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From Battlefield To Campus. How Undereducated War Hero Built High School In Tennessee

October 1918, a battlefield near Chatel-Chéhéry, a small French town. Sergeant Alvin Cullum York from Pall Mall, Tennessee, charged a hill alone, killed 25 German soldiers, and captured 132 others. He became one of the most decorated soldiers of that horrible conflict, but the greatest battle of his life was yet to come.

It took place in Fentress County in Tennessee where York build a high school in 1926.

Sergeant Alvin C. York. Photo: Tennessee Virtual Archive

At the time of Sergeant York’s youth, Fentress County was the poorest county of Tennessee. Nowadays the situation does not look any better. According to FRED Economic Data, 26% of the county’s population lives below the poverty line. In Jamestown, one of the poorest towns of USA, almost 40% of the locals live on benefits.

This is exactly where Alvin C. York Institute is located. Founded by the renowned sergeant, it is the only state-funded and managed public high school of the state.

“I don’t even know if we’d even had a high school if he hadn’t done it,” York’s great-niece, Janet Patton, told Stars and Stripes.

The older section of York Institute in Jamestown, Tennessee, USA. Photo: Brian Stansberry/Wikipedia

Janet runs an old country store also bearing York’s name. Here, in the sergeant’s hometown, you can still hear the Alvin York’s oldy-moldy Tennessee accent. Older neighbors who speak it describe Sergeant York as an ordinary man, not necessarily an icon of courage who slaughtered Germans.

Alvin York was a big redheaded man. He would pay a quarter for a haircut. And he was reluctant to speak about his war-time past. The veteran was not very proud about what he had done. After all, York cut short lives of 25 men.

York at the hill where his actions earned him the Medal of Honor. Photo: Pfc. F.C. Phillips/Wikipedia

However, when York returned home, he was called the greatest individual soldier of the World War I. The sergeant was wooed by Hollywood, Broadway and besieged by advertisers who wanted the soldier to promote their products.  

York refused them all. He actually turned down a $30,000 contract for a vaudeville tour. All he wanted was to put his Medal of Honor on a shelf and resume a peaceful life.

York also wanted to build a school.

York, his mother and younger sister at the family home. Photo: Underwood & Underwood/Wikipedia

Alvin York was the third of eleven children in a poor but hardy family. He managed to earn perhaps a third grade education, but was quite a sharpshooter and often added a free turkey to the family’s dinner table.

Naturally, that skill helped a lot on battlefields. Ironically, the war showed young Alvin the importance of education. He saw a mechanized industrial world and realized what this industrialization could make for his friends and relatives at home.

York also understood that he was not well-grounded to understand machines and occurrences that surrounded him. He tried to find some answers in the Bible, hoping that blind faith would see him through. By the end of the war, Alvin York understood that he and children of Tennessee needed something more than just faith.

Photo: The Alvin C. York Memorial on the southeast corner of the State Capitol grounds, Nashville, Tennessee. Photo: Tennessee Department of Conservation

Thousands of WWI American veterans shared same thoughts. As a result, after the war college enrollments shot up. With his “some elementary” education, Alvin could not hope to go to college. But he wanted kids from Tennessee Mountains to get the education he had missed.

When the sergeant returned home, he married his longtime love, Gracie Williams, and began farming and raising money to build a proper high school. His idea was to make sure that all the valley kids could get there, even on horseback.

Easier said than done.

York after World War I. Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division

To York’s surprise, many Tennesseans did not want a school.

“They thought, why did their kids need education. They farmed. They needed them to farm,” Alvin’s grandson, Gerald York, remembered.

Nevertheless, Alvin York believed in his cause. Throughout the 1920s, he went on tours to convey his thoughts and raise money for York Institute. The sergeant played to packed houses throughout the U.S., recreating his role in the battle on October 8, 1918. York agreed to use his celebrity, but only to improve roads, employment and education in Fentress County.

The sergeant had to mortgage his farm, twice. By 1926, he had finished building and found all the staff for the school. Classes began in 1929 with a motto “Prepare and Excel”.

“It will be the aim of the Institute to afford an opportunity for mature men and women to get an education, regardless of how backward they may be”

From a York’s pamphlet

York managed the school almost entirely on his own.

“He bought the buses. He paid the drivers. He bought the gas,” his grandson said. “He paid the teachers, all with money he raised.”

What York did not expect was the resistance in his own hometown. Local questioned how the veteran could run a school without any significant education. After they created a movement to oust York, he agreed to turn the school to the state in 1937.

Today the school operates on a portion of 400 acres, with around 800 students enrolled. Principal Jason Tompkins is a graduate himself. He admires what York did for the school and Tennessee.

“I wouldn’t have done it. I would probably have not put my farm up. That’s just a phenomenal statesmanlike quality that very few people ever have.”

Graves of Alvin York and Gracie Williams York. Photo: Brian Stansberry/Wikipedia

Alvin York is a hero of a tiny town of Chatel-Chéhéry, where you can find an association with the war hero almost on every street.

But the most significant monument to York is his Institute. In the county with raging opioid epidemic and horrible unemployment ranks it stands as an island of hope for youngsters who want to make a difference.

Featured Image: Tennessee Virtual Archive, Brian Stansberry/Wikipedia

Sources: Stars and Stripes, NPRLatitude 34 North, Tennessee Virtual Archive, WorldWar1

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