The William Henry Oliver Scholarships
Principal William Henry Oliver
"East High lives on through
its alumni and through
the recipients of this scholarship."

Principal William Henry Oliver

W.H. Oliver
recalls his full life as an Educator

by Jennifer Plant
Nashville Banner Staff Writer
(Nashville Banner Saturday, Sept. 3, 1983)

"The old man smiles as he recites his favorite lines from one of his favorite poems, Thomas Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. A late afternoon shadow falls across the antiques that decorate the musty drawing room of the old East Nashville home.

William Henry Oliver, almost 80, is recalling his days as a Nashville schools superintendent, longtime principal of East High School, English teacher, professor, preacher and civic volunteer.

"My faith in God has been the basis and backbone of my life," he said, and leaned forward in his antique rocker. "Is the thing right? That's the important thing. I believe in prayer.

"Not too long ago, I saw a man who was my student 30 years ago. He was sort of mischievous when he was younger. He reminded me that in my (principal's) office one day, I told him that I had prayed for him.

"He's a Mason now and an honor man and I'm right proud of him. A fellow who's a high school teacher trying to guide boys and girls needs to pray and he needs people to pray for him," Oliver said.

On Tuesday he will become the recipient of the American Legion's prestigious Leon Gilbert Memorial Award. It will be added to the stack of plaques lying on his drawing room coffee table which commemorate his many years of community service.

He refers to himself as a "school man," and the educator speaks slowly and softly as he recalls the many years he spent teaching. After one year at Hume-Fogg High School, he was an instructor at East from 1932-1937. For the next 18 years he served as the school's principal.

"I had a very rich experience as a school man. But my experience as a teacher at East High School is what stands out in my mind," the professor said.
"I've always lived within walking distance of East High," Oliver remembered, leaning back in his rocker and closing his eyes. "I remember how proud I was to take my briefcase and walk to East High. It was so clean and new then."

A number of Nashvillians remember the days when Oliver headed East High. And he remembers them.

"(Mayor) Dick Fulton is one of our alumni. He was a very likable boy and a great athlete. He was never very big, but he was a strong boy and a good school citizen.

"Chief (Joe) Casey wasn't one of my boys, but he married one of my girls," he said, naming a long list of his "boys and girls" including Tax Assessor Jim Ed Clary, state Commissioner of Transportation Bob Farris; U.S. Rep. Bill Boner; the late Frank Sutton, who portrayed Sgt. Vince Carter on TV's Gomer Pyle; Nashville Banner Vice President and General Manager Jack Gunter; Dr. Wesley Atwood; Edward F. "Eddie" Jones, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce; Nashville businessmen, Owen Howell; Tommy Parker; Bobby Garrison; the late Tom Keysaer; Metro Councilman Tandy Wilson and hundreds more.

Entertainer Dinah Shore was one of his students at Hume-Fogg and he recalled the time Fanny Rose, as she was called then, auditioned for a part in a talent show.

"She sang Paradise and she had a sweet, soft contralto. Believe it or not, some of the members of the committee didn't think she was 'good enough.' "I stood up for her and I still like to hear her now. Fanny Rose is one of my favorite girls," he said, as he softly sang a few bars of the tune. During the war, Oliver wrote an open letter that was sent to all of his "boys" in combat. "If you really want to know me, read 'Dear Joe,"' he said. East High had a flag with a blue star placed on it for every "boy" in combat, and a gold one for every one who was killed.

"Those gold stars kept piling up," Oliver said, and he wanted to join them, but was told he was 'needed at East High'. "So I stayed at home and wrote letters to them... and I sang at a lot of funerals," he said sadly.

As superintendent of schools beginning in late 1957, Oliver hand-picked all of the teachers and, even though there were more than 125 new teachers each year, he said he interviewed each of them personally.

"The members of the (school) board told me I picked the prettiest teachers. I told my board it doesn't hurt a person to be pretty," he said with a smile.

"I believe in kindness, smoothness and congeniality. It doesn't make an iron bar less strong to wrap it in velvet. That's what I always said." When Oliver took over as superintendent, desegregation of Nashville schools was just beginning and he became a very controversial figure.
Today he still does not believe in busing as a desegregation method.

"Busing destroys the neighborhood concept of schools. I think it's an insult to the black race to think a little black child has to have a white child on either side of him in order to succeed educationally.

"Some of my finest schools were all black when I was superintendent. Some of the best teachers and principals were black. "But when you bus them, they are strangers thrown together," Oliver said.

It's Oliver's opinion that education has been backsliding since the days when East High was an educational force. The reasons? Students today are not as "well-behaved" as they once were. Discipline is not as strict and students lack an "ambition to learn."

"They're not all alike, but there are some teachers who are not very good," he added.

"I feel that a schoolteacher ought to try to lead an exemplary life. I never cross the street, even today, when the sign says 'don't walk' because I need to set an' example," he said.

"I'd like for my students to try to believe in me. You can't imagine how good my students were to me," he said.

"In my last 15 years as principal, I never had to spank anyone. But I think they knew that I would," the once feared administrator said. When he did have to spank a student, he would hit them on the hands, and. then hit

himself for each time the student received a blow "just to see what it felt like."

But Oliver said there were some situations he found himself in as principal, that he now regrets.

"I had a boy who was tardy all the time. I chewed this boy out, but I didn't ask him why he was tardy. I found out he had been up all night protecting his mother from a drunken father. If I'd known that, I would have said, 'Boy, I'm glad you're here,' and sent him on to class," he said.

After the Metro Schools were formed, Oliver stepped down as superintendent and became professor at Free Will Bible College and Belmont College. All the while, he continued preaching as a Free Will Baptist minister. He began his ministry when his father died and he took over the "old home church" at Dunbar near his birthplace, Indian Mound, Tennessee.

And he continues to live by the principles that guided him as a principal and superintendent: "I try not to do anything that's un-Christian. And I don’t have to back anybody I know is wrong."

"If I could have one book," he said, "it would be the Bible. The Bible, and then Shakespeare.
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