Tue, 01/16/2024 - 3:29pm admin
One of the things I find interesting in writing these articles, and I hope interesting for readers, is learning history I didn’t know. Invariably, even the smallest amount of research reveals new information. Venerable WSHS teacher John Finley is yet another example of how little I really did know this remarkable man.
I first encountered Mr. Finley in a beginning French class in the seventh grade, which resulted in a photo in the 1960 Willamizzou alongside classmates Sherry Pruett and Mary Pierce.
School officials decided some junior high students could learn a foreign language. This progressive idea might have had merit for someone who had an attention span greater than a gnat, which did not include me. The experiment was short-lived and did not last a semester.
In high school, I had Mr. Finley as a teacher for general science, chemistry, and two years of French and my impression, then and now, was he was passionate about teaching. The dialogue exercises I memorized in his French classes enabled me to communicate in France. In science class, I learned that dry ice is solidified carbon dioxide, after I missed a test question—David Zimmerman got it right. From a Limerick Mr. Finley employed, I still know the chemical formula for sulfuric acid (H2SO4):
Little Willie was a chemist.
Little Willie is no more.
What Willie drank for H Two O,
Was H Two S O 4.
I have fond memories of his ever-pleasant and gregarious wife Bernice, who cooked at the school cafeteria. Certainly, I knew his son John C. Finley (WSHS, 1968), whom Willow schoolmates will remember as Chuck. And I was aware of his older daughter Lura (WSHS, 1958). But other than his poor eyesight and a few other bits of esoteric information, such as his fondness for classical music and that he tuned pianos, I knew little else about his life.
After a little research, I was surprised to learn Mr. Finley began teaching in Willow Springs for the 1947-1948 school year. Incidentally, that year Ted and Jessie Munford had already been teaching at WSHS for twenty years. In fact, the yearbook staff dedicated the 1948 Willamizzou to the Munfords to commemorate their anniversary.
The caption beside Mr. Finley’s 1947-48 yearbook photo listed French and history as his courses. The 1949 yearbook indicated he taught General Science, Eighth-grade History, Eighth-grade Geography, and Eighth-grade Mathematics. In 1950, he taught science classes and biology. From 1951 through 1952, he taught general and advanced science classes. However, he did not appear in the 1953 Willamizzou, and a new science and biology teacher had been hired. Mr. Finley did not appear in the yearbook again until the 1957-58 school year. What happened?
Other questions arose in my mind. With some quick arithmetic, I surmised he must have been in his late thirties or early forties when he began teaching in Willow Springs. What had he done before? Why had it never occurred to me to wonder until now? Possible answer: because I was a self-absorbed teenager, and I didn’t start school in Willow until Mr. Finley had been teaching long enough that his background would not have been a topic of conversation.
I contacted his son Chuck, who generously provided answers that I found fascinating. Mr. Finley’s backstory could have been the inspiration for a Flannery O’Connor or William Falkner depression-era novel, complete with heartbreaking tragedy, the will to prevail, and an endearing love story.
Chuck recalled, “Dad was born in Welsh, Louisiana, in 1905 but his folks came from around Norwood, Missouri. His dad was a rice farmer, and he had four brothers and one sister.”
I inquired about the nature of his father’s extreme nearsightedness. Chuck said, “He struggled with his eyesight since he suffered from typhoid fever at age twelve that the whole family got from a contaminated well.”
But the next information Chuck revealed about the typhoid fever stunned me. “His mother and brother died while he was in a coma, and they even had his brother's funeral in the same room, but he was unaware.” The hardships endured by men and women from the era of my parents and grandparents remind me to be grateful for today’s advantages.
Chuck continued: “He went to school at University of North Carolina and majored in chemistry and minored in French (because he grew up around the Cajun French-speaking people in southern Louisiana), but because of his poor eyesight he had to switch his major and minor due to the demands of lab work.
“He spent two years there, and then taught for a year at the school on Cape Hatteras where the lighthouse was. He wanted to finish his education, and he had an aunt who lived in Springfield, so he transferred his credits to SMS and finished with a major in French and minor in chemistry.
“He taught at several rural schools in south central Missouri, mostly one-room schools where he taught everything. He wound up in the early 1930s in Brandsville. At nearby Koshkonong High School, he taught general science, chemistry, French, and maybe history, a subject he loved. There, he had my mom as one of his students.
“After she graduated in 1935, she spent a year at SMS and then returned to Brandsville where they started dating and got married in June of 1938. While they were living in Brandsville, Lura was born in 1940. In 1947 he got the job at Willow Springs, and they moved there.”
As to the gap in teaching at Willow, John says, “I was born in 1950 and two years later, Dad thought he was going completely blind, so they moved to Chicago for Dad to enter piano-tuning school. In 1957, when my mom’s mother was dying, we moved back to Willow Springs.
“Mr. Munford was by then the superintendent and knew Dad from the previous years, and after we had been there only about two weeks, he asked Dad if he could teach at least part-time. Sputnik had just launched and there was a need for science and language teachers. Before the month was out, Dad was teaching a full load of three general science classes, chemistry, and French.
“He taught at WSHS until 1970 when he retired. He turned sixty-five that July and was eligible for retirement. When he retired, they moved to Bennett Springs. He passed away in 1983 at age seventy-eight, after they had just moved back to Brandsville.”
Regarding Mr. Finley’s pastime activities, Chuck shared, “One of Dad's favorite wintertime treats was popcorn, which Mom would put in a big cake pan, and served with hot tea. He loved to garden and raised one every year after we moved into Zimmerman's old house on 6th street. [Jac Zimmerman was the publisher of the Willow Springs News.]
A poignant example of his father’s dedication, Chuck says, “One of Dad’s proudest accomplishments was teaching George Hackett to speak French. George had cerebral palsy and was confined to a wheelchair. He could only control the twitching of his muscles by taking a mild tranquilizer so he could type his homework. Dad arranged a special class for him, me, and Duane Benton to take French III, which WSHS did not offer. George graduated in 1968 with my class, and I got to push his wheelchair at graduation.”
Mr. Finley is another example of the special people Willow Springs has been blessed to have as teachers, and I want to thank Chuck for his generosity in sharing his dad’s story.