By John Oliver, President, Historical Society

In 1938, William James Gregory graduated from Trousdale County High School.

He had the whole world in front of him and little did he know where he would end up – as a colonel in the United States Air Force!

As we saw last week, young James didn’t have an easy childhood, at least not economically. He had loving parents and sisters and he never lacked for their care or encouragement. The family didn’t neglect his religious upbringing, making church attendance part of his weekly routine.

But the difficulties of the time led to his father being a tenant farmer – a fellow who worked the land of another man for a percentage of the profits. His parents, Sam and Ola, moved from one farm to another while always trying to get a better chance to succeed.

Submitted photo
This is William James Gregory’s photo from the 1938 high school yearbook. Besides being voted “Most Handsome,” he was also fourth in his class academically.

Living in the Willard community, the Gregorys worked the O.G. Davis farm for a few years and then the Pat Burnley farm. It was a four-mile walk to the high school and William had to make sure he didn’t miss the bus. But if he did, he would run those four miles to Hartsville in order to not miss his classes!

The principal at the time was Mr. Robert Stone.

He must have been impressed by James’ efforts because one day he saw him in the hallway of the high school and walked over to him. Mr. Stone looked at the lad and said, “James, I am expecting great things from you!”

William James Gregory never forgot those words of encouragement.

By the time he finished high school, where he excelled academically and was voted “Most Handsome,” there was another principal, Mr. Irby Pullias. He, too, would give James words of encouragement!

Anxious to pursue a career more profitable than tenant farming, James looked for a summer job, hoping to save money to help pay for a year of college.

Luck was with him when his neighbor Dortch Oldham, who had graduated the previous year, told him about a job he had selling Bibles for Southwestern Publishing Company out of Nashville. We might point out here that Dortch did well himself with Southwestern and eventually owned the company, and even ran for governor of Tennessee!

The summer job earned young William James Gregory some cash and he set his eyes on attending Berea College in Kentucky, aware that the college offered all students the chance to work on campus and earn their tuition.

James got a ride to Berea and walked into the admissions office, only to find out that Trousdale County was outside of the prescribed area for such scholarships. The school catered mostly to Kentucky and some economically distressed parts of Tennessee.

Disheartened by the news James hitchhiked towards home, ending up in Cookeville at dark. There, with little money in his pocket, he spent the night in an empty railroad car.

The next day he hit the road again and by late afternoon was back in Hartsville, prepared to walk the four miles to his parents’ home to tell them his disappointment.

But he recalled how much he had liked Mr. Pullias, his high school principal. Perhaps Mr. Pullias could give him some suggestions.

Walking to the Pullias home, William James Gregory knocked lightly on the door. It was late afternoon. Mr. Pullias welcomed him inside, where the dejected James spilled out his misadventure.

Pullias told James to sit a moment and he walked over to his phone and called the Dean of Admissions of Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. He knew the man well.

A few moments later, he returned to James.

Although MTSU had already started its fall classes, if James could show up on Monday, he could fill out papers for admission and apply for a special program similar to that of Berea College. He could work and study at the school and get his education!

No doubt, Mr. Pullias had given the university dean some great recommendations for young Gregory.

Now as it began to get dark, William James Gregory walked the four miles to his parents’ home with a smile on his face and confidence about what the future held.

NOTE: The Historical Society meets on Saturday, Jan. 11 at 2 p.m. at the county archives building.