As I walk the marble floors of the Benham Schoolhouse Inn, I note the numbers on the doors. 1928 was the graduation year of the room in which we slept, a room with the same hardwood floors that thousands of children traversed. And I wondered about those 1928 graduates, all now long dead. How were their lives impacted by their experiences at Benham High School?
My mother, Opal Adams Bowling, a 1931 graduate of the school, often regaled her four children with stories of Coach Matthis and his coaching style when she played on the girls’ high school basketball team. That gym where she and my aunt Lurlene raced up and down the floor is now the Great Room at the inn. My mother’s French teacher at Benham High School gave her a life-long love of the language, and she often spoke to us in French. She also spoke to us of classes in chemistry and criminology and was able to identify the constellations as we sat on the front porch of our home on the Cumberland River.
A story we really loved was one from her elementary school days. A carnival was set up on the wide expanse in the front of the school grounds. A excited monkey jumped on her and began biting at her neck. “Skinny” Henchel witnessed the attack but was afraid to fire his rifle at the monkey and instead threw a sizable rock which knocked that monkey off her back.
My mother’s education was excellent at Benham, and I believe it had a major impact on her ability to mother her children as all have at least one graduate degree. But back to today’s story.
I pay a visit to innkeeper Melvin Dixon, and as I enter his office, I note a photo of my eighth-grade math teacher, Ross Barger, above the door.
It’s Thanksgiving 2013 and the inn is beautifully decorated for Christmas. As we talk, Dixon offers to share with me the comments of previous guests: “Loved the mines and mountains,” “Home again! Went to school here,” and “Thanks for preserving it.”
I write my own response to the inn, carefully avoiding comments like “Great!” and “Keep up the good work” and go on over to the Apple Room to see what’s available for breakfast.
As my husband and my sister’s great-granddaughter, Kaylee, are still soundly asleep back in Room 1928, I ask a woman who is sitting alone if she’d like company. She invites me to sit with her and as we introduce ourselves, I learn that she is Ruth Carruba Caudill, there with family to celebrate her father’s birthday, Joe Carruba, age 94.
Ruth, a 1969 graduate of Cumberland High School and a 1971 graduate of Eastern Kentucky University, is there with her husband, children and grandchildren. She reports that her father “is doing well for 94, that with his brother Sam, he worked long hours at the grocery store they owned in Cumberland and that he taught his children that same work ethic while always acknowledging the importance of family.”
Caudill’s brother George Carruba, a 1966 Cumberland High School graduate with a degree in electrical engineering earned in 1972 from the University of Kentucky and Ruth’s husband, Raymond Caudill, a 1969 graduate and a C.P.A. with a degree in business from Berea College, join us and they comment on Mr. Carruba: “He putters around the house, loves to read, and regularly recites the Magnificat and reads the Knights of Columbus publication, Columbia .” They tell me that Mr. Carruba suffers from macular degeneration but his reading ability has recently been improved dramatically with an enhanced vision systems instrument which they have brought him.
Raymond Caudill has his own success story. Raised as one of 10 children in Blair and the son of a coal miner, he reports, “At Berea I worked in the post office, the laundry, and was head of janitorial services at one time.” He realizes the value of his Appalachian heritage and has worked to communicate that, “Our children and grandchildren understand and embrace this culture. When Joe passes, it will be a challenge because he has been the central point, the focus of the family.”
One of the numerous Carruba relatives staying at the inn, Olivia, age 5, now dances across the floor in the Apple Room, clad in pajamas and a pink robe with beautiful golden hair down to her waist and a sweet smile. We talk and Kaylee joins us. I tell Olivia that Kaylee, age 7, has recently started tap and ballet lessons in Cumberland and Olivia starts demonstrating some of her ballet moves.
Soon I realize that it’s time to go back to the room, pack up our things, and check out. As I do, I know, however, that I am carrying with me a very special Thanksgiving for which I am truly thankful. This important part of Appalachian history has been preserved in a stellar manner.
Additionally, I have met a wonderful extended family whose members understand what those of us who have left Harlan County mean when we say, “We’re going home.”
This is my third time at the inn, now on the National Register of Historic Places and owned by the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, but I know I’ll be back again for my next trip to Harlan County.
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