Thursday, January 5, 2006

The Preacher’s Corner
By Rev. Dr. Milton Winter

Fonta O’Dell was everybody’s favorite teacher

No one was surprised that a huge congregation attended the funeral of Fonta O’Dell, longtime English teacher at Holly High School. Not that she was famous, of course.

We would not say that teachers are famous in the sense that celebrities are famous (the Gabor sisters were once described as “famous for being famous,” thus setting a pattern for so many we keep up with via People Magazine and “Entertainment Tonight”). But I have noted again and again that larger congregations attend the funerals of teachers. Few are as well-known and as loved in communities as good teachers are. And Fonta was an excellent teacher.

My seminary professor, Dr. Leith, liked to say that it takes three generations to make a Christian. If that is true, Fonta O’Dell could claim many more generations of spiritual ancestry than that. In a family history of her Woodson ancestors that Fonta once let me read, the story is told of her ancestor John Morton Woodson who came to Marshall County from Virginia about 1844.

According to the record he left, their travel made for “an imposing caravan of horses, wagons, and dogs.” And when Mr. Woodson pitched his tents on Saturday evening…he never struck camp until Monday morning.” Thus the reason, perhaps, that Fonta was such a “constitutional Presbyterian!”

The other afternoon I remarked to Denton and Margaret that their mother could be the last one in our congregation who could recite the catechism of the Presbyterian Church from beginning to end.

And in response to that remark, Denton got up and walked into his mother’s bedroom and brought out a worn New Testament, awarded to his mother in 1923 for having repeated the child’s catechism. (Please note that that feat was achieved when she was but five years old!)

There is something to be said for assimilation of the basic facts of religion at an early age and then spending a lifetime growing into that knowledge. We may be sure that in the case of the one whose life we celebrated last Wednesday, that Fonta O’Dell did just that.

Fonta’s roots lay not in the Holly Springs Presbyterian church, but in the congregation at Old Hudsonville. Her parents were pillars of that congregation, and in later years, Fonta and her sisters were its strength. Don Wilson was their pastor for many years there, and his influence was formative in their lives.

Fonta used to tell how when the weather was bad, the class from the little schoolhouse in Hudsonville would meet in the Woodson family parlor. It was a true one-room schoolhouse — and the teacher always lived in the Woodson home.

Fonta said that in those days the roads were so bad that it took all day to come into Holly Springs from Hudsonville, and so when she came to the Presbyterian College here, she boarded in town.

I still have a copy of the letter the elders of this church sent, awarding her a scholarship to the college, on the basis of academic merit.

This article would not be complete without a word from Danny McKenzie — certainly one of the most prolific writers to pass through her class. Danny wrote:

“We are doctors, lawyers, teachers, preachers, construction workers, accountants, journalists, broadcasters, administrators, farmers, secretaries, salespeople, pilots…you name it. Mrs. O’Dell, during her long tenure in the Holly Springs public schools, influenced us.

“For us, Mrs. O’Dell is the teacher who taught us that learning can be fun; that it is possible to laugh out loud in a classroom and, come exam time, remember what we laughed at and why.

“For us, Mrs. O’Dell is the widowed parent who reared three children, taught school and drove a school bus route — and then drove the pep squad bus to out-of-town ball games. (She will also be remembered as the most rabid of fans, one who showed no mercy to our opponents, or to officials who blew their whistles and threw their penalty flags against us.) She is the lady who was not only there when the doors of the First Presbyterian Church were opened each Sunday, but she made sure there was oil on the hinges.

“Mrs. O’Dell is the teacher who stayed with the public schools when so many chose an easier alternative. She is the lady who, during a time of civil unrest, saw to it that the library became the library of all people. She is the lady who understood, perhaps more than anyone else, that basic knowledge is not for the privileged and that true education knows no boundaries. 

“And for at least one of us, Mrs. O’Dell will forever be remembered as the teacher who showed an eighth-grade student’s English composition to his parents and told them he had the makings of a writer.”

When Fonta retired from Holly High this newspaper interviewed her. They asked why she stayed with the public schools. Fonta said, “One child can learn just as well as another.”

Last Wednesday, her grandchildren all said that she loved each of them equally, and that she loved all unconditionally. Lots of us in Holly Springs can attest to that. Fonta set the standard. It was a high one, but it was designed to bring out the best.

Though she won’t be in her pew, I will still prepare my sermons for her.

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