If we are lucky, a teacher is the guiding influence on our lives. Ruth Hallman was that and so much more as I can attest as her student at Floyd County High School and the years afterward.
As my English teacher, she turned my clumsy attempts at writing into readable prose. As a headstrong student, I of course thought I was a writer. She showed many ways that I wasn’t but with her coaching, sharp editing and guidance, she turned me into one.
As advisor to the County Crier, our student newspaper, she nurtured my budding interest in journalism with a strong hand and a red pencil that left many edits, corrections and reprimands on my copy.
When I screwed up – a frequent occurrence in those days – she pointed out my mistakes and sent back to do it over again.
When I got something right, even if it made others mad, she stepped in and saved me from their wrath.
After school, I worked for her husband – Floyd Press owner and editor Pete Hallman – and they were mentors, editors and surrogate parents. They helped me also get a part-time job as a stringer for The Roanoke Times and it was that job that brought the wrath of then Principal Ray Hollandsworth down on me when I reported that student school bus drivers in Floyd were threatening to strike over what they called poor working conditions.
Hollandsworth tried to stop the initial story and ordered me to stop reporting anything else on the student school bus drivers. He threatened suspension. He said he could stop me from graduating the following spring. School superintendent Alonzo Monday backed up the threat with a angry phone call to my mother.
Ruth Hallman marched into the principal’s office and told him that I was performing a Constitutional right called “freedom of the press” and said she told me to keep working on the story. If the principal threw me out of school, she said, she would walk out the door with me.
Hollandsworth backed down and I wrote more stories on the school bus driver story.
When I graduated from FCHS in 1965, she wrote a great reference letter to The Roanoke Times, joining her husband to urge them to hire me at age 17 as a reporter. I had been accepted to the University of Virginia that fall but she urged me to transfer to Roanoke’s UVa campus and work for the Times. Her letter helped me become the youngest full-time reporter for the Times.
The Hallmans left Floyd and moved back to Ruth Hallman’s home state of Ohio. I left the Times in 1969 and headed for Illinois but visited the family in Ohio.
In our 23 years in Washington, I heard from her by mail. After we moved to Floyd in 2004, I looked forward to seeing her when Randy, her son, a class mate and a friend came with his mother to visit daughter Sherry, who still lives in Floyd County.
I saw her in Richmond at state high school basketball championships. In a conversation during one of her last visits to Floyd, she talked about the confrontation with principal Hollandsworth over the school bus driver story.
“It wasn’t the first time I got called in for something you did,” she said. “It also wasn’t the last.”
I didn’t know that visit would be the last time I would see the woman who made it possible for me to live my dreams. Without her guidance, and the support of her family, I would not have had the chance to travel the world, report on memorable news stories and photograph places I never thought I would visit.
In the 1965 high school annual, she wrote:
“I’ve been proud of you, exasperated with you, grateful to you, mad at you, amazed by you and confused by you. But you are learning. Keep it up.”
I wasn’t alone as a student whose life she influenced. Many of us spent long hours are her house, learning away from the classroom, engaging in long and challenging discussions on many thoughtful and important topics often late into the night.
She always challenged us to think, investigate and challenge things that needed attention.
She also knew how to get us to face our fears or prejudices and taught us to fight the constraints of narrow-minded approaches to life and problems.
She was my teacher, my mentor and my friend. She was the same with so many others.
(Written for the Thursday, November 13th issue of The Floyd Press)