Thursday, March 8, 2018

Fighting for Education -- Branch Rickey at Turkey Creek


The passing of Mr. Rickey is like losing a father. His death was a great loss
not only to baseball but to America."

--Jackie Robinson

Branch Rickey (1881-1965) had been a farm boy, teacher, college athletic director, college trustee, college board member, prohibitionist, ballplayer, manager, general manager, club president, part owner and even president of a baseball league. Above all, Rickey brought dignity and integrity to his beloved game of baseball. He did so with vision, courage, and service.

Among many of Rickey's early accomplishments is the local story of his brief teaching career.

Encouraged by his mentor Lucasville Superintendent James H. Finney, Branch Rickey took the exam to allow him to become a Scioto Country primary-school teacher at the Scioto County Courthouse in 1899. Rickey's family's farm of 102.8 acres at Duck Run was “precarious” at the time, and he felt an obligation to help. His younger brother, Frank Wanzer, was scarcely ten and his older brother, Orla Edwin, was already licensed as a teacher. The family needed monetary support.

Besides, Branch's mother, Emily Brown Rickey, said he was not cut out to farm, but instead “preferred to read and talk and argue.” Emily jokingly said, “ He could sit down on a hoe faster than anyone I ever knew.”

Two weeks after he took the exam, Branch received a two-year teaching certificate, enabling him to teach “Orthography, Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, Geography, English Grammar, U.S. History, Physiology and Hygiene. Two weeks after that, he was instructed to report to a one-room school in Turkey Creek in Friendship. There, he would earn $35 a month.

Most of the people of that area were said to be “combative, battling, brawling, and drunken loggers and moonshiners – reports of “fighting and knifings were commonplace and severe injuries and death accepted as ordinary.”

Little did Rickey suspect the youthful roughness of this environment. However, he soon learned that one of his predecessor teachers had been beaten by a schoolboy and hospitalized in Portsmouth – the man had been hit in the scalp and the authorities later, for some unexplained reason, arrested the teacher. Needless to say, the man never came back to the school.

Then, news came that Rickey's most immediate predecessor, “a tremendous big man,” had lasted only two weeks at Turkey Creek. The students had spat tobacco juice on the teacher's shoes and he fled … for good.

What happened when Branch took over? This is the account by Murray Polner, author of Branch Rickey: A Biography:

On his first day, he (Branch) promptly sized up his enemies: tough male adolescents, virtually his own age, scions of the lumber camps and stills. (The quiet ones in class included Joseph and Mary Preston Myers, a black brother and sister). One of the boys he put down as 'criminally inclined, strong talking, vile talking, a roughneck,' entered his classroom with the smell of corn liquor on his breath. Instantly, Rickey challenged the boy. Out they went, and to the amazement of his students, Rickey beat him in a bloody fist fight. (One author says, “He was making the point that education mattered and, if necessary, was worth fighting about.”)

After that, there were more fights when he had to take on the dares and taunts of his students. In one brawl, on a hot night under the moonlight, using cheap gloves and surrounded by students and men of the area, he took a savage beating. 'The fellow nearly killed me a couple of times, but I was not whipped,' he said. In another, he faced a student who spat into the coal bucket and dared Rickey to run him off.

Branch explained, 'He brought the book Black Beauty with him. That was the only book he had. He was just about my age, maybe a few months older than I, and about my size. Slovenly in dress, one leg left outside the boot and the other inside, his hair uncut apparently for months, hung clear down to his shoulders, and he was a pile loader up at the railroad station at Turkey Creek. Said he made. $1.10 a day … and I told him that was a little more than I was making.'

The boy waited for Rickey after class. 'Do you want to run me out of my job?' Rickey asked sharply, squeezing his shoulder hard, and adding: 'Well, you just can't do it, do you understand?' The boy pulled away and grabbed the coal bucket and emptied its contents on the floor while Rickey shoved him out of the room, 'banged the door shut and went up and rang the bell with great dexterity,' to warn others of his trouble. Even so, the boy – Rickey remembered his name, Gordon Tatman, for the rest of his life – was impressed by some facet of his teacher's personality and became his major defender among the other hoodlums in class and eventually, in Rickey's words, became 'a real student.'”

Ricky established a great measure of discipline there. He was intending to teach just one year at Turkey Creek, but word spread that he had contained the toughs, and soon “every mail adult in the hamlet signed a petition calling for his rehiring.”

Pike County offered him a job for the enticing pay of $65 a month. For obvious reasons, Branch wanted the position. Yet, his father Jacob Franklin Rickey (known in the county as “Uncle Frank”) called the Scioto County superintendent to talk about the offer. After great discussion, Frank insisted Branch take a second year at Turkey Creek.

Branch said, “He (father) felt that it was a job that had not been finished.” And, Branch, himself, said later he also saw “those X's of poor people who wanted their children taught.” So, he taught there the next year before he headed to Ohio Wesleyan.

From a Rickey family Bible containing a handwritten note in which the word branch was captitalized. “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of the roots.”

Isaiah, 11:1 



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