Mill Village Boy returns to the classroom
By Bill Shepard
The year was 1949. I was seated in the registrar’s office at Emmanuel College. I was applying for admittance to the school under the G.I. Bill that was provided for veterans of World War II. This mill village boy was going back to school!
It had been more than a decade since that morning when I had stepped into the principal’s office and placed my books on her desk. Miss Susie Brunson looked up from what she was reading and asked, “What does this mean?” I had rehearsed my answer. “I am sixteen years old today,” I said. “I am quitting school and going to work at the cotton mill.” The year was 1938.
I crossed the school campus in the direction of home. I stopped at the water fountain located on the school grounds and stooped down for a drink. I was thinking that this would be my last time to do this. A feeling of sadness spread over me, and I brushed it aside.
I moved on in the direction of home, convinced in my mind that I was doing the right thing and there would be no regrets. I was doing what I had always believed I would. I was following the path that my two older brothers had followed, and that which most young boys of the village did. I never intended to place myself inside a school again! Oh, how foolish a young mind can be!
My parents accepted the news as calmly as I had expected. My answer to Mama’s question, “Why are you home so early?” did not come as any surprise to her. She had known for a long time that I would leave school when I was old enough for work at the mill. She spoke in a stern voice, “Go, tell your Daddy!”
Dad, dear old Dad, but why was he home at this time of the day? He was supposed to be at work at the mill. I approached where he was standing, and told him what I had done. In his quiet way, he asked, “What will you do now?” I told him, “I will get a job at the mill.” I know that Dad would have given his right arm for me to continue in school. He had been deprived of any schooling and knew what it meant to not be able to read and write! That very day when he had reported to the mill for work, he was told that his job and been taken (no reason given) and given to another. He could continue to work as a “spare hand” if he desired, or give up on his house on the village and move. That was common practice at the mill in those days. He stayed on.
I grew up in a hurry! One day I was a student learning the difference between an adjective and an adverb, and the next day I was an adult earning a living by the sweat of my brow! I found work at the big mill and was earning a bring-home salary of $l2.87 for a forty-hour workweek. Thirteen cents had been deducted for Social Security! I started paying room and board, and that meant a lot to the Shepard household in those harsh days of the Great Depression!
I joined the National Guard at the age of 17, and earned one dollar for each drill night we met. I participated in the war maneuvers of 1939 and traveled outside of Darlington, father than I have ever dreamed of doing. Because of my age and my dad refusing to sign for me to go, I was discharged from the National Guard when it was mobilized into the regular army. Two months after the attack at Pearl Harbor, I re-enlisted into the army and spent two years in the service before being discharged due to crippling rheumatic fever!
While in the Army, I had married my childhood sweetheart, and by the time you are reading this, we will have spent 73 years together! We returned to Darlington to the place where we had first met to build a new life together. I worked at several jobs over the next few years. It seemed that everything I tried was against me. As I look back over those turbulent years, I am convinced there was a Higher Power at work in wanting to direct my paths. Much suffering could have been averted if I had only recognized it earlier.
One night while sitting in the small church where I often attended, I made up my mind to accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior! The Holy Spirit was at work; he had convicted me of my sins and I repented of my sins. I became a “born again” Christian! I was what the Scripture says, “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creature, old things are passed away; behold all things are become new.” 2 Cor. 5:17 KJV
My life was headed in a new direction! Not long afterwards, I became a licensed minister and accepted my first small church to pastor. I wrote of that experience in one of my recent articles in this paper. Two years after my first church, I was assigned to another church in Calhoun Falls, S.C. Calhoun Falls was a small mill town much like Darlington. I felt at home among the mill folk.
Emmanuel College is located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, in the northeastern part of Georgia. I was waiting in the registrar’s office. This mill village boy was headed back to school!
More next time!
Mr. Shepard is a native of Darlington, S.C., and a current resident of Piedmont, S.C. He is the author of “Mill Town Boy” and “Bruised”. He has been sharing his tales of growing up in Darlington for decades, and we are delighted to share them each week.
His mailing address for cards and letters is: Bill Shepard 324 Sunny Lane, Piedmont, S.C., 29673.