Tidbits - February 25, 2021


    When Bela Herlong died on February 15, I posted a picture on Facebook from my surprise 40th birthday party nearly 30 years ago. The organizers set the party up like a “Dean Martin Celebrity Roast.” Bela’s contribution was a poem she had written especially for me.
  She did that often, shared her talent as a wordsmith with people she cared about, and she cared about everyone.
  The picture and tribute I posted, garnered over 300 comments, mostly from her former students, all of whom explained how she impacted their lives as a high school English teacher.
  And it wasn’t just teachers and writers who commented, it was architects, engineers, career military people, etc. They thanked her for preparing them for their careers. So many commented how college English class was a snap after having Bela Herlong for two years in high school.
  I personally had an experience in a college English class. I got an “A” on a term paper, but the professor in his comments hinted that the paper looked as if it was plagiarized. After class I was quick to tell him I was from Saluda, had Bela Herlong for a teacher and had been writing terms papers since the seventh grade. I knew what I was doing.
  I was stunned my freshman year in college, when boys on my hall from much larger schools than Saluda had never written a theme or term paper.
  My senior term paper in her class at Saluda High was “Hemingway’s Tough Guy Characters.” I had to read “A Farewell to Arms,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and “The Sun Also Rises.” That’s a college-type assignment.
  Bela would allow her students to be creative.
  She went along with our idea to stage our version of the game show, “To Tell the Truth,” instead of having an exam on the book, “Billly Budd.”
  We had an emcee (me, of course), panelist asking questions, and three contestants, with one of them, unknown to the panelist,  as the “real” Billy Budd.
  We prepared questions, unknown to the contestants, and one of them was, “What is your favorite book?”
  One theme ran throughout the book is that Billy Budd could not read. All of our contestants answered, “The Bible.” The emcee just shook his head. Had any of our contestants read the book?
  Our senior year, Bela was directing our  play, “Room for One More,” when her life changed forever.
  Her husband Jimmie, a farmer, great athlete, and brilliant thinker, fell while attempting to cross a Boy Scout rope bridge and suffered permanent brain damage, and some paralysis.
    Nelle Taylor filled in directing or play, while Bela was by Jimmie’s bedside in the hospital. She was able to return to the classroom to finish our senior year, but from that point on, she was the family bread winner. Jimmie could no longer operate his dairy farm.
  Her ability to teach was not affected by what was going on at home.
  She and Gloria Caldwell began their “partnership” at Saluda High directing the award winning “Prism” presentations. These yearly productions gleaned from the literary yearbook were so good, SC ETV produced a program on one of them.
  One of the reasons both of them worked so hard to save the Saluda Theater was so they could write, produce and direct historical dramas about our county.
  I appeared in all but one, the Thomas Greene Clemson story, believe it or not.
  When Emory Church celebrated its 150th anniversary in 1992, Bela and Gloria wrote a drama, and our church members were the performers.
  It was great and was supposed to be a one shot deal, but when we finished the play, we discovered the camera we were using to film the performance didn’t work.
  So, we came back the next Sunday and performed it again. This time we had two or three cameras operating!
  Bela loved Emory Church. Although she joined St. Paul UMC when she married Jimmie, Emory was always home. Her parents, Gladys Wightman and Davenport Padgette were lifelong members. Mrs. Gladys, a longtime teacher and Bela’s inspiration, played the piano for Sunday School and was one of my Sunday School  teachers.
  Cuddin’ Davenport kept us all straight. When Johnny Griffith was our pastor, Davenport timed each of his prayers and sermons.
  One Sunday after Johnny said “Amen,” he said, “How long was that Brother Davenport?”
  “Fourteen minutes,” Cuddin’ Davenport said immediately.
   We all could write a  book about Davenport Padgette. Bela actually did.
   Bela wrote a history of Herlong family, and helped organized a project to move the grave markers from the cemetery in the woods to the Emory cemetery, and then erect a large historical monument at both cemeteries. The monument was dedicated and all Herlongs were invited to attend.
  We had 400 people in little Emory Church that Sunday. My Daddy Shake, half Herlong, was so proud.
  Bela’s family also gave the baptismal font, and two panels in our Last Supper stained glass windows.
  All of us who knew her can tell similar stories.
  In 2013, Saluda native Debra DeLoache Bishop of Spartanburg was at an English Language Arts workshop in Columbia and had to write a short piece about a person who had made a difference in her life. 
  “I chose to write about Mrs. Bela Herlong,” Debra said.  “We only had 20 minutes. I had to read it to the group and when I did, a  teacher who graduated in the 80s from Saluda High, said that she knew what I said was true because Bela had taught her as well.”
  Following is what Mrs. Bishop, a 1970 Saluda High graduate and longtime educator in Spartanburg District 6, wrote:
  “Teaching is an art.  It is just like painting a beautiful picture on a blank canvas. I was that canvas in the studio of Mrs. Bela Herlong, my high school English teacher, my supervising teacher when I was a student teacher, my mentor, and my friend, still today.  
  Everyone in my little hometown knows and loves Mrs. Bela.  She has taught generations of us.  But outside our circle, she is called Dr. Ruby P. Herlong, PhD. – charter member of the SCTE, SC Teacher of the Year, one of five teachers recognized by Life magazine in the late 60s, member of the editing board of Warriner’s grammar book, published author, historian – and the list of her accomplishments goes on and on. Bela Herlong could have painted anywhere, but she chose to make Saluda County her canvass.  Bela is the embodiment of master teacher and servant citizen.  She has worked tirelessly for the benefit of her students and for her little piece of the world; so accomplished yet wedded to Saluda County soil and to everything and everyone nurtured in that soil.
  For me, she nurtured the love of literature and the desire to teach.  She gave me a passion for Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, Hardy, Hawthorne, even for diagramming sentences – I loved her and she loved English!  When I began teaching, I wanted my students to see the same excitement over misplaced modifiers in me that I had witnessed in Mrs. Bela’s classroom on those warm, spring days in the old annex building.  Mrs. Bela taught everything like she was the last opportunity we would ever have to learn it.  
  As I’ve grown older and near the end of my own teaching career, I still see her occasionally when I come home to visit, or I receive an unexpected note from her, or I hear about her teaching another generation how to write.  She is still full of life, animated, passionate about whatever she is doing, and especially about the people around her and about her piece of earth, Saluda County.  But now, I know that she did not love English so much as she loved us.  That is why she could paint so many masterpieces in her lifetime; every brush stroke was guided by love.”
  What better way to describe Bela than a tribute by her former student who became a great teacher!
  Bela Herlong played such a big role in my life. Years after I graduated, she could still tell me where I sat in her classroom. Oh, that was not a tribute to my brilliance. She remembered where ALL of her students sat.
  Now, I know where she’s sitting.
  As the spiritual “Deep River” says:
  “Walk into heaven,
  And take my seat,
  And cast my crown,
  At Jesus’ feet.”
  Well done, good and faithful servant.

    Thanks to SaludaNOW many of us were able to view Bela’s funeral at Emory on Facebook.
  Speaking were Bela’s son William, an attorney who ran for S.C. Attorney General, her daughter Madeline, an attorney and best selling author, and Rev. Phil Thrailkill.
  Phil spoke last and said, “After following an attorney who ran for statewide office, and a nationally known author, I feel like a mule in the Kentucky Derby.”
  Ron Polk retired last season as the baseball coach at Mississippi State.
  He got thrown out of a MSU-Arkansas game for arguing balls and strikes.
  “Once I was tossed, the umpire told me to go where he could not see me.
  So, naturally, I went and stood on home plate.”