Schoolhouse Memories, Life Lessons with Wanda Cox Byerley

Wanda Cox Byerley

“How can you put 85 years on one page?” Wanda Cox Byerley asked me at the end of our interview, right before she asked me who’d want to read it.

I told her I’d do my best, and the audience would probably surprise her.

It’s probably an understatement to call Wanda a walking contradiction. On the one hand, the twice-widowed mother of two and older sister to seven brothers calls herself “tough,” and she is. But in the same breath she’ll tell you how much she loves all seven brothers, all her children, step-children, grands and great-grands, and every student she ever taught.

“How many precious students I’ve had, they come back to me,” she said. “I love them in spite of themselves.”

Wanda loves a good wisecrack, as any who have met her know well. But she’s also full of serious wisdom, a lifetime of solid experience and learning that shines through every word.

It may come as a surprise to some that Wanda’s not a Union County native, although her ancestors migrated to Knoxville from Union and Claiborne counties to find work. A self-described Great Depression baby, she said she “grew up rough and tough,” with parents Clifford Woods and Virgie O’Dell Woods, helping raise her seven younger brothers, “one for every day of the week.”

“And every day I thank the good Lord for not making a longer week because they would have filled them up with more boys for me to help raise,” she said. “But I have lots of love for my little brothers.”

Even though she loved them, Wanda found that she also loved going to school, at least in part because “it was a lot more fun than washing diapers.” It sparked a lifelong love of learning and education.

“I had the most wonderful teachers, and they showed an interest in me,” she said. “My favorite subject was always math, and Wanda doesn’t want to talk about her spelling.”

Her family moved around a lot, so she attended three elementary schools in Knoxville, plus Rule for junior high. She said she loved Beaumont best of all, and she remembers Martha Nash, Isabel Payne and principal Mr. Biggs as her favorite teachers there.

“I made a living out of all the wonderful skills Isabel Payne taught me,” she said. “I could control a classroom a lot of the time just by rolling my eyes.”

But after junior high, Wanda’s family moved to a farm in Union County close to the Anderson County line. She started high school at Horace Maynard High, and the change took some getting used to.

“It had about 11 teachers, and I was used to three times that many, but they did an excellent job,” she said. “There was no lunchroom, no restrooms but an outside toilet. It was a shock, but I could cope.”

She said she had a lot of favorite teachers at Horace Maynard, one of whom was math teacher Curtis Donahue, but “everyone helped develop my skills. Time or space won’t permit you to mention all the names.”

Between her sophomore and junior years, she got a job at JC Penney in Knoxville, and they asked her to stay on after graduation, “but in my heart I always wanted to be a teacher. I was the oldest of eight kids and nobody mentioned college or had any money, but I didn’t want to give up on that dream.”

She started working night shift at Baptist Hospital after graduation, but soon her dream of teaching came true. Union County Schools superintendent Todd Weaver called and asked if she’d take over teaching at the one-room Pine Grove School. She quit the hospital job, went to summer school at UT, and with one quarter of college under her belt, she started teaching Pine Grove’s 31 students that fall.

“Oh, what childhood memories,” said Wanda. “It was happy and everlasting. Books, water buckets, running home for lunch, pie suppers, cold biscuits with jelly.”

She finished her degree with summer school and evening courses at UT and credits two Union County educators with encouraging her. Her first supervisor was Miss Winters, followed by Patricia McKelvey after Miss Winters passed away.

“Miss Winters would come and encourage me in the little one-room school,” Wanda said. “(Patricia and I) have been lifelong buddies, and I’ll never forget how she encouraged me to stay in teaching while finishing my degree.”

In the meantime, Wanda was building a family as well as a career. She married Everett Wayne Cox, and they had two boys, Everett Lynn Cox and Gregory Allen Cox. Her first husband passed away in 1988, and she married Paul Byerley in 1993. He passed away last September.

At Union County Schools, Byerley “taught everything to high school to college level and three years of GED classes. I’ve always answered every question as well as I could, and if we didn’t know the answer, I would look it up.”

She finished her career as a facilitator at the high school after 47 years with the school system.

But, she stayed active in the community. She is involved in the Union County Historical Society, collects Coats for the Cold with Randy Turner, serves on the county’s equalization board, works with 4-H and Leadership Union County, and just looks for ways to help others. She was even named Citizen of the Year by the Union County Chamber of Commerce and Woman of the Year by the Union County Business and Professional Association.

“Some of the things I don’t tell what I do because that’s between me and the Lord and those that need my help,” she said. “I’m in this world to sponsor those that need help. If the football players need help, I’ll be there. If a kid needs a scholarship, I’ll kick in my part.”

She also attends Union County Commission meetings and stays in touch with local government. “not to be bossy, but because our County Commission works hard, our mayor works hard, our officials work hard, and sometimes we don’t encourage them and let them know we care about them.”

And even though she wasn’t born in Union County, she is a Union Countian through and through.

“Everyone in Union County has the freedom to speak their mind, and everyone has the opportunity to come to school in Union County. The doors are open for them, and the majority of the things are good. Union County has some of the most beautiful places, Big Ridge State Park and all the lakes, and some of the best people. Such grounded, basic, good people. If we had more people like we have in Union County scattered all over this world, we’d have a lot better place to live,” she said.

Wanda has always and still loves teaching, loves seeing students’ eyes light up when they learn something new.

“I’m one of the only non-swimming swimming instructors that you’d be speaking to,” she said. “One summer at Big Ridge State Park, the lifeguards had so many students they needed my help. One child got it and yelled, ‘You taught me how to swim!’ All I was doing was telling you how to do it because I couldn’t do it myself.”

“Sometimes, if you just read the instruction book and pass it on, you can teach them how to swim through all the things that might hinder them. Just find your way, kids! Find your way.”

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Comments

I just love to run into Wanda anywhere and see that smile as i get my hug from her. We've always found something to talk about or maybe share a joke. Wanda you are an absolute joy to me and always brighten my day.
I would also like to publicly thank her for all her support through the years for the J.C. Baker Masonic Lodge and her generosity toward the Shriner's Hospitals. And also for so many other countless things she does in this community.
Thank you Wanda and I have alway and continue to love you from the bottom of my heart.

Steve Whitaker

On Sept. 1, 2008, my dad and I stopped by the Roy Acuff Museum and Union County Historical Society in Maynardville after a family reunion in Sharps Chapel.

Miss Wanda greeted us before we cleared the doorway. “Come in, come on in. Where you folks from?”

“I’ve been in Indiana for years, but I was raised down in here,” Dad said.

“I see,” Miss Wanda said. “Couldn’t get back here fast enough, could you?”

That was the start of a beautiful adventure. As Dad and I traced our family roots from Union County back through Virginia and North Carolina and all the way to Germany, Miss Wanda was there every step of the way, guiding our search and feeding us biscuits.

She became very important to me, and not because of her expertise in genealogy. Her stories are now my stories. (I still laugh when I think about her lemon eggs!) I love her like my own, and I'm glad to see that Union County appreciates her for the treasure that she is.

She is a treasure to me.

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• November 14 in Kingsport
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