Remembering Sgt. York, A War Hero Who Built A School

Nov 11, 2015
Originally published on November 11, 2015 6:49 pm

Here in Pall Mall, Tenn., you can walk up on the front porch of the Forbus General Store, est. 1892, and still hear Alvin C. York's rich Tennessee accent.

Every day, the older neighbors gather on the store's front porch.

"My grandfather used to cut Sgt. Alvin York's hair," Richard West recalls. "He would pay a quarter. He was a big man, redheaded."

York was a Medal of Honor winner. One of the most decorated American heroes of World War I.

At the end of the war, when he returned to his home here in the mountains of north Tennessee, all he wanted was to build a school. A school that would help his neighbors' kids get the education he had missed.

York had only finished the third grade in a one-room school. His family needed him on the farm. But he liked to read, kept a diary, and because of the war had seen a world beyond the ridgeline: London, Paris, New York.

Pete Smith, whittling red cedar on the porch, remembers the day of Alvin York's funeral in 1964. Important people were coming from all over the United States to pay tribute. "I was out digging potatoes and I hadn't never seen as many helicopters, about as high as the light wires and they was 12 or 15 of them. They like to jarred me out of the tobacco patch."

Richard West likes to tell how friendly the York family always was. "When they'd have a dinner up there, they'd be 25, 30 people show up and eat. All the neighbors would stop by and the grocery trucks would stop and deliver so they'd have plenty of food."

The 1941 Hollywood movie Sergeant York made the Tennessee farmer even more famous. Gary Cooper won an Oscar for the title role. The movie shows York coming of age in his home valley, then going off to fight the Germans in France.

On Oct. 18, 1918, advancing alone after his unit came under fire, York attacked a machine gun nest. He killed a group of German soldiers who were shooting at him and then captured 132 more.

York came home to marry his longtime love, Gracie Williams, and they began farming. He had turned down all the celebrity deals, even vaudeville — no tours, no endorsements, no books. But he did start raising money to build a proper high school.

He even mortgaged his farm, twice. He finished building and staffing the school in 1926.

His son, Andy York, now 85, tells why: "The kids around here, in the rural areas, they had no chance to go somewhere else to a big school. He was going to try to get that where they wouldn't have to go very far and they could get an education there, see."

The York Institute is 10 miles away from Alvin York's homeplace, up the mountain in Jamestown, the county seat. The idea was to build a good school in the town and make sure all the kids from out in the valleys could get there, even on horseback and in buggies to begin with.

Every year now the new students learn about Alvin York. His story is told in classes, and the movie is shown often.

Principal Jason Tompkins is a graduate.

"We have an expectation at our school because we're Sgt. York's own," he says. "When you come into our school we expect people to be exceptional."

Tompkins points out that "Alvin York could have made himself rich and instead he chose to invest his money into the community. I wouldn't have done it. I would probably have not put my farm up, I would probably have not put the amount of effort into working the way that he did. That's just a phenomenal statesmanlike quality that very few people ever have."

Senior Christopher Garrett, who is taking farm management courses, appreciates York's love of the land. "He came from some rich farmland," Garrett says.
"Some guys I know used to farm the York bottoms, down by the grist mill and it was some fertile soil that produced some really good crops and good yields."

Sophomore Paige Cobb knows about York's skill as a marksman, even beyond his wartime action. He used to win local shooting matches.

Cobb is on the rifle team, part of the ROTC program, and when they travel for matches she wears one of the team T-shirts: "They always say 'Alvin C. York' or 'Sergeant York's Own' on them. Some people walk up to us and they'll be like, 'Oh, I know Sgt. York, I've watched a movie about him.' And then you've got some that's like, 'Who's Sgt. York?' "

The York Institute is now in its 89th year, with close to 600 students enrolled.

Perhaps the best way to see the scope of those years is to take a ride on the afternoon school bus. It's close to an hour and a half out into the valley to the last stop, where Erin and Katie Perdue live.

Erin is 15, a sophomore. She's looking to Tennessee Tech for college: "Computer science, then a minor in German."

And for her 17-year-old sister, Katie, a senior, it's the University of Tennessee. "Same for me, major in computer science, minor in a foreign language, probably Japanese."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Sgt. Alvin York was one of the most decorated veterans of the First World War, a hero in the mountains of Tennessee. When he came home from the war, he had a mission - to build a school near his home. Before he was drafted, York had barely been away from the frontier cabin where he grew up. That's where he wanted to raise his own family and be a farmer and provide children there a proper education. On this Veteran's Day, NPR's Noah Adams brings us York's story from his home valley.

NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: Here in the mountains up close to the Kentucky border, it still seems isolated. It's about an hour's drive from any interstate. Get close to Sgt. Alvin C. York's home place on a curvy road and you'll find a general store that looks like it did in 1892. A bunch of guys up on the porch in rocking chairs, it's easy to collect memories.

RICHARD WEST: My grandfather used to cut Sgt. Alvin York's hair, and he would pay a quarter to get his haircut. He was a big man, redheaded.

ADAMS: This is Richard West who says he farms the farm his daddy farmed and his daddy as well. It's a community that stays close.

WEST: Sergeant used to - when they'd have dinner up there years ago, there'd be maybe 25, 30 people, and they'd come and eat. All the neighbors would come in and eat on him. And the grocery trucks would stop up there just like they do at the stores down here and deliver, you know, groceries to him. And any kin folks or anybody visiting, they'd just eat while they was there.

ADAMS: One of the men on the porch has a knife, and shavings are collecting by his feet.

PETE SMITH: I'm whittling cedar - old-fashion red cedar.

ADAMS: What is your name?

SMITH: Pete Smith.

ADAMS: When Sgt. York died in 1964, Pete Smith says important people from all over the United States came to this valley to pay tribute.

SMITH: I remember the day of the funeral, I was digging up potatoes, and I had never seen many helicopters and, man, they just - about as high as the light wires. And there was 12 or 15 of them. They likely jarred me out of the tobacco patch.

ADAMS: Alvin York of Tennessee was a hero of the First World War who became even better known decades later when Gary Cooper played the title role in the 1941 Hollywood movie, "Sergeant York." Right there on the screen, people got to see him say goodbye to his sister and to his mother.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SERGEANT YORK")

GARY COOPER: (As Alvin C. York) I'll be coming back.

ADAMS: And maybe Alvin York did say just that in real life late in 1917. He had asked his draft board for an exemption - said he didn't want to fight. But in the end, he rode off on a mule to the war in France.

JUNE LOCKHART: (As Rosie York) Ma, what are they fighting for?

MARGARET WYCHERLY: (As Mother York) I don't rightly know, child. I don't rightly know.

ADAMS: The movie shows the battle in France. It shows York moving alone up a ridge attacking with his rifle and pistols shutting down a machine gun nest. A German officer calls for surrender, his surviving troops lay down weapons. Alvin York would be promoted, given a parade in New York, a standing ovation in Congress, the Medal of Honor. Let's take a moment and sit at a picnic table in the small Tennessee settlement that local people call Pall Mall. There's mist coming off the Mountains all around. It's farmland that would not be easy to leave.

ADAMS: You're Mr. Andy York, Alvin York's son?

ANDY YORK: I'm number 5 of 10.

ADAMS: How old are you now?

YORK: I'm 85, my brother's 92 and my sister's 82, so there's only three of us still going.

ADAMS: Andy York is retired these days. He was a Tennessee Park Ranger right here at the York Historical Site. His dad, Alvin York, after the war, married his longtime love Gracie Williams and went back to farming. He had turned down all the celebrity deals, even vaudeville, but he did start raising money to build a proper high school.

YORK: The biggest reason, of course, he only got to third grade. And for the kids around here in the rural area, they have no chance to go to somewhere else to a big school. He was going to try to get that where they wouldn't have to go very far and they can get an education there, see.

ADAMS: And it worked. He spent his own money, traveled to ask for more, mortgaged his farm twice, and he finished building and staffing the school for a start in 1926. The York Institute is 10 miles away up the mountain in Jamestown, the county seat. The idea was to build a good school in the town and make sure all the kids from out in the valleys could get there. Every year, the new students learn about Sgt. York and the movie is shown often. Jason Tompkins, who graduated here, is now the principal.

JASON TOMPKINS: We have an expectation at our school because we're Sgt. York's own. For a man to come in and to give of himself - he could have made himself rich, but instead, he chose to invest his money into the community. I wouldn't have done it. I would probably have not put my farm up. I would probably have not put the amount of effort into working the way that he did. You know, that's just a phenomenal statesman-like quality that very few people ever have.

ADAMS: Alvin York would have loved meeting a present-day student Paige Cobb, a sophomore. She would know about York and his skill with a rifle. He used to win the local shooting matches. And Paige is on the rifle team that's part of the ROTC program.

PAIGE COBB: We have our T-shirts. If we travel, they always say Alvin C. York or Sgt. York's own on them. And there's some people that walks up to us and they'll be like, oh, I know Sgt. York. I've watched a movie about him or something. And then you got some that's like, who's Sgt. York?

CHRISTOPHER GARRETT: York, I mean, he was a hero. I mean, no doubt about it.

ADAMS: And Christopher Garrett certainly knows about Alvin York's love for the land. Garrett, a senior, is taking farm management courses.

GARRETT: He come from some rich farmland. Some guys I know used to farm the York bottoms down by the grist mills and stuff, and it was some fertile soil that produced some really good crops and good yields.

ADAMS: The school day is over. The buses are lined up outside the York Institute. Larry Williams is looking to smile at his regular riders.

LARRY WILLIAMS: We should be getting ready to pull out right here in just a minute.

ADAMS: The bus goes out along the ridges and then down into the valleys. And I got a chance to ask about the York Institute mascot. The teams are called the Dragons. It's the home of the Dragons.

ERIN PERDUE: Dragons are cool.

KATIE PERDUE: Yes, sir, I enjoy having Dragons as a mascot.

ADAMS: Why do you say that?

PERDUE: Well, like she said, dragons are cool, and they're really fierce and ferocious.

ADAMS: Erin Perdue, who's 15 and a sophomore at York, and her sister Katie, 17, a senior. In the morning, their mom drives them into school. The afternoon bus ride home can take an hour, an hour and a half. Theirs is the last stop on the route. Erin is looking to Tennessee Tech for college.

ERIN: Computer science and then I'm going to minor in foreign language.

ADAMS: Which one?

ERIN: German.

ADAMS: Her sister, Katie, plans on the University of Tennessee.

PERDUE: Same for me - major in computer science, minor in foreign language, but my foreign language will probably be Japanese.

ADAMS: End of the day in a mountain valley in Tennessee - end of the story. The school that Alvin C. York wanted to build is now in its 89th year with close to 600 students. Noah Adams, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.