the kids. Then, knowing the ways of that kind of kid, she eavesdropped at lunch. The main trouble makers decided they had to do something.
They noticed a ladder leaning against an outside wall near a trapdoor in one of the big overhanging eaves and the trapdoor gave access to the attic. They climbed up into the attic, expecting Mother to panic when they were missing after lunch.
Just before class began, mother told a couple of kids “that ladder leaning against the wall is a safety hazard. Please take it down and lay it behind the shrubbery”. It didn’t take long for the plotters to recognize their predicament. They were trapped in an attic that was becoming hotter by the minute! Before long, there were plaintive cries from above. Those kids were never a problem again. In fact, as adults, they happily sent their children to Mother’s classroom.
The “great depression” was at its worst while I attended the Oak-Griner School. But everybody in the area was in the same boat and the depression wasn’t a big deal for most of us kids. We were pretty much isolated from the worst effects. In my case, Grandpa Jones was an excellent gardener with a magic touch with fruit trees.
We had fresh fruit and vegetables almost year round. Plus, a lot of our meat and all of our eggs came from the farm. Most families in the area were in the same boat.
But money for school operation was very tight. Small rural schools got virtually nothing for sports equipment and not much for the cafeteria. Mother didn’t wait for the school system to do something.
She had us lay out a baseball paths with farm sacks filled with Spanish moss for bases. We also invented games or played games our grandparents might have played.
Mother also took advantage of local farming practices to stretch the cafeteria budget. Farmer’s raised a lot of vegetables for northern markets. But as vegetables became ripe further north, local prices dropped so low that it didn’t pay to continue picking. Vegetables were free to anyone who wanted to pick them. My cousins and I got drafted. We picked a lot of corn, okra and tomatoes, especially tomatoes, for use at the school.
Mother then recruited ladies from the community to can the vegetables. The ladies would gather in the school kitchen and spend all day canning various combinations. Canned tomatoes were used as a side dish, as toping for spaghetti (but without the spices Italian cooks would have used) and as a goulash of corn, okra and tomatoes. I’m sure it made a big difference in what the cafeteria could offer. The school also served as a social hub for the community. The students wrote and presented one or two productions a year and there was always a big Halloween Festival. “Trick or Treating” was unheard of in the area and even if we had known about it, distances between houses would have made it impractical. But the school Halloween Carnival was a big event with games, contests and prizes for the best costume. Whole families came including Aunts and Uncles.
I don’t know who came up with the events but there was something new each year. One year there was the “blindfold jump”. A participant would be blindfolded. Two older kids would stand on each side to guide “the victim” by holding his hand. The blind-folded “victim” would step up onto a bench and as he walked slowly along the bench, the guides would crouch lower and lower. It seemed to “the victim” that he was walking up a ramp and that he was more than 6 ft off the floor at the end. The victims were told they had to jump. And it was a shock to land after a drop of maybe ten inches instead of the six feet or more expected. I can vouch that the illusion was very real. Then there was “pin the tail on the donkey.” On entering the room, you saw a sketch of the rear of a life-sized donkey with the tail missing.
We were told that the donkey tail had been lost and we needed to “make do.” Once we were blindfolded and spun around, we were told to point a finger as you walked forward. The goal was to come as close as possible to hitting the spot on the sketch where the tail should be. What the victim didn’t know was that an accomplice had a jar of cold cream. As the victim walked forward, the accomplice made sure his finger hit the cold cream instead of the wall. The illusion was so strong that even after seeing the cold cream, a lot of people surreptitiously smelled their finger (hey it’s a farming community). Again, I can vouch that the impact was very real.
Mother retired after 48 years of teaching and I thought she would be lost and lonely. She had sold the family farm to a cousin and moved in with Aunt Gertrude & Uncle Will, in part to help each as they each fought a losing battle with cancer. That gave her a new purpose in life.
She began using the gardening skills she had picked up from Grandpa Jones. However, instead of fruit trees and vegetables, she turned her skills mostly to flowers. She recruited Ron Carpenter, a teen-ager at the time (his parents had bought our old family farm) to help. He tells me that this is where he really learned to work – and to appreciate the beauty his hard work created.
Which brings up a story about his father, Rudolph. Rudolph was a couple of grades ahead of me in school. Mother had given him a deadline for memorizing the multiplication tables up to 12 times 12. At the deadline, she quizzed him and found no improvement. With that, she gave him the typical punishment of the day, which is something she did very rarely. To my great shock, that kid knew his multiplication tables perfectly the next day. In fact, he became chief buyer for a small meat packing plant. That meant biding on lots of cattle and using those arithmetic skills regularly.
I decided that I had also learned something out of this and I gained a great deal of respect for my mother. There is more to the story - I learned later that Rudolph and most likely his father and all his siblings had severe dyslexia. At the time no one knew about dyslexia. But my mother knew that his father told all the siblings they were too dumb to learn and Mother knew this was not true. Furthermore, they all demonstrated it wasn’t true by doing well in higher grades. But they could do this only because of my mother’s prodding.
I suspect that most of us are embarrassed by memories from our teenage years. And if I get the chance, I have lots of things to apologize for. In particular, I wheedled Mother into taking my cousin and me to Lake Weir swimming. I’m pretty sure the day scheduled for the trip turned out to be D Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy. Remember there was gas rationing during the war and pleasure trips were few. Lake Weir was my favorite place to swim. The trip had been promised and a date set. I had been diligent about my chores and when she talked about postponing the trip I whined “But, you promised!!!!! And she relented.
It took me many years to realize what she had given up to honor that promise. Here was the potential turning point in the war that, up to that point, had contained more bad news than good. The car had no radio and she would be sitting there with no way to hear what was going on. It must have really been difficult for her to honor her agreement under those circumstances.
And I’m not sure I fully appreciated the solid foundation I received in that two-room school until my kids were in school. I have my mother to thank for all that and lots more.Tweet