Many years ago, I came upon a quote, erroneously attributed to Aristotle, that appealed to me. It said, "Almost everything has been learned, but many things have been forgotten." The first half was pretty clearly untrue, but the last half is surely correct. Not just facts are forgotten, but many people who have made significant contributions are allowed to fade from our collective memory as time passes.
I was reminded of this by a book. A couple who are friends of ours gave me the book a long time ago. I brought it home, put it up in a safe place, and as is my custom and true to the quotation above, forgot about it. Recently, while looking for something else, I came upon it hiding on a closet shelf. I snatched the book from its place and began reading. And was fascinated.
The book is "Miracle in the Mountains," by Harnett T. Kane (Doubleday, 1956). I read it, and then I read everything else I could find about its subject, Martha Berry. All I'd known before was that she founded Berry College in Rome, Georgia, and that Highway 27 bears her name. Her amazing life and accomplishments I had not known and many others no doubt have forgotten.
Young Martha traveled with her father among the mountain people in North Georgia in the late 19th century and saw their extreme poverty and the lack of amenities and social institutions available to them. She told Bible stories one Sunday afternoon to three small, grubby, illiterate mountain boys who came upon her as she was reading. This grew into weekly Sunday School and then into more secular schooling, in an unplanned, seemingly haphazard manner. This small human dynamo, with only limited advanced formal education, began with 83 acres of land inherited from her father, and limited funds, and parlayed it into what became known as "the Berry Schools."
One of the characteristics of the incredible Miss Berry was her absolute confidence that she could do what she set out to do, no matter that many others, including her own family and her long-suffering and finally departed fiance', thought she was nuts. She slowly added land to her holdings, added levels of instruction to her backwoods institution, and added roads, buildings, and landscaping, with most of the work done by students, who earned their education with their sweat. With an almost super-human gift of persuasion, she enlisted the help of experts to advise her on such things as legal and financial matters, and ignored their advice when it was too conservative for her free-wheeling ideas.
The 83 acres would eventually grow into some 30,000 acres, and the little grade school would grow into one of the premier small colleges in the country. This would take many millions of dollars, and the young woman who had first traveled through the back country by horse and buggy would eventually use trains, cars, ships, and airplanes in her quest for funds. Working tirelessly over the years, she managed to make contact with and draw into her circle not just uncounted ordinary people, but also the likes of Andrew Carnegie, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR's mother, and Henry Ford. She met Ford, famously resistant to outsiders seeking his support for their causes, and persuaded him to visit the Berry Schools. He fell in love with the place and with her ideas, returned for many visits, and poured millions into what would become Berry College.
She might deal with the powerful and famous, but her focus was always on the poor youngsters from the mountains. She pushed them, badgered them, worked them to exhaustion, and loved them fiercely. They returned that love. One student, a poverty-stricken 14-year-old girl, was dragooned into duty as Martha's secretary and assistant. She stuck with the bewildering, exhausting, 'round-the-clock duty for decades, expanding into public responsibilities and a bewildering mass of duties she'd never imagined. Eventually she achieved a doctorate and the vice presidency of Berry College.
Martha Berry's impressive store of energy eventually drained away. She was laid to rest near the Berry chapel, her funeral attended by students, alumni, mountain people, and throngs from all over the South. The vastness and diversity of her reach was symbolized by two figures who came independently to the grave to offer their prayers in the dusk when the crowds had gone. Then they turned and walked away silently together. One was Inez Henry, Martha's confidant, secretary, and special assistant. The other was Henry Ford.
The grave behind them would be marked by a simple stone with an inscription that summed up this uniquely giving life: "Not to Be Ministered Unto, but to Minister."
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."