Inspiring Educator for June - Mary Ellen Patton
“Love, grace, respect, honor — this is what Mary Ellen Patton gave each of her students and what she expected in return,” says Gayle VanHooser, longtime Grundy County register of deeds and former student of Mrs. Patton. “It didn’t matter what your socioeconomic status was, we were all treated equally. I still remember our interesting classes (except for math), her laughter, her basketball skills and her constant reminders of the importance of saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ I am 60 years old, and I still have a handwritten note that Miss Mary Ellen sent me one Christmas. She thanked me for a gift, took the time to congratulate me on being top scorer in the BIG 8 conference at midseason and included a clipping from the Grundy County Herald. Her words of encouragement meant EVERYTHING to me! She is an amazing woman who helped me see my potential at a time when I thought I had none! I am forever indebted to her for her years of dedication to me and all the students she taught and, most importantly, mentored. She continues to inspire me today!”
Patton’s career path as an educator began while a student at Grundy County High School. An outstanding four-year high school basketball career brought her an offer of an athletic scholarship to Middle Tennessee State University. Reluctant at first to leave home, a family friend “encouraged” her to attend.
“Miss Henrietta kept hounding me to go to college,” says Patton. “I was the first one from my family to do so. My father had passed away when I was a child, and my mother worked as the cook at Pelham Elementary to support us, so the scholarship made it possible for me to attend. Although I was awfully homesick, I spent one year at MTSU — 1945-46 — playing basketball. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do in life except play basketball, so I decided to become a teacher. World War II ended about the time I finished my freshman year, and Tom, my fiance, returned home after serving in the Marine Corps. We married, so I did not return to MTSU. I began teaching at Pelham Elementary and taking classes anywhere I could get them — at night, during the summer and correspondence classes — to complete my teaching degree. I spent a few years teaching at Valley Home Elementary before returning to Pelham Elementary, the school I attended when my family moved to Pelham from Hillsboro. In addition to teaching at Pelham, I was also the principal.
“In those days, teachers had duties other than just teaching. I would often start the fire in the furnace or put Clorox in the well house to purify the water, and I rang the bell every morning to start the day then later for lunch, recess and to end the day. I now have that very bell in my yard. They gave it to me when they tore down the old school to build the new one.
“I taught it all: reading, writing and arithmetic, along with geography and history. But I also taught manners and respect. Over the years, I taught every grade from first to eighth — we didn’t have kindergarten when I began teaching.”
Although she retired in 1994 after 45 years of teaching, Patton still keeps up with what is going on at Pelham Elementary and is invited back to many school events, which she happily attends. The gym at the school where many of the special events take place is named the Mary Ellen Patton Gym in her honor.
“I am so proud of the success of the students I have taught,” said Patton, naming several former students who are in leadership roles in Grundy County and beyond. “I love having my ‘kids’ come by to see me. We’ve shared a lot of sweet memories. I hope I have been a good influence on the children I have taught.”
At 91 years old, Patton is still very active in her church and community and is still following her motto, “I live for today, I learn from yesterday and I look forward to tomorrow.” Patton says she has been blessed, but she has also been a blessing to the people of Grundy County through the qualities she instilled in students who are now parents, educators and leaders in other positions in our communities.