Sharing stories of impactful educators
How has a teacher impacted your life? Kentucky Living asked that question of its readers and received some truly remarkable answers. From tubas to basketballs, road trips to life mantras, we hope these inspirational stories are reason for reflection on the teachers who’ve made a difference in your life.
More than a music teacher
Mrs. Geneva Kutzner, band director at Drakesboro High School while I was a student there, saw something of value in me before anyone else.
I joined the band at Drakesboro when I was in the sixth grade. My older sister, Martha, had joined the band the prior year when she was in the sixth grade. She played the flute. My parents scraped together the $35 cost of her flute somehow. When I joined the band, I wanted to play the trombone, but buying a trombone was completely out of the question for my parents, even though they would have gladly done so if the funds had been available. The school owned three tubas, so Mrs. Kutzner in her enthusiasm to get me into the band, suggested that I play a tuba.
The three tubas consisted of two older Bb flat tubas and a smaller and much older E flat tuba. I learned to play both the Bb flat and the E flat tubas. But when the other two tuba players, upperclassmen Tommy Willis and Wallace Smith, were around, the E flat tuba was my domain. I really disliked that tuba. The sound was different and it looked awful. I didn’t say anything, but was pleasantly shocked when halfway through my sixth-grade year, Mrs. Kutzner presented me with a new Bb flat tuba, one of two she had purchased (I suspect with her own funds). They cost $600 each in 1959-60. My excitement knew no bounds.
Mrs. Kutzner had seen a musical talent and had provided me a way to develop it. That wasn’t her last contribution to my musical development, however.
Our band went to band camp each summer. Martha had gone to band camp the summer following her sixth-grade year. Camp Kavanaugh—I’m not sure exactly where it was located, but I think it was somewhere near Louisville.
My family’s financial challenges continued the summer after my sixth-grade year. Band camp was coming up again. The cost was $35. They had scraped together enough money for Martha to go to camp again, but I would have to stay home. I don’t know how, but I understood that it was just an economic impossibility for me to go. I resigned myself to that reality.
Band members would be going to a new camp that summer of 1960. They would travel and arrive at the newly created and not completely finished Crescendo Camp just outside of Lebanon Junction (between Elizabethtown and Louisville) on Sunday. They would be there two weeks. Most other bands were there for just one week. This new camp was the brainchild of Louisville Male High School band director, Bill Bossier, and his assistant, Bill Land.
Martha left for camp early Sunday morning. I don’t recall how she got there, but I think she rode with a friend and her family. I was sad watching her go and realizing I was staying home.
That all changed just a little while before we were to leave to go to church. Our neighbor, Melvin Ashby, came across the street to tell my father someone was trying to reach him by calling the Ashby’s phone. We didn’t have a telephone. He crossed the street along with Mr. Ashby all the while thanking him and apologizing to him for the call. It was Mrs. Kutzner. She explained that she really wanted me to go to band camp. My father explained that he was not opposed but he just did not have the money necessary for that to happen. She offered to pay my way. My father explained that I really didn’t even have sufficient clothes to be able to go. It was mid-August and they had not bought my “school clothes” yet. She said if He would get me some clothes, she would pick me up in the afternoon and take me to camp with her.
One of my classmates was Vicki McDonald. Her parents owned Vaught’s Department Store in Central City. Mr. Vaught and my father were good friends. My father placed a call to him to see if he would open his store on Sunday morning so I could get some clothes. I don’t know this for sure, but I am confident Mr. Vaught also allowed my father to charge the cost of my clothes. So off to Central City we went.
With clothes now in hand, Mrs. Kutzner came to our house Sunday afternoon and picked up this barely 12-year-old boy in her red and white Ford Victoria. To get to camp, we traveled highway 62 from Central City, through Beaver Dam, Hartford, Caneyville, Leitchfield, Elizabethtown and Boston. A journey of approximately 100 miles, give or take a dozen. The Western Kentucky Parkway didn’t exist and the Kentucky Turnpike (now I-65 between Elizabethtown and Louisville) did not have an exit at Lebanon Junction.
If you ever rode with Mrs. Kutzner, I’ll pause now for you to recall the terror you felt as her passenger. First, she drove fast. Second, she vigorously applied her brakes frequently. Speed up, slow down.
Well, we had traveled all the way to Beaver Dam (probably 25 or so miles) when she decided we needed to stop for refreshments. We went to the Beaver Dam Drug Store. They had a soda fountain. Once seated, I had no idea what to do since I had no money. She asked me if I had ever had a Coke float. I replied, “no,” so she ordered one for each of us. I’ll never forget that first taste of a Coke float. With that done, we continued our journey. Speed and brakes, all the way.
Band camp was an experience I will never forget. I am so thankful that Mrs. Kutzner “adopted” me for those two weeks in 1960. There was another time a few years later that my family could not afford to pay for me to go to camp and Mrs. Kutzner again paid my way. Six summers found me at Crescendo Camp.
Mrs. Kutzner also gave me other opportunities when I was older. She would hire me to do odd jobs around her house. And she would pay me more that I was worth. She would not let me work very long until she would stop me and hand me a cold Coca-Cola. I cleaned out her storage building. I mowed her yard. I took the rugs out of her house, hung them over the clothes line and beat the dust out of them. This was before vacuum cleaners. I waxed the part of her wood
floors that showed around the rugs.
To get the rug out of her living room, I had to move her baby grand piano by myself. By this time, I was a big, strong boy, but she and I were both afraid if we pushed it, it would break the legs. So, I got under the piano on all-fours and lifted the piano onto my back and crawled to the other room. She stood over me urging me not to hurt myself. I wasn’t worried about hurting myself, but I sure didn’t want to damage that piano.
Mrs. Kutzner pushed me to develop my horn-playing skills. She got me ready to try out for and qualify for Quad-State Band at Murray State University several years. I eventually rose to first chair in the tuba section.
It would be impossible for me to express the appreciation I feel toward Geneva Kutzner. She changed my life. She brought out of me a talent I did not know existed. She made a difference in my life. I’m sure I am not the only band student that Mrs. Kutzner helped.
—Ralph Dillihay, Bowling Green, Warren RECC
In the classroom, on the court
One teacher stands out more to me than most because of his desire to motivate young people to be better than they ever thought they could be—in the classroom and on the basketball court. Mike Appleman was my teacher and coach at Rockcastle County High School in the 1980s, and he had a special talent in motivating young people. Coach Appleman shaped me into the professional I am today—I have spent a lifetime following in a career he helped me start as a special education teacher.
He helped us achieve success on the court and showed us how to be an effective, caring, and patient special educator. I was blessed to not only have him as my teacher, but to also work with him in the classroom and coach with him on the sidelines in Henry and Spencer counties in the late ’90s and early 2000s.
The highlight of our time together was as coaching staff in 2001—we won the 8th Region All-A regional tournament and coached the Spencer County Bears in the All-A state tournament in Richmond on the campus of Eastern Kentucky University, where we both received our bachelor’s degrees in education.
He was an educator who made a difference in students’ lives wherever he has been. He has the ability to help students overcome educational disabilities to be successful businessmen and women and to be productive citizens in south-central, northern, and northwestern parts of Kentucky. Everywhere he taught or coached, he had success on the sidelines with his teams, and also with shaping young minds, motivating young people to be the kind of students that all of Kentucky can be proud of.
—Bruce Blanton, Bagdad, Shelby Energy Cooperative
Ruby the role model
Ruby Shoemaker, my Girls Auxiliary teacher at First Baptist Church, Irvine, stands out above all others. Ruby was a good teacher, but more importantly, she was a role model in all walks of life. At about age 30, her husband, David, died of cancer leaving her with two daughters, ages 10 and 5. When I lost my husband six years ago, it was partly the memory of Ruby and how she adapted and carried on her life that helped me keep on keeping on.
As a middle-schooler, I saw Ruby really care about me and the other girls she was teaching, with her concern reaching far beyond the classroom. I remember a slumber party at her home when she turned her kitchen over to a houseful of young teens to make pizza and brownies. I also recall as a freshman being in a dilemma when our Girls Athletic Association team at Irvine High School was invited to Eastern Kentucky University for a weekend, but we had no transportation. I immediately thought about Ruby and called on her. She had no connection with the school or the ball team, but some of us were her girls and she was ready to help us in any way possible. She took us to Richmond on Friday and picked us up on Sunday. Way beyond the call of duty!
One winter Ruby took me to the YMCA to supervise her daughters so she could take a lifesaving course in order to be a lifeguard at camp that summer. I’m sure that experience influenced my decision later on when I took a lifesaving course so that I, too, could work at a summer camp.
Ruby’s dedication and commitment makes her stand out as a teacher who truly did her job well!
—Regina Morgan, Smithfield, Shelby Energy Cooperative
“Never give up”
Dressed in black every day, the uniform of a female prison warden, and a voice of a distress foghorn in the blackest of night, Mrs. Carver had no problems getting and keeping my attention or any other person’s within 50 feet. She did not hassle or threaten.
She only expected the best from me and everyone she taught. When she finished with us, we were expert in studying and expressing our new-found knowledge to anyone and everyone who cared to listen and quite a few who grew bored and turned deaf ears.
We were not allowed to claim ignorance of Mrs. Carver’s expectations or her refusal to believe in stupidity. She often reiterated to us, I have known your parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, and anyone claiming you as an acquaintance all my life. You are not to give a vain thought or consideration in disappointing any one of us or yourself. She always made sure we understood, “You must try a bit harder, just a little longer; and you must never give up.”
Any deficiencies we had were not acknowledged. Slow reading, math difficulty, shyness in standing before our class, any childhood fear was pushed aside and shoved into oblivion by a determined teacher. We were doomed. She had our numbers. She knew us inside out. She was not subtle. She was intent. Voicing many times, her students were the best of the best.
Disappointment was not in her vocabulary; and soon it was to be removed from ours.
Not only was Mrs. Carver a capable teacher, she had ways of snaring and holding your interest with funny stories, or an unexpected question directed to just you. Better still, her everyday mores were an extension of the good parents we were privileged to have. She encouraged respect and tolerance for others. There was no playground selfishness, bullying, foul language, recess taunts or fights, or plain old ornery behavior, all of which were subject to discipline. She did not fail to report and complain to our parents. She made sure they understood the infraction of the rule which had been broken. Parents listened intently, mesmerized while she extolled what a wonderful person their pride and joy was.
In the end, Mrs. Carver had a consensus from the parents, to refuse to accept anything but the best behavior and scholarship from the offender.
When Mrs. Carver finished, we knew we were doomed. One offense yielded two disciplines, one from Mrs. Carver and the second from our parents.
After leaving her classes, moving on to higher grades, or taking the first big step to adulthood—high school—Mrs. Carver followed us from afar. She sent messages by our family, neighbors,
and friends of her continued interest and pride in who we were and what we were accomplishing in life.
The original, motivational teacher, Mrs. Carver’s motivational mindset never closed down.
The message was always brought to you by someone who was struggling at the time. If you were the subject or the messenger, the memory flashback encouraged both people involved. Mrs. Carver was crafty. She refused to be disappointed in any person at any time in their life. She was just reminding them gently of their worth. She commanded respect for herself and her students. The longer you knew her, the more there was a grateful love for a beloved teacher.
So, to you, Mrs. Kathleen Carver, I express publicly my admiration, respect, and the love I carry for you. Your inspiration “to try a bit harder, a little longer, and to never give up” will continue to be a subtle reminder throughout the remainder of my life.
—Harriett Lowe, Warsaw, Owen Electric Cooperative
My first-grade teacher, I thought, was beautiful. Her name was Miss Fields. She was raised in the same hollow I was. She taught me how to be a lady, and not be ashamed of being poor, how to talk, be nice to older people, to offer my chair, and to say hello.
She smelled so nice. I didn’t know what it was, but it sure was nice.
She thought of me as like everyone else. Be thankful for what I was.
She called me when I moved back to Viper. She said, “I knew you would make it to be an outstanding woman, mother, and teacher.” I think of her often with love. Thank you, Dora Fields.
—Carnetta Eddington, Somerset, South Kentucky RECC
A special educator
As a 6-year-old, I suffered a developmental delay with an IQ of 68. Placed in special education, a teacher, Sandra Cox, taught me about math, how to read, spell, and write. Eventually, I was able to recognize eighth-grade words in the fifth grade. Testing out of special education at 12, I took an AR test with an eighth-grade reading level—the top in my class. I finished in the top 25 of my high school class. Without her, no doubt, I would not be who I am today.
—Lisa Gray, Girdler, Cumberland Valley Electric
Triple the inspiration
In one’s life, you are very lucky to find one great teacher, much less three. Yes, three. I was in the C class in eighth grade. They had A, B, C, and D classes. I struggled to make a C grade. Then, I met Alice True, my new homeroom and English teacher.
She treated us like people and laughed with us. What she did with the novel Great Expectations was something else. We couldn’t put the dang thing down. It was like you were a part of it.
I was so proud when I scored 100 percent on the 100-question test. A member of the A class wanted to know who—it seems he didn’t.
Then the same year, I had Irean Cooper for math. I really hated math, and that year they introduced the new math. The way she taught changed me and most of the class into A students. One of us became a judge.
Then in the 10th grade, I met Jay Johnston, my new biology teacher. The first semester, the whole class received F’s, so he got upset and changed the way he taught. He became one of us talking and laughing, but—there was a but—we all had to make an A in his class or back to the old way. All of us made A’s and aced the finals.
These three teachers really made a big impact on my life and molded me into the person I became. In working with children, I learned to take time to listen. So, I thank these three very special teachers.
– Judy Graves, Frankfort
Music and kindness
My family moved from Owensboro to Sebree when I had just finished third grade at Seven Hills Elementary. I remember my first day at Sebree Elementary, a big, old, brick building on a terraced hill where my dad had attended years before. Miss Lola Connor would be my fourth-grade teacher. She was an “old” teacher by my standards, having a few gray hairs in her dark hair. Later, I realized she was probably just in her forties, young by my standards, now. She immediately put me at ease, in a classroom where I had not yet made friends. “That’s a pretty sweater you’re wearing. You live in that big white house around the corner, don’t you?”
Every morning in the classroom with the tall windows letting in light and imagination, we would say the Pledge of Allegiance and sing our songs, before getting down to the business of learning. We must have learned more than two songs, but the ones I remember are “Listen to the Donkey,” and “How Would You Like to Go Up in the Air? (The Swing).” The melodies would go with me through the day as we played on the playground and as I pulled the chains on the massive swings to make it go high, over the imaginary wall.
The fourth grade went by quickly, as good things often do, but I had found a school home and made friends, some of which I keep in contact with today Mrs. Connor attended our church in Sebree, so through the years I was able to keep in touch with her. I sent her cards and went to visit when she went into the nursing home. She has since passed away.
Now, I sit in a swing on the porch with my granddaughter. I have taught her my favorite songs from Mrs. Connor’s class. We sing them as we swing and listen to our own donkey, Jemimah, braying in the corral. Memories made and passed down.
The most important lesson I learned from Mrs. Connor’s Fourth Grade Class, however, was kindness. Kindness shown to a little girl on her first day of class at a new school, with the light of a new day shining in from the windows…
– Tamara Lambdin-Abney, Richmond, Blue Grass Energy