43 years later, teachers share special reunion

Beverly Majors

When a student can't find the words to thank a teacher for giving her a leg-up on her career, the words from Lulu, the artist who sang the 1967 theme song from the classic film "To Sir, With Love," come to mind.

"What, what can I give you in return. If you wanted the moon I would try to make a start but I would rather you let me give my heart ..."

During a reunion recently held in Oak Ridge, Tenn., Lynnda Duncan Williams said nearly those same words to a local teacher who gave her that important leg-up.

"You know in my heart how I feel," said Williams to Oak Ridge resident Doris Croley, her homeroom teacher at Clinton High School in 1965.

"For 43 years, I've sent her a Christmas card every year as a reminder of what she gave me," Williams said. "How many times can you say thank you?"

Williams and Croley immediately went into each other's arms when the two women met at Croley's home on East Fernhill Lane. The last time the two hugged was when Williams graduated from college.

Williams still has the Bible that Croley gave her for graduation.

"I have to apologize. It's taken me 43 years to get here," Williams said to Croley.

And, that's where the thanks, and the love they share, comes from -- a college graduation that would not have been possible had it not been for the generosity of Croley.

Croley was Williams' homeroom teacher at Clinton High School; and although she never taught Williams, she felt the young girl had potential.

"One day she asked me what I was going to do (after high school)," Williams said.

"I want to go to college but I don't know how I'm going to get there," Williams said she told Croley in 1965.

Croley and then-Clinton Principal W.D. Human had already paid for her to go on her senior class trip to Washington, D.C.

"All these rich kids were getting ready to go to college, and I couldn't afford to go on my senior class trip," she recalled.

Williams said the principal had been letting her work in the office during her senior year, and she said she remembered thinking that she was a pretty good secretary and could make a living.

Croley apparently couldn't let it go. She told Williams that she knew the president of a little college in Kentucky and would make a call, recommend her for a job.

That college was then called Cumberland College. Located in Williamsburg, today the college is called the University of the Cumberlands. Croley is originally from Williamsburg.

"I got applications, three of them," Williams said. "But I needed $20 for the application fee. She pulled out her checkbook and wrote those three checks.

"Somehow she had faith in me," Williams said tearfully.

Williams said she was one of nine Duncan children and her older brother was going to Vietnam when she was graduating high school.

"He was sending money home to mom and us kids," she said. "Under the circumstances, I worried as the oldest girl. I was leaving home, leaving mom with those other kids."

But Williams had a chance to go to college.

"What this woman did the day before (she was to leave)," Williams said as she smiled while remembering.

"She took me shopping, bought my undies," she said, laughing.

Croley then bought her a bus ticket to Williamsburg.

"It was $2.50 one way," Williams said. "And she gave me $5."

"I was making about $3,700 for teaching," Croley said.

And, at the time, she and her husband, Ernest, had two young daughters of their own to support. Ernest Croley worked at the Y-12 plant at the time.

"That's the uniqueness of Doris Croley," Williams said.

And, none of the money, none of the help, nothing was expected in return, and "not once did she try to influence me," Williams said.

"She didn't have preconditions," she said. "Her mother (Croley's) met me in Williamsburg and I spent the first night at her house. The next day, I got a dorm room. It was June or July and I didn't turn 18 until August. I did not have a dime toward tuition."

She said she wrote about her background on her application, about her father working out of state, about the other children at home, about having no money.

J.M. Boswell, the college president, accepted the application "as is."

"He took a pen and put a big X on it," Williams said. "He never asked me for any proof. He wrote 'independent student' and I got loans and worked in his office. He believed me because of Mrs. Croley."

But those were just a few of the things Croley had put in play for the teenager.

"I knew you were going to be treated like royalty," Croley said with a grin.

Williams worked all of her four years at the school for the college president.

"I understood for the first time what Christian giving was," Williams said.

"When you accept the gift of opportunity you bring your talent to the table," Williams said. "When you respect that gift, you can blossom. You can have a life."

Williams gave Croley a card and a small gift, tokens of her affection.

"To the world you may be one person but to one person, you are the world," Williams said, using a familiar quote.

"You know my heart and my love are with you," Williams told Croley.

Croley opened her small gift from Williams, a musical snow globe with an angel inside that played "Amazing Grace."

Croley had not seen Williams since going to Williamsburg at her graduation. But she has kept in touch with letters and, later, e-mail. The "gifts" she gave 43 years ago because of her intuition about a teenager's potential, have certainly paid off.

Williams became a teacher.

She now lives in New Jersey and retired after teaching for 32 years. But, she still teaches, and tells her students, who are discouraged about attending college, that she went to college on $5.

"I donate my time. I'm now at a little private school with 115 kids," Williams said.

"I'm grateful that I'm not so far removed," she said.

"This is the woman who really put herself out," she said about Croley.

"I'm glad we did," Croley said. "That's what schoolteachers are for."

Oak Ridger writer Beverly Majors can be contacted at (865) 220-5514.