As Gillsville School principal, Ralph White had plenty of opportunities to spank unruly students. After he had applied a hickory switch to him, one student said, “Thank you, Mr. White,” as he was going out the door.
Indeed, years later, occasionally former students will stop by his house on Winn Lake Road in Banks County to thank him for spanking them.
“You really straightened me out,” White quoted one as saying.
“But I was good to them,” White said. “I didn’t overdo it.”
“He scared them more than he hurt them,” his wife Maybelle said. Scared enough that when they heard him coming down the hall in his steel-tap shoes, they would get real quiet.
One student who came down from the mountains couldn’t recall his mother’s name, the former principal said. If somebody was slow, White’s favorite saying was, “He moves like a greased snail.”
During a Western-themed play at Gillsville School one year, a “gunshot” was fired on stage. Little Danny Rylee must have thought it was real, breaking up the audience by asking his mother, “Did they kill him?”
The rope to the school bell hung through the ceiling in Mrs. Woods’ room. Denver Bowen was the only student with a watch and got to pull the rope to ring the bell when recess was over. Baseball or basketball were played during recess on a red dirt court until a gymnasium was provided.
Each Gillsville schoolroom had a pot-bellied stove for heat during the winter. Students, however, didn’t complain much as the room was always warm. If it did get cool, those in the back were allowed to move to the front to get warm, then return to their seats. Boys would bring in coal in buckets to keep the fire going.
When White was a student at Rock Springs School, a family who wasn’t much into education brought to his fourth-grade class their good-sized son who should have been in the ninth or 10th grade. The teacher asked him, “Son, can you read?” According to White, his reply was, “Hell, no. I haven’t been here five minutes.”
White was a super sales clerk at Gold’s Department Store in Cornelia nine years before he became a teacher. He earned a degree at Piedmont College and first taught at Hickory Flat High School. He left there for Gillsville, where he eventually became principal. When Gillsville School closed, he concluded his career as assistant principal at Banks County High School and at the elementary school.
White played several musical instruments with Thomas Jordan and the Happy Highway Boys. He even had one gig with the Gene Autry Band.
They played on radio stations in Gainesville and Toccoa, also at WGST in Atlanta, recording for Bluebird Records.
During a sacred music program on WGGA one Sunday night, the band suddenly was taken off the air. They didn’t understand why until an announcer came on and told about the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941.
That did it for the band as White and other members scattered into the military. White volunteered for the Army but received a medical discharge after a year.
Mrs. White, 93, played bass and guitar and sang, and they continued performing, sometimes till well past midnight in jam sessions in their home. Their grandsons played, too. White was somewhat of an automobile buff, a familiar sight driving a 1940 Ford along Banks County back roads. His wife said he could change a tire on a muddy road and not get a speck of dirt on his starched white shirt. He still owns an A-Model Ford.
White is known as a man of high morals. When he visited the set of “I’d Climb the Highest Mountain,” being filmed in White County, he spotted actress Susan Hayward sitting on the lap of a fellow actor. Her husband came up, she got up and hugged and kissed him, then returned to the lap of the actor.
That upset White. “I didn’t like that at all,” he said.
The former educator, now 94, is hard of hearing, but doesn’t wear a hearing aid. “I’m not too stingy to buy one,” he said. “I tried two, but they didn’t work for me. But they took my money.”
The Whites have been married 73 years.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.