My Grandpa was Jakes dad, John Ruben Henderson, born in 1881. Grandpa John never received any formal education and never learned to read or write. When he was five years old his step-father put him to work in a sock factory. You read that right, he went to work full days in a factory at five years old. His pay was five cents per week, but he never saw the money because it was collected by his step-father. His job was to cut off the excess string left at the toe of the sock by the knitting process. I’m glad that the child labor laws prevent this type of abuse from happening now. So, our Family Education story starts with a child from a family too poor to send children to school and who put them to work in a factory.
Grandpa John became a farmer. He and his wife, Grandma Clara Henderson (nee Beula Clara Paulk), insured that their sons Willie B., the oldest, and Curtis went to the local school which only had grades one through seven. Getting a Seventh Grade Certificate was a BIG deal in those days. When boys were old enough for field work, they had to miss school during harvesting season in the Fall. Willie B. started the seventh grade but dropped out for farm work in the Fall and did not go back to finish. This would have been about 1918 when he was 13 years old.
My father told me the story about how he finally got his Seventh Grade Certificate. One day, when he was 16 or 17, he was out in the family wagon on a double date with a friend. It was springtime and the weather was pleasant so, of course, they talked about many things. As it happened, the man with whom he was double dating was also the school master. Jake told him about dropping out early in the seventh grade and how he would like to go back someday and finish. The school master offered him an opportunity. He said that the next week they were going to start a two-week review of all they had studied in the seventh grade and then they would have a final exam. He told Jake that if he would come to the two-week review and pass the final, he would give him his certificate. Jake eagerly agreed, passed the exam and became a seventh-grade graduate. So, in one generation we went from no education to a seventh-grade graduate.
My mother Juby, Florence Ethelene Nichols Henderson, would never tell me how many grades she finished. And I asked her several times. My guess is that she finished the fifth grade. She became well educated by being a voracious reader.
For the next generation the goals of Jake and Juby were for each of their children to finish high school, which in the 1940s only went through the eleventh grade. The older boys finished high school but could not be convinced to go to college. But Bobbie, the oldest girl, wanted to go to college for two years to study to be a secretary. This was a huge step for the family because no other family member had ever gone to college. But it was also huge because they did not have enough money. Finally, they were able to come up with the $150 for her first semester. Dad told me many times that when they took Bobbie to school, they did not know how they were going to pay for the second semester. When they were able to pay for the second semester, they had no idea how they would find the money for the third semester, and so on. But, two years later Bobbie became the first college graduate in the family. Eventually Bill graduated from Georgia Tech as an Architect, Peggy and Patsy graduated from Georgia Southern, and I graduated from Georgia Tech In two generations we went from no school to numerous college graduates. And the third generation, John Ruben Henderson’s great grandchildren, with spouses, have many Master’s Degrees and four PhDs. Five are college professors.
This educational progression is certainly not unique in America. We are blessed by God to live in a nation with wonderful opportunities. As we realize how blessed we are, we are also mindful that the level of education and the degrees on the wall do not measure the worth of a man or woman. My observation of our family, full of a variety of education levels, is that those who provide the most hope for others is not related to the level of education. A good example of this is my brother Buck. He had no desire for college, yet he and Dad started a company. The income from that company provided the tuition for the educations of Bobbie, Bill, Peggy, and Pat. It would have also provided for me, but I received a Navy scholarship to Georgia Tech which really provided my financial needs. One of my favorite Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes is: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is ‘What are you doing for others?’”
Note from Brenda: After graduation from Georgia Tech Will spent eight years in the U.S. Navy, serving in nuclear submarines. During those eight years we had four children and we saved enough money for him to be able to go to one year of graduate school at Purdue, because we could supplement our income with the G.I. Bill stipends. After that year we discussed the possibility of studying three more years for a PhD. With encouragement from the family, especially Peggy, we started planning. We cobbled together four sources of funds: the G.I. Bill, serving in the Navy Reserve one weekend per month and two weeks in the summer, teaching undergraduate courses at Purdue, and a National Defense Education Association fellowship. This is how the first PhD in the family was earned.