yesterday's tennessee

Yesterday's Tennessee

I REMEMBER (Thomas L. Cunningham and Murphy's School)

H. J. Bolen

Henderson County Times
May 7, 1980

I wish to write about Tomas .L. Cunningham, a teacher of mine in the elementary grades, who taught eight grades of classes in what was then Murphy's Valley School. Mr. Thomas Murphy lived in a two-story house upon the hill and thought it was too far to send his two children to Wildersville or to Parker's Crossroads. So he gave the land and built the school. house on the grounds, with the county furnishing the teacher. Mr. Murphy was a brother of Sam, Joe, Will, and Dee, along with their sisters, and they constituted one of the finest and best families in the country. Sam Murphy was an astute businessman and was very successful in all of his ventures. He once told me if I wanted to go away to college, he would lend me the money. Joe operated the farm near Wildersville, Will became a lawyer, Dee a physician, and Tom wanted to be a lawyer and was preparing for the bar when he tool ill and died. The two children he wanted so much to educate also died not too long after building the schoolhouse near his home. It seems I recall that his wife also died soon afterwards. I remember going into the vacant house where the family died and discovered the trunks of clothes still intact after many years. They seemed to be mute evidence of plans that had gone awry because of the inevitable hand of death. The Murphy family was no more, but the Murphy's Valley School kept on and was the choice of many pupils who wanted to go to summer school, which Wildersville school did not have.

The Murphy's School never had more than fifty pupils, and when they greeted Mr. Cunningham he was their fifth teacher after the beginning in the early 1900's. Mr. Cunningham was known by his short name, 'Tom," and had grown up in the community and known by parents and pupils alike. He was largely self-educated, had a deep, commanding voice, and was an avid, retentive reader. He walked out to the school each day from his home in Wildersville, and then back home at night The only-complaint the parents had was the fact that he started school early in the morning and the children did not get home until after dark. When parents found out that he was keeping the children in school longer to teach them more, they did not-complain too much any more. Pupils in "Tom" Cunningham's Murphy's Valley School learned much in many subjects. In Arithmetic, they literally "Took it all" and had to write their solutions in problem form. In reading, they had to know their words and their meanings, and then they were required to learn to spell all the words they used. They also had to learn syllabication and diacritical marks that gave words their sounds. In Geography, they traveled all over the world over blackboard maps and told of the people, terrain, and rivers, along with the products of the different nations. In physiology, they were taught where every bone was, its name, as well as the function of the principal organs. In English, the pupils had to parse words and diagram sentences until they knew the relation of each word to all the other words in the sentence. There were other subjects covered in the day's recitations, and I remember all of the pupils enjoyed the studying and reciting procedures.

I remember Leon Hall, who as a student in the Murphy's Valley School, the son of Mr. and Mrs. William Hall, and a nephew of Rev. Riley Hall, a Baptist Preacher and a famed revivalist of the era, continued to speak of Professor Cunningham, his teacher in the school. Leon worked for many years in John Britt's store in Wildersville and was a young man of integrity and pride. He was the envy of most of us, for he worked where he could make his own milkshake any time he wanted one, or so we thought. After the town burned, Leon sought employment in Memphis, where he was made manager of the United Cigar Store, at Main and Madison, in Memphis which became the "hangout" for those back home when they went to the big city. He never ceased to talk about Murphy's Valley School and its teacher, "Tom" Cunningham. He always said he thought Prof. Cunningham to be the smartest man he ever knew, and felt he would surely be President of the United States someday. And I might close this essay by quoting Horace Greeley, who said: "With Mark Hopkins on one side of a log and a student on the other, a university is established." It would not be stretching the mind too much to give this 'appraisal of Professor Thomas L. Cunningham, who found young minds that wanted to learn and satisfied their desires with knowledge.

So far as I know there was no other member of the family who became educators during the "Tom" Cunningham era. He seems to have ascended to the throne of learning of his own inherent ambition. A niece, Ruby Webb Brooks, whose mother died when she was just a baby, and who was reared by her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. J. B. Cunningham, has been a teacher for fifty years in the Henderson County school system. I know she had a desire for learning, for she walked with me the three miles to a country school I was teaching. I have heard that she made an excellent educator, and must have had some of the qualities of a teacher that was possessed by her Uncle "Tom."

"Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime.
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time." -

Incidentally, the Mrs. Brooks, mentioned above, is now the wife of Morris Brooks, and celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary just recently: at-the First Baptist Church.

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