Richard Hyatt: Col. West would approve

February 5, 2013 

Col. John Word West was an interesting old man who hoarded interesting old stuff, and spending Sunday afternoons listening to his stories was fascinating, even to a child who thought he wanted to be somewhere else.

He was a distant cousin to my mother. So distant that he had a college education and a brother with a medical degree -- unusual in a family made up of people who spent their lives raising crops on somebody else's land.

Col. West owned a funky place that from the road looked like a junkyard only Fred Sanford would love. There were several rundown shacks, some old wagons and tools only he could identify.

But there was much more to this stately gentleman whose words made you want to listen. He was a teacher for most of 60 years, and at times his influence reached from the classroom to the president's office.

He taught at Georgia Military Academy, Reinhardt College and Oglethorpe University. He graduated from North Georgia Agricultural College, and in 1925 he became the first alumnus to be named president, renaming it North Georgia College in 1926.

My parents twisted my arm to make me go see him the first time, but they didn't have to cajole when we went back. He was a joy to be around, and he gave me my first job. The dime he paid me is a family keepsake tucked away in a faded white envelope.

Col. John Word West died more than 50 years ago, but the artifacts he displayed on that hillside in Jonesboro, Ga., are still preserved. They were the basis of the collection for Westville, a recreated 1850 village that is fighting for its life in Stewart County.

There were serious discussions about locating Westville in Columbus when the living history museum opened in 1966, not unusual when you consider that most of the founders came from Muscogee County, not Lumpkin.

Talk of relocating Col. West's collection today is about survival. Attendance at Westville has been declining for years and the charm of the village is lost on an untraveled country highway. Putting it in the community that originally gave it its legs makes sense in so many ways.

It would be an asset to the Columbus Museum, the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center, the Coca-Cola Space Science Center, Port Columbus, the Historic Columbus Foundation and other facilities that promote history.

Col. West would understand such a dramatic move. He was president of his alma mater during the years of the Great Depression, and he took some drastic measures to keep the college open in a mountain community where prospectors were no longer mining gold.

And if I can put my hand on that dime he paid me years ago, I will donate it to the cause.

-- Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at hyatt31906@knology.net.

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