For almost half a century, Justice Bill Cunningham sought a sort of intellectual refuge from the rigors of his bustling legal career through written scholarship and a lifelong passion for historical conservation. These extracurricular pursuits inspired Justice Cunningham to moonlight as a bestselling author, when he wasn’t busy advocating for the preservation of forgotten and endangered cultural sites throughout western Kentucky. His tireless efforts have contributed in no small way to a heightened public awareness of, and appreciation for, Kentucky’s storied past.
Justice Cunningham is many things to many people: sagacious jurist, spirited raconteur, humble philosopher, compassionate mentor, sentimental optimist. The full list of his attributes, too lengthy to document here, reflects the complexity of a man who is equally at home seated behind a courtroom bench, or walking the grounds of a state penitentiary, or swimming in his beloved Cumberland River. Cunningham refuses to stay idle for very long, even as a recent (and somewhat reluctant) retiree.
As the pandemic unfolded and the world suddenly found itself in lockdown, Justice Cunningham began writing what would become his first true autobiographical work. “I Was Born When I Was Very Young” explores his early life in Old Eddyville, Kentucky prior to the town’s demolition and Lake Barkley’s impoundment in the early 1960s. This writer had the privilege of observing as Cunningham chronicled his colorful childhood during the darkest days of the pandemic. I believe the book is his finest work as an author.
In the following passage, Justice Cunningham shares his vivid memories of a rather unforgettable teacher at Lyon County Jr. High School. A word of caution as you read on: the muscle strain you may feel spreading across your face is likely a symptom of prolonged grinning from ear to ear.
— Christian Greco
Learning The Hard Way
From “I Was Born When I Was Very Young” by Bill Cunningham
Our school was like most schools of that time, and probably today — we had good teachers, and we had bad teachers. We also had some colorful ones. One was Miss Mary Henson, our eighth-grade English teacher. She threw books at us. Everyone, including her students, loved and respected Miss Mary — even if she did throw books at us. Miss Mary was very old. I mean really, really old — and she looked the part. We were convinced that she had been on a first-name basis with the Old Testament prophets. She had a shock of frizzy gray hair and wore granny glasses and old-fashioned dresses. At the end of the school day, with her frazzled hair standing straight up and shoulders sagging, she looked like a used bar of soap. Miss Mary drove a black Model A car to school and parked it in the same spot every day. She only drove the car to school and back from her little white house up on the hill next to the prison. There was a story, apocryphal of course, that she decided to drive the ancient auto to Princeton one day, and it turned in at the school automatically.
Miss Mary was not a very good teacher, and she had very little control of her classroom. The fact that we liked her and respected her age kept us from taking over the room, tying her to the chair, and changing all our grades in her grade book. She would sit next to her desk in an old wooden chair and read parts of stories from Washington Irving and Rudyard Kipling. She would recite poetry from Keats, Tennyson, and Coleridge. It was the first time I ever heard the word “Longfellow.” With a name like that, I thought he must have played basketball. I was also blown away to learn that a great writer had the good fortune of being named “Wordsworth.” Her daily monologue of dusty old authors and ancient writings bored us, so we would begin to whisper among ourselves. Then we would start to talk to each other, giggle, and even laugh. Finally, the din in the room would rise to the same level of Miss Mary’s talking. Then she would lose it. She would stand up, scream at us, and then hurl the giant old literature book towards the back of the room. It would go sailing over my head, pages flapping in the wind like some exotic bird trying to take flight. It would finally smack into the back wall, and like a dead pigeon that had flown into a plate glass window, crumple lifeless to the floor.
The room would immediately go deathly silent. Miss Mary would stand there with her eyes ablaze with anger, her hands on her hips surveying the room, daring anyone to say or do something. It looked like she was searching for someone to pull out of their chair and choke to death. No one wanted to be that person. We lay low and still in those tense moments. Then, like a teapot on the burner of a stove that had been turned off, she would begin to cool. At last, she would sheepishly go to the back of the room, pick up the book, and return to her chair. After a couple of minutes of composing herself and finding her place in the book, she would continue to feed the sleeping gas into the room. We would be quiet for a week or so—and then the decibel level in the room would begin to rise until Miss Mary’s stress needle would once again edge over into the red.
In her defense, I never remember the book hitting anyone. It’s hard to know how it missed. Maybe she was aiming just above our heads, like a warning shot. To her credit, she fought her own battles. Miss Mary never passed the buck by sending students with notes to the office for the principal to do her dirty work. She stood her ground. No one ever complained about Miss Mary throwing books. The reason was simple. If we complained to our parents about her throwing a book at us, the conversation would naturally lead to the question, “Why was she throwing a book at you?” We would not want to go there. No doubt, another reason we didn’t report it is that many parents would just laugh — they likely also had books thrown at them by Miss Mary.
I guess, because of her age, Miss Mary was taken out of the classroom the next year and moved upstairs to become the librarian. Now she had many, many books to throw. Funny. I never remember her throwing a single book when she was the librarian. All that ammunition and not a volley fired. I think in my ninth-grade year, she finally announced her retirement. One spring afternoon they had a big retirement ceremony for her out in the old gym. It was packed with school kids, teachers, and all the muckety-mucks from the county school system. There were speeches about Miss Mary, and the program took on a theme of This is Your Life — a popular TV program at the time. They brought back some old friends and even former students. Some of her former students looked almost as old as she did. When it was over, the little wooden crackerbox of a gym came apart at the seams. We kids yelled, screamed, stomped our feet, whistled, and cheered. We liked old Miss Mary, even if she did throw books at us.
At the close of the ceremony, they presented a portrait of Miss Mary to be hung in the school. I remember that it was well done; a good likeness. The painting was hung in the school library. I wonder is it survived the demolition and relocation of the school — if it still hangs somewhere in the various rooms and hallways of the Lyon County School District. Many years later, when I got out of the Army and came back home, I was amazed to learn that Miss Mary was still living. Incredibly, she was stll living along in the little white house next to the Kentucky State Penitentiary, where she had lived all her life. I went to see her and found that she didn’t look any older than she had in her book-throwing day. I guess you get to a certain age, and like a rock, you just stay that way till the end of time.
Her mind was alert. There is a time in most of our lives when we go back to visit old former teachers as equals. It is a pleasant time of catching up and swapping stories. At that meeting, with the brooding walls of the prison looming just outside her door, she told me two interesting stories: the prison was built when she was just a little girl. She remembered the large sign hung over the entrance when it first opened for inmates: “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.”
It was the second story she told me that was the most intriguing. For the first time, I got an intimate peep into the old lady’s past. She said she had dated the French engineer who had come to help install the electric chair in 1911. Miss Mary dating? Miss Mary with a boyfriend? Miss Mary involved in a romantic relationship? It was unthinkable. I remember wondering as I drove home that day how the romantic engagement with the French beau had ended. I wondered with sadness if maybe her heart had been irreparably splintered by his return to his home far away across the waters just before the bloody World War began. It saddened me to think that she was left there alone in the dirty river town, destined to take care of aging parents till she too was aging. Assigned to teaching piano lessons at night. Abandoned to carry out a long lifetime of driving the old Model A to school and back every day. And throwing books at yard apes like me. Miss Mary’s health finally gave way, and she went into a rest home. She suffered from dementia. One moment she was in the real world; the next she was in a world of her own.
I went down to see her at the rest home one last time. She was lying in bed, flat on her back, with the sheet pulled up around her neck and staring at the ceiling. I gingerly approached the head of the bed. “Hello, Miss Mary. How are you doing?” There was a sudden glint of recognition and brightness in her eyes as she glanced toward me. “Well, hello, Billy Boy!” she exclaimed in a strong, kind voice. “How are you doing? Don’t you think this is the best school year we’ve ever had?” I leaned closer to speak directly into her ear. “Yes, ma’am. How are they treating you here? How is the food?” I inquired. She answered immediately. “Just great, Billy Boy. And I think this is the best school year we’ve ever had. Don’t you think it’s the best school year we’ve ever had?” I had dealt with these people before. I knew how to handle it. So I responded. “I sure do, Miss Mary. What are you teaching this year?” With that question, her eyes widened with excitement, as if I had just set her bed on fire and was standing there holding a can of gasoline. “Teaching?” she bellowed incredulously, “I’m in the rest home!”
There are times when no matter how much your mind is racing for something to say, the conversation just kind of dries up. So many years later, I can see it as clear as if it happened yesterday. I see the big literature book — Keats, Tennyson, and Chaucer all inflight together — sailing past my head, the leaves flapping in the wind. I can even feel the breeze.