Mr. Dan Woody was my seventh-grade teacher at Mooresville Junior High School for the school year 1960-1961. The 30 or so members of our homeroom were taught the curriculum by him with two exceptions: we separated for reading class — I went to Miss Cora Freeze for that — and some of us went to Mr. Robert Klepfer for beginners’ band.
I loved being in the seventh grade at MJHS. My previous teachers had been women at Park View Elementary, just two blocks from my house. My Park View teachers were all fine ladies, but I was reaching that age when I really needed a male teacher.
Mr. Woody had taught my brother two years earlier and I had met Mr. Woody when he came to our home. Back in those days, teachers through the seventh-grade made a home visit at the beginning of the school year.
A bachelor, Mr. Woody graduated from Statesville High in 1952, had attended Mitchell College, then finished college at Lenoir-Rhyne, majoring in History. His entire educational career was spent in the Mooresville Graded School District, retiring from the classroom in 1986.
He was a born raconteur. He liked Civil War history, cars, airplanes, books, mysteries and sports, particularly basketball and baseball. He coached the Junior High girls’ basketball team for years and also coached the volleyball team at Mooresville High for some time. In 1961 he designed the “Red Imp” mascot of Mooresville Junior High, which is retained by Mooresville Middle School to this day. He also taught Sunday school at Statesville’s Broad Street Methodist Church for 25 years.
He is the person most responsible for my becoming a teacher. I can see him now in my mind’s eye, leaning back in his chair with his feet propped on his desk, telling us stories, stopping only long enough to take a swig from a small Coca-Cola bottle. Hmmmmm.
Instead of poems about daffodils and butterflies, under Mr. Woody we read Knowles’ “The Highwayman” who came riding, riding, and watched as the gallant 600 rode through the Valley of Death in “Charge of the Light Brigade.” We listened, wide-eyed, as he read to us Robert Service’s “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and enjoyed Mr. Woody’s rendition, with sound effects, of “Casey at the Bat.”
And I particularly liked the way he taught us American history. We took notes and were tested on the previous day’s notes. Mr. Woody was the first to put the Civil War into order in my mind. I had heard of many of the generals and battles before, but had had no sense of what happened when or who was who in that pivotal conflict.
One book I remember from Mr. Woody’s class was not one he read to us, but one he mentioned, “The Search for Bridey Murphy,” by Morey Bernstein (Doubleday, 1956). Bernstein was a businessman and amateur hypnotist and his book caused a sensation in the mid-1950s when it was published. It purported to give a true account of hypnosis sessions in which a woman had been induced to recall events that had happened in a previous life. Bridey Murphy had supposedly been born in Ireland in 1798, married, and died in Ireland in 1864. Bernstein’s book had been a best-seller, and a number of journalists had gone to Ireland to verify or debunk Bernstein’s story, with mixed results.
Tracking down Mrs. Murphy proved to be a task, as she was, frankly, no one special. It seems many believers in reincarnation are convinced they once were Julius Caesar or the first Queen Elizabeth or Napoleon; few believers claim to have been Joe or Jane Average.
Mr. Woody asked us what we thought about this. Our thoughts about reincarnation, if we indeed had any such thoughts, were deemed to be important. Whether he himself believed in reincarnation or the Bridey Murphy story or not, I do not know. The point was, I believe, that it was a topic people were discussing and that even we seventh-graders could have an opinion that in a small way mattered.
I remembered the story about Bridey Murphy and years later purchased and read a used copy of the book. I still have it and running across it the other day triggered this column.
Mr. Woody got us — or at least me — thinking about what might be out there in the world: There were and are mysteries to be solved, things to be discovered or invented, things that “the experts” did not agree on.
For instance, was “Big Foot” real? How about flying saucers: Are they space ships or weather phenomena? Could General Lee have won the Battle of Gettysburg? What really happened to famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart?
Thanks, Dan Woody and others, for encouraging us to think, to ask questions, to read books, to take notes, to memorize poems, to disagree and to debate things in a civilized manner. If students graduate from high school and say to themselves, “Well, Thank God, I’ll never have to read another book again,” then the educational system has failed, both the student and the country.
“Commencement” should mean that you are now responsible to begin (to commence) your own education, which is a serious responsibility.
Dan Woody passed away on September 17, 2000, at age 66, but as Henry Adams once observed, “A teacher can never tell…where his influence stops.”