JOHN THOMPSON VALLANDINGHAMp. 9
by Joseph E. Early (one of his many students)
"And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of waters, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither, and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper." Psalms 1:3
For sixty-one years John Thompson a river of Cumberland College students nourished them. Vallandingham stood beside and the fruit of his life.
He was born on December 27, 1887, on a farm in Owen County, Kentucky. He was the youngest of three sons born to Kate Laura Thompson Vallandingham and Lewis Alexander Vallandingham. John, along with his older brothers Claude and Carl, was typical of the many farm boys found in Kentucky at the turn of the century. He later attended nearby Georgetown College and graduated with a major in mathematics in 1911. The next year, 1912-1913, he served as a teacher and principal at Brookville High School in Owen County.1 He decided that he would try college teaching and came to Cumberland College in the fall of 1913. He planned to stay for one semester. That semester stretched into sixty-one years. While teaching at Cumberland he continued his study of mathematics during the summer at Ypsilanti State College in Michigan, the University of Chicago, and the University of Kentucky. He was awarded honorary doctorates by the institution where he began, Georgetown College, in 1959, and where he ended his distinguished career, Cumberland College; in 1969.
"Fessor" and later "Dr. Val," as his students called him was a multi-talented man; at one time or another in his tenure at Cumberland2 he taught arithmetic, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, solid geometry, calculus and Latin. He served as "keeper and college collector of student accounts," dean of men, girl's basketball coach, tutor for West Point appointees, chairman and later chairman emeritus of the mathematics department.
When Dr. Vallandingham came to Cumberland College in the fall of 1913 he joined an already distinguished faculty whose students were achieving successes far beyond what might have been expected from so young an institution. One of the brightest stars in that constellation was Professor Gorman Jones. Professor and Mrs. Jones and their children lived on the edge of the college campus. They had four daughters, among whom was a talented and vivacious young lady named Virginia. Virginia attended Cumberland and later graduated from the University of Kentucky. When she returned home she caught the eye of the young mathematics professor and they were married in 1928. They had one daughter, Virginia, who married W. B. Early II, the son of a prominent Williamsburg attorney; their son Dr. W. B. Earley III is currently the chair of Biology Department at Cumberland. In the one hundred year history of the college, no ·other family has been, and continues to be, so tightly woven into the fabric of the institution.
J. T. Vallandingham taught at Cumberland from the fall of 1913 through May of 1974. His sixty-one years of service was broken only by World War I and II when he volunteered for duty.
He served as a lieutenant in the artillery of the famous Rainbow Division in Europe during World War I. In World War II he served as a captain and later as a major in the Transportation Corps. Even there he continued his role as a teacher when he was assigned to teach courses in map reading.
Mathematics was his great academic love. Nothing stimulated him quite like working a difficult mathematics problem. He loved the discipline, orderliness and preciseness of mathematics. This, it seems, provides us with one of the insights necessary to gain some understanding of his life.
It is not difficult to enumerate the facts of this man's life. Yet, as important as they are they do not tell us who John Thompson Vallandingham really was. They only relate what he was. Who was this man whose life is so tightly intertwinded in the life of Cumberland College? The people who know best the answer to this question are his students.
It is not difficult to enumerate the facts of this man's life. Yet, as important as they are they do not tell us who John Thompson Vallandingham really was. They only relate what he was. Who was this man whose life is so tightly intertwined in the life of Cumberland College? The people who know best the answer: to this question are his students.
Let's allow, then, his students to tell us about John Thompson Vallandingham. They will tell us through their letters written to him on the occasion of his retirement in 1974. These letters provide one with a glimpse into this man's great heart and where else should one look at "who" a man is except at his heart?
A 1920 alumnus wrote to Dr. Val, "Gandhi, India's great leader, once said, 'My life is my message.' Many of your friends have been expressing the same kind of thought about yourself."3 A 1922 student of his recalls, "Memory lives as one goes back some fifty-two years, but I see you then as I see you now - a great teacher. You were admired by your students for your devotion, your sincerity, your kindness and dedication to help others prepare themselves for life. Such inspiration is provided only by a true and genuine teacher."4 From 1922, "Your influence in shaping my life's goals and ambitions can never be measured."5 From the class of 1924, we have, "Your Christian attitude and your thoughtfulness always showed not only in the class room, but in your daily life."6
A student from 1925 remembers, "Your many years have been characterized by unselfish dedication, unswerving purpose and Christian commitment, whether serving as excellent educator, wise counselor and friend, Dean of men, able administrator or as Dr. Val, a title borne with humility and dignity."7 From 1927, "Your sincerity, kind ness, thoughtfulness of others, wonderful sense of humor and generosity have been so appreciated."8Another student from 1927 recounts, "I see the following attributes in your life; humility, sureness of a Supreme Being, great faith in the Bible, compassion for your fellow man and a true example of everyday Christian living. In the practice
of medicine, I hope that my patients see in my life some of the virtues that I see in your life."9
From an alumnus of 1929 who became a teacher, "During almost forty years in the classroom myself, it has been my greatest ambition to develop skills in teaching, which in some small degree, could be likened unto the art you so profoundly portrayed."10 From a 1927 alumnus and neighbor, "In all these years I have never known you to be anything but an unselfish, dedicated Christian gentleman, and the greatest influence for all that is good in my adult life. 1111 From 1932, "We came with different aptitudes and abilities, sharing equally your kindness, compassion and patience."12 An alumnus of 1931 wrote, "Our high regard for your wisdom and competency as a teacher is exceeded only by our respect for you as an individual."13
From a member of the class of 1933, we read, "Not only was my instructor (Dr. Val.) a fine gentleman who knew his subject matter well, related to his students. in a friendly manner and considered each one of us as an individual, but he was and is also a dedicated Christian man."14 From another member of the class of 1934, "In addition to your ability to teach math, there are other qualities that impressed me greatly - patience, kindness, interest in the success of your students, and your Christian example."15 Again, from 1934, "As my teacher, you helped to clarify new worlds of knowledge and make them seem conquerable, and you did this with such rememberable, quiet good humor."16 A 1936 alumnus writes, "Most of all I remember: your excellent presentation of the materials, your good natured patience and kindness with those of us who needed a little extra, and the dry humor with which you maintained outstanding rapport with your students."17 From a member of the class of 1938, "In your quiet, unassuming way you taught us not only math but the Christian principles by which you lived." From 1940, "I liken you more as a father who took his son through the fascinatinl explorations of not only mathematics but a way of life itself."18 From another member of the class of 1940, "I owe a debt of gratitude to you for convincing me that God cares for me and is concerned with my welfare."19
A 1943 alumnus writes, "Somebody has said that the measure of a man's Christianity is determined by his treatment of those who could neither help not hurt him. Your Christianity measures up. You treat everybody well."20 From a member of the class of 1946, "One attribute for which I shall ever be grateful was the opportunity of having a friend and professor who is a Christian gentleman of model character. I cherish the memories of the chapel meditations and prayers which you offered; you lived your expressed thoughts in a modest, unassuming manner."21 From 1947, "You always seemed to understand that, that extra bit of patience and understanding was just what we needed to help us along."22
From a 1951 alumnus who became a mathematics professor, "In your classes, I learned patience; pride in a job well done, and self-confidence."23 A member of the class of 1955 wrote, "You never knew,
I suppose, how you personally inspired me to look for the finer things in life. Your life and spirit were so well-ordered and so self-disciplined, that you spoke volumes on the way to live without saying a word."24 From 1958, a student remembers "the extra time spent after class, the extra time spent on classwork at your home, the extra time spent with surveying assignments, and most importantly, that extra part of yourself that you gave unselfishly to each student with the ultimate purpose of motivating him to succeed."25
From an alumnus of the class of 1960, "I received my degree from the University of Kentucky, but I received my education at Cumberland College where Dr. Val taught me how to think."26 From a mathematics professor who was a student in the class of 1960, "Our conversations always turn at last to our "Dr. Val" and his ability to take ole mountain boys like us who didn't know much of anything and inspire us to learn more than we ever dreamed possible."27 Another member of the class of 1960 wrote, "I have often tried to understand what there is about you that transformed me from an undisciplined 18 year-old boy into a young man, ready, willing and able to work 4, 6, 8, 10 hours on my calculus homework, in part, so that I would never disappoint you."28
A high school mathematics teacher who was a member of the class of 1961 writes about "Dr. Val," "I am confident that every student that sat in your classroom was in some way positively affected by you."29 From another high school mathematics teacher who was a member of the class of 1962, "I am even more grateful for your influences on my life as a kind and gentle Christian man. Thank you for a life lived totally in service for others."30 And finally from the class of 1962, "We remember liking and respecting you so much that we didn't want to go to class without all of the assigned work in good order. It was easy to see that our classmates felt the same way.31
This brief review of only a few of what could have been hundreds of similar sentiments gives us a glimpse of an attribute which while not mentioned by any of his students speaks volumes to us through the gentle and quiet echo of each comment. That attribute is consistency. Over six decades we see him toil, never losing faith in his calling and never tiring of his purpose. Where is the generation gap we so often hear about? No matter which decade of his teaching career we examine, we hear exactly the same sentiment directed toward him. These were mostly eighteen through twenty-one year olds writing about a man who in his later years was forty or fifty years older than his students. It is apparent that he knew what they needed and gave it unselfishly. He gave it in not what he said so much as how he lived his life in their presence.
To get a clearer picture of this man's heart one needs to relate a few of what his students call "Dr. Val Stories." Anytime his former students get together it is inevitable that these legends and dozens of others will be recounted. From one of his students in the early thirties, "He taught a class in Latin on Saturday morning which interfered with my social life. After a period of time, we had a discussion
concerning my cutting his Saturday morning class and in his usual mild-mannered, soft-spoken way he informed me that if I cut anymore he would do some cutting of his own and I would receive a 'D' in the course. Well, I did and he did."32 A member of the class of 1927 remembers, "When Dr. Val was dean of men, 'hot plates' were strictly No! No! We tried to be very quiet and we thought you did not know. Imagine my consternation late one night when you tapped gently on my door and asked, 'Walter, do you just happen, by any chance, to have an egg?' 'Yes, sir,' I said. 'Well, would you lend me one?' A student was critically ill and Dr. Richardson had suggested feeding him an egg. So, I was caught with the evidence. A week or so later you replaced the borrowed egg but you never did mention our violation of the no-cooking rule. That is just one of many episodes that caused me to respect and appreciate you as a man and as a teacher."33
An alumnus of 1943 remembers a side of Dr. Val which many of his students came to know only by visiting his home for help. She closed her letter with this statement. "One last thank you on behalf of all the boxers, collies and questionable canine breeds that you have welcomed, nurtured and nursed. How did so many of them know that your house was refuge, even the mothers-to-be?"34
The "who" as well as the "what" of this life lived in Christian service is a little clearer now because we have been privileged to view him through the eyes of so many others. One of his students sent Dr. Val the following quote from Thomas Carlyle as he tried to express what Dr. Val had meant to him. "He is great, and there is no other greatness, than to make one nook of God is creation more fruitful, better, more worthy of God; to make some human heart a little wiser, manlier, happier - more blessed, less accursed."35
One can not help but think that just maybe Paul, in his second letter to Timothy, was also thinking of the thousands of Dr. Val's students including myself when he wrote, "And the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also," II Timothy 2:2.
1 James H. Taylor, A Bright Shining City Set on a Hill: A Centennial History, (Williamsburg, Kentucky: Cumberland College, 1988, 141 ).
2 Ibid., 116
3-34 Letters to Vallandingham, Vol. I & Vol. II, 1974.
[From Kentucky Baptist Heritage, 1988, Volume 15, pp. 9-13; used with permission of the author. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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