As do a lot of communities around the country, someone from my hometown maintains a Facebook group called “If You Ever Lived in Fort Smith, Arkansas.”
I’m not on the Group’s page often, but it’s fun to occasionally scroll through and see what people are talking about.
Certain topics dominate the Fort Smith page: Dragging Grand Ave. in the ’70s … Enjoying a giant Worldburger of the past … and remembering stores like Hunt’s and The Boston Store that were once shopping mainstays.
About five years ago, a fellow Southside High School grad, Eddie Weller, posted about favorite Fort Smith teachers he recalled. Because I’m an Army brat, I only attended school in Fort Smith for three years.
But there was one teacher that certainly had an impact on my future. His name was Tom Oliver.
Mr. Oliver taught Journalism at Southside. I took Mr. Oliver’s class as a senior because I had a far-fetched dream of some day being a newspaper reporter.
So, I posted on the Facebook Group about Mr. Oliver being a memorable teacher, and it was like a call-and-response for a conversation that began five years ago and continues to stir memories today.
Here are some selected memories of Tom Oliver by his former students (Mr. Oliver died in the early 1990s, so it’s too bad he’s no longer around to read what his former students say.).
My original comment:
“My journalism teacher at Southside, Tom Oliver. Showed a lot of patience to a wanna be who had few skills in HS. I ended up making a career out of newspapers, so thanks to Mr. Oliver for encouraging me.”
Response from Eddie Weller:
“TO” as we called Mr. Oliver (but not to his face . . . ) … He did have patience. I remember senior year we rotated a column among the editorial board. I wrote a semi-funny one (tried to be humorous) for my first try. I used a phrase to get a chuckle that he asked me if I should use. He let me decide. He explained he was not sure my parents, for instance, would understand why I used the phrase. That was thoughtful on his part as a teacher. It made me really think — even a small phrase could make or break a mood you were trying to set. And “Ye Olde Pub” (the publications/journalism room for the uninitiated) was always a great place to be. He gave great freedom to the newspaper staff, yet knew when to reel it in. Truly an amazing teacher!”
From Sandra Curtis Kaundart:
“Tom Oliver, my mentor, was the greatest teacher ever!
… I majored in journalism because of him, worked at a couple of small papers, later did my practice teaching with him, and ended up teaching journalism and English for 31 years.”
From Scott Carty:
“Tom Oliver was one of my heroes. i found one of his old yearbook pictures in the storage room and put mirror-headed thumbtacks thru his eyes and labeled it EltonTom. Made him smile.”
From Jim Morris:
“I had too much fun in his class. Just ask Scott Carty”
From David Yarbrough:
“Tom Oliver didn’t do a lot of chalkboard teaching. He picked leaders (editors) and let those students fill their roles assigning stories and photos. He let them do the editing and design of the paper. Only occasionally did he make a quite suggestion. In the real world, you could compare him to a hand-off publisher who trusted his staff. He also encouraged students to explore all kinds of arts and studies. He took staffers to state and national conferences to open horizons.”
My own story isn’t anything spectacular. The student newspaper had a regular “Newsmakers” column of one-paragraph stories (emulating, I believe, a popular Page 1A “In the News” feature in the Arkansas Gazette), and I was assigned to write a Newsmaker item for each issue of the paper.
Did I tell you that I was terrible as a cub reporter? That one-paragraph Newsmaker assignment might as well have been a 10-page term paper.
But I managed to scrape something together for each edition, and Mr. Oliver gently edited my effort. Like all of my favorite teachers and professors over the years, he showed tremendous patience with me.
I remember Tom Oliver as being fairly young at the time and in tune with popular culture. His was a class that I looked forward to attending every single day. Similar to my favorite college professor, who also taught journalism.
I can’t tell you exactly what clicked for me, except perhaps the camaraderie of being around others that had an interest in journalism. Oh, and the thrill of seeing something you wrote in print.
In a touch of irony, years later, I served as Sports Editor of the Southwest Times Record in Fort Smith. Mr. Oliver worked part time for me on the Sport Desk on Friday nights during football season, helping us gather scores and write short summaries.
Mr. Oliver actually remembered me from my not-so-memorable one-year stint in his high school journalism class. He told me he was surprised that I pursued a newspaper career because he wasn’t sure that I had the interest as a student.
I guess my candle didn’t burn too brightly in high school. But I did have a dream.
Thank you, Tom Oliver, for being an encouraging teacher and not steering me away from the far-fetched dream of the 17-year-old me.