Grandfather's illness held him bedfast for seven long years and left my father, John Alvin Fuson, to shoulder the responsibilities of the household. This sobering experience may be regarded as a sort of apprenticeship for the task that he was to meet in future years - the raising of his own family of eleven children.
He showed no concern, however, about the size of his family. Quite the contrary is indicated by a story that came to my attention only after his death in 1931. His tenth and eleventh children turned out to be a pair of twins, a boy and a girl, and the selection of suitable names presented a problem. Neighbors suggested that the newcomers be called John and Jennie after their parents. My father opposed this proposal saying "No, we're saving those names for the last ones."
Large farm families were the rule then and the technique for bringing them up was well known. The older children had to help look after the younger ones as well as do work on the farm. I am still bothered by the fact that I, the sixth, did not grow up to fit the pattern. I never was much of a farmer or baby sitter either.
That I had health problems was an excuse but not a very good one. At an early age I had fainting spells and was given pills for heart trouble. In 1917, I was shocked to find myself in Class G along with clergymen, criminals and others judged to be "totally and permanently unfit for military service". Hyperthyroidism was given as the cause. A bout with pleurisy diagnosed as tubercular, two years later did nothing to improve my record.
Thus in my early twenties when one usually lays his serious plans for life I was not given carte blanche by the doctors. Later, however, I climbed mountains, bowled and played squash. I feel like the driver of a convertible who, because of unfavorable weather predictions, never put the top down.
It seems only natural that I should turn to books, where I redeemed myself somewhat. Perhaps the best remembered success was in spelling; on a certain Friday afternoon I "stood the floor". The teacher had hired me to function as janitor after school and had entrusted me with the key to the building. My victory in the spelling bee chased all thoughts from my mind, and the schoolhouse was left unlocked with the floor unswept.
My health kept me out of school the first year so I entered the Wakefield school at the age of seven years. But I was to get the lost year back. In the one-room school we could hear everything that went on, of course, and as a fifth grader I began to listen to the recitations of the seventh grade pupils. When the time came for them to go to Olney for their final examination I ventured to ask if I might go too.
Our teacher, George Eberhardt, kindly made it possible for me to try my hand at the examination and, like everybody else, was astonished at the results. I passed. I had to take a lot of kidding from my older brothers because I made only 40 in arithmetic, but the one low mark did not prevent me from going on to the eighth grade the following year.
Of course, I then worked my head off to silence my father who thought I had "got a little too big for my britches" Small wonder that I had little time or enthusiasm for milking cows, bringing in wood or putting down hay! I still have dreams in which I find to my great distress that have gone to bed leaving the cows unmilked and unfed.
In the eighth grade final examination I was lucky and made the highest grade in the county. What this windfall did to my ego I cannot recall but it was not enough to make my role at the Commencement anything but an ordeal. As valedictorian I had to read an essay and I got it done somehow. The ordeal was to be repeated with variations many times in my subsequent career and I always "got it done somehow" but never with the unalloyed pleasure that was expected.
At that time, the eighth grade was more or less terminal, especially for children who did not live in towns. Admittedly, the situation at Wakefield was extreme because the nearest high schools were about 15 miles away - miles traversed for the most part by roads that were all but impassable in bad weather. Automobiles and buses had not yet reached Wakefield.
The reading-writing-arithmetic type of education provided by one-room country schools met the requirements of the country people. Even the teachers had no other schooling. Pupils became teachers by repeating the seventh and eighth grade work until they could pass the teachers' examination given by the county Superintendent of Schools. All but one of my teachers had been trained in this way.
Even this rudimentary type of schooling was not held in high esteem by the farmers generally. The school year lasted only six months and the older children, especially the boys, were often kept out of school when there was work to be done at home. Farmers seemed to feel that education was somehow inimical to their way of life. Seemingly, subsequent developments have justified their misgivings, for the shift from rural to urban population has gone hand in hand with improvement in education. Mechanization of farm labor however, must have been the primary cause of the change.
My father's situation was extreme for he had only 110 lean acres of farm land for his six boys. Moreover, other professions were already well known to us; not only his father but also three of his brothers were medical doctors.
Times were ripe for what happened at the Wakefield school the year after I finished the eighth grade. The school board had hired a new teacher, Miss Edna Sterchi (whom my father promptly dubbed "Miss Turkey"), who was not only a high school graduate but had also studied at the Illinois Normal School at Normal, Illinois. She was persuaded to offer the ninth grade. "Miss Turkey" handled her brood extremely well; we fell in love with her. We of the ninth grade were taught algebra, ancient history, physical geography and English. We felt like the pilot who first broke the sound barrier. What did it matter that the school term was short and that our teacher had a roomful of younger pupils also on her hands? Shortly after World War II, I had a chance to repay in a small way the great debt I owed Miss Sterchi but muffed it. Her son, Dean Hoel, left an orphan at the age of eight years, returned from service overseas and enrolled in my course in organic chemistry. He failed to pass!
Miss Sterchi had kindled a fire that carried me all the way to a staff position at Illinois. Such a metamorphosis of a country "bumpkin" from Little Egypt was almost incredible. Roy Stone's son expressed this thought well . The Stones were about the most hill-billy family around Wakefield, even more so than we. We once named a pig "Miney" for Roy's sister. One stormy winter day I offered a ride to a woebegone figure who turned out to be Roy Stone. He amazed me by reporting that he had a son who was a student at the University of Illinois. He added that he had told his son that Rennie Fuson was a professor there. According to Roy his son exclaimed: "What! One of the Fuson boys a professor at Illinois! I don't believe it!"
In Jasper County to the north of Wakefield, they were less reluctant to give me credit. The section of the county nearest our house had acquired the name of Hog Jaw and had a bad reputation indeed. Hog Jawites were believed to have small regard for the truth. Our farm was safely in Richland County, but just barely, and we had to spend a lot of time protesting that we did not reside in Jasper. A day came when a Jasper County newspaper ran a story about me -- under the headline "Distinguished Jasperite"! I wished that Miss Sterchi could have lived to read the article.
My "high school" studies with Miss Sterchi lasted two years and then I had the good fortune to attend the Central Normal College at Danville, Indiana. During the summer before I enrolled there, an older brother and I went through a book on geometry. As a consequence, I was able to take trigonometry and analytical geometry the following winter at C.N.C. Although I had to drop out for a year to earn money, I was able to get in two more quarters of work during the spring and summer of 1914. The four quarters constituted what was called the Scientific Course and I received the B.S. degree. Such a degree for one year, presumably beyond the high school, suggests some kind of quackery certainly. But I have never had any reason for questioning the quality of the instruction or the sincerity of the faculty. Obviously the degree is misleading and under certain circumstances might be the basis of misrepresentation.
I, at least, received it in good faith and still cherish the diploma, which carries the signatures of the entire faculty. The only name on it that caused difficulty was my own. I'll never forget the morning when announcement was made at chapel that the registrar wanted to see me. What had I done wrong? Didn't my credits meet the graduation requirements? And what a relief it was to learn that the only problem was that my full name was too long to go on the diploma! Would it be satisfactory to use just the initial in place of my middle name? Delay of graduation would have meant no degree at all for such awards had been made illegal beginning with the following year.
Granting of the degree seemed to have a finality for me as well as for the school. I had applied through a teachers' agency for a job in Montana but nothing came of it. So I could do no better than to teach for a third year in the rural schools of Jasper County. After all my hopes of rising to something higher! I wonder how a salmon in the Columbia River feels when, after repeated attempts to scale a fish ladder, it feels itself swept back to the original level. My future in the teaching profession appeared to be so unpromising that I enrolled in a correspondence course for railway mail clerks.
A year later I did receive an offer of a teaching job in Montana. I refused it. I simply didn't have what it took to be a good teacher; but the school board was persistent and renewed the offer at a higher salary. So I found myself, perhaps betrayed by my longing for adventure, committed to teach for a fourth year. This time it was the eighth grade in the consolidated school at Corvallis, Montana.
My level of education at this point was such that, by passing a series of examinations provided by the State of Indiana, I was granted what was called a High School Equivalency Certificate. This credential, to my profound disappointment, was not honored by the University of Illinois.
Speech at Commencement Luncheon
Some 50 years later, I was asked to say a few words at a luncheon following the Commencement at which I was among those receiving honorary degrees. Unlike the other awardees I felt incompetent to put forward words of wisdom about life and the problems facing mankind so decided to essay the role of "farm boy makes good". My decision to turn to levity, I realized later, must have been influenced by the fact that for the first time at Illinois I found myself in the camp of the "enemy", the University administrators - president, vice president, provost and deans. From them, in ways never made quite clear, came all salary adjustments, promotions and innumerable rules by which students had to live. How often I had wondered if they ever thought beyond the computer and the punched card to the flesh-and-blood student forced to lie on the Procrustean bed they had devised! When the student objected to being mutilated to conform to the norm I nearly always found myself on his side.
Service on many committees had taught me, of course, that most rules are the result of compromises made by highly intelligent and earnest administrators who expect that they will be applied with common sense and discretion. Execution of the rules, however, too often falls to clerks who are in no position to make adjustments. Excuses of this sort, however reasonable, do not solve the student's problems.
Any one of these educators could on brief notice deliver a commencement speech - the quintessence of wisdom or what passes for wisdom. Actually, the substance of such a speech is limited. The speaker must depend largely on skill in persuasion, on the devices of preachers trying to save souls, of politicians trying to win elections. Is such a speaker to be called an educator? Unable to compete as an educator I tried to cover up.
"I do not know what information the honorary degrees committee had before it in my case but I feel certain that one item was withheld - an item that, I take it, may now be disclosed. I refer to the reason why, though a native of Illinois, I was never enrolled as a student at this University. The explanation is very simple: although I had my heart set on coming here I failed to do so because when I applied for admission as a freshman, I was not accepted and was forced to go elsewhere.
"When I finally was admitted years later, it was as a member of the staff rather than as a student. Sometimes I told my classes when it appeared that a little shock treatment was in order, that it seemed to me that the students were more carefully selected than the faculty. This treatment was not often repeated because I found that the students were inclined to take me seriously!
"What use did the University make of my talents once I got here? Well, for one thing I was appointed to a committee charged with revision of the entrance requirements.
"So today I have a special reason to be glad to receive - at long last - a diploma from my beloved University."