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14 January 2008
JSU Alum/Career Educator Still Imparting Words of Wisdom in His 80's

By Anne W. Anderson
Special to The Star

Reprinted here in its entirety.

A Crusade against Gobbledygook

For 30 years, the letters to the editor have arrived at the offices of The Anniston Star. Always titled, always to the point, always courteous. Seldom dull.

Some chastise would-be stockcar drivers practicing on Interstate 20. Others challenge legislators and voters to increase teachers' salaries.

Each comes from John Acker Vanderford of Jacksonville.

Vanderford served in the U.S. Army in World War II, then spent 30 years teaching soldiers. Before the military, he taught or was principal at four different Calhoun County schools. After the Army, he taught at two Calhoun County colleges. For most of his 87 years, Vanderford has waged a different kind of war the war against sloppy thinking and gobbledygook.

In the late 1970s, the letters came from one of two manual typewriters Vanderford still owns.

More recently, they come from the Vanderfords' MailStation. Vanderford's wife, Mary Kathryn Casey Vanderford, props the yellow legal pad with her husband's handwritten letters between the word processor and a framed photo, then types in the text and sends it off.

"His fingers are too big for the keys," Kathryn Vanderford said with a gentle laugh.

A love of words

Vanderford's early years straddled the Calhoun County-Cherokee County line between Spring Garden and Piedmont. He began school at Ladiga in what he described as "one of the last one-room school houses in Calhoun County." When he graduated in 1937 at age 16 from Piedmont High School, he was the youngest student in the graduating class. His wife's first cousin was the oldest student. Both men are the surviving male members of that class.

If it weren't for a promise his father made to his mother before she died, Vanderford, the second of four boys, might not have gotten that far in his education.

"Dad promised mother he'd keep us boys in school," Vanderford said in an interview at his home recently. "Granddad was a bit critical of that. He told Dad, 'I know you want them boys in school, but you need them helping you on the farm.'"

Vanderford's father raised cotton and corn, hay and soybeans as cash crops. Plus the garden crops, cows, pigs and chickens needed tending.

"We seldom went to the store to buy anything except sugar, salt, pepper and so forth," Vanderford said.

Vanderford's mother, who taught school before marrying, taught him to read and write before he started school. Because of that, Vanderford skipped a couple of grades and graduated early.

"My mother had me memorize the Presbyterian catechism while I churned butter in the kitchen," Vanderford said. "My dear mother planted the seed of a love for words."

Vanderford was 9 when his mother died, and his grandfather tried to persuade his father that the boys only needed "enough education to read and understand the Bible."

Vanderford chuckled and his eyes twinkled. "There are clergymen with doctorates still trying to do that," he said. "Granddad didn't understand how profound that is."

Teaching at many schools

After high school, Vanderford attended Jacksonville State Teachers College for three years. By then, World War II created a need for soldiers and a shortage of teachers. Vanderford qualified for an emergency teaching certificate. He taught at Saks Junior High School for two years before going off to war.

One of Vanderford's students at Saks was seventh-grader Charlotte Kerr, now Charlotte Hagerty of Anniston. Hagerty remembers Vanderford as "very strict, very serious."

When Vanderford served in Alaska as a weatherman with the U. S. Army Air Corps in 1942, Hagerty corresponded with him.

"He wrote such interesting letters," Hagerty said in a telephone interview. "He described the countrysides and the things he was seeing."

A few years later, Hagerty, then a new teacher, was discouraged. She had left teaching intending to do something else. Vanderford talked her into substituting in his classroom.

"He told me, 'I know how you feel, but could you come just for a couple of days?'" Hagerty said. "I went, and while I was there another teacher told me about an opening at Munford Elementary School."

Hagerty took the job "and loved it." Later she taught senior English at Oxford High School for nine years before working at Gadsden State Community College for 25 years.

After the war, Vanderford finished his degree at Jacksonville State Teachers College, then taught English at Ohatchee High School. He became a principal, first at Weaver Junior High School and then at Alexandria High School. Summers he attended graduate school at George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, earning a master's degree in high school education.

Sixty years ago last month, Vanderford married Mary Kathryn Casey, who was teaching English at what was then Calhoun County High School (now Oxford High School). They have a son, twin daughters and several grandchildren.

'I Dare You'

Bettye Bain, now Bettye Tucker, still has the award she received from Vanderford when she was in ninth grade at Weaver Junior High School.

"It was the Danforth Foundation's 'I Dare You' Honor Award," Tucker said in a telephone interview. She read from the plate in the front of the book she was given "in recognition of qualities of leadership with a challenge to dare greatly, live usefully, and share freely all worthwhile things in life."

Teachers can still recognize students ages 15 to 18 demonstrating leadership capabilities with an "I Dare You" National Leadership Award. The awards include a copy of "I Dare You," by William H. Danforth, founder of the Ralston-Purina Company, who established the foundation in 1927.

Tucker recalls Vanderford as daring the whole class to think beyond the usual, calling him "far thinking" for 1948-1949.

"He divided the class and we talked about socialized medicine. We actually had a debate with pros and cons," Tucker said. "We discussed the effects of heredity and environment on how you turned out as an adult, things that were not thought a lot about in Weaver."

Tucker went on to Jacksonville High School. In 1951, when Fort McClellan was reactivated, Tucker was a senior in high school.

"They (the Army) were begging for people to come to work," Tucker said. "They came to our business class and recruited students."

Tucker said she took the civil service test while she was still in high school.

"I graduated on Thursday night and turned in my cap and gown on Friday and went to work on Monday," Tucker said.

Crossing Paths

Neither Hagerty nor Tucker realized at the time they would one day cross paths again with Vanderford.

Vanderford had "an itch to get involved in college work," so he took an administrative position at Shorter College in Rome, Ga. He continued his own college studies and earned an education specialist degree in higher education.

Then the Army called a second time. But it didn't want Vanderford as a weather observer, and it didn't send him to Alaska.

Instead, in 1956 Vanderford became an education specialist at Fort Gordon, Ga., and ended up as Chief of Staff and Faculty Development for the U.S. Army's Military Police School.

Vanderford wasn't finished learning. The Army gave him a year's sabbatical, so he started his doctoral work. In 1970 he eared his doctorate in adult education from the University of Georgia. His thesis focused on instructional systems in a military setting.

In 1975, the Army moved its M.P. training school from Fort Gordon to Fort McClellan, and Vanderford came home.

Betty Bain Tucker was still at Fort McClellan, eventually working as secretary to the assistant commandant of the M.P. school.

Charlotte Kerr Hagerty was working at Gadsden State Community College when she heard Vanderford had applied for an adjunct position.

"I contacted the division chair and said, 'This is someone we have to have,'" Hagerty recalled, adding that she enjoyed introducing him in faculty meetings as "my former teacher."

Vanderford also taught at Jacksonville State University. Now retired, he teaches Sunday school and provokes thought through his letters to The Star.

Waging war against long-windedness

The Star isn't Vanderford's only target. Some of his letters have appeared in internationally circulated magazines.

Vanderford underlines passages and circles words as he reads U.S. News and World Report, Time and Newsweek. Question marks and Vanderford's handwritten comments dot the pages.

But, he says, holding up a worn copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, "I have a war going on against long-windedness."

Kathryn Vanderford sometimes shakes her head over the letters she types for her husband.

Recently Vanderford responded to a Star article about the car racing culture.

"Kathryn said, 'You don't want to send that in,' as she was typing it. I said, 'Yes, I do,'" Vanderford said.

Some of Vanderford's letters have earned a star, occasionally awarded by commentary editor Phillip Tutor. Vanderford's letters, Tutor said, "often say more in three paragraphs than most people say in 10."

Recent examples of John Vanderford's letters to the editor that have been printed in The Star:

On abolishing the Department of Education:
Jan. 1, 2005
"Change, however, is not to be equated with progress as research continues to show that high-level spending is not assuring higher achievement. ... Fleets of yellow taxis, consolidated monstrosities, athletic mania, standardized testing vs. performance-oriented teaching, and nationalized social experimentation in the name of education do not suggest a return to the good old days. They do, however, justify arousal of parental concern for homegrown quality and local control.

On the national debt:
Nov. 6, 2006
"Should we not be appalled by big interest payments that the United States is making to China, Japan and other trading partners? ... Our children and grandchildren shouldn't inherit an economy that's becoming paralyzed by a national debt that's still growing by trillions.

On the idea of merging all schools in Calhoun County into one district, which he opposed. Nevertheless:
Nov. 16, 2006
"However, it's encouraging that brainstorming is alive as county residents are 'considering bold, out-of-the-box ideas.' ... Spirited brainstorming can result in constructive change for educational gain in Calhoun County. Children and youth await the outcome.

On the 20th amendment, enacted August 26, 2920, 15 days after Vanderford's birth:
Nov. 30, 2006
"[M]y mother, who had taught school, wasn't allowed to vote, yet my semi-literate dad was permitted to serve as an official at the polls... . Without reservation, I celebrate the season with my spouse, Mary Kathryn, who has been an equal partner for more than half a century.

On whether Anniston and Oxford High Schools should resume competition:
Feb. 4, 2007
"What Anniston and Oxford decide about their rivalry is none of my business. It is the business of superintendents and principals who are paid to monitor tempests in teapots.

On sports vs. academics:
March 4, 2007
"When Alabama fans (fanatics) get Tide priorities in order, the stature of academicians may be memorialized at the Capstone alongside the statue of Bear Bryant. Alas, that will not happen in my time.

On paying teachers:
May 13, 2007
"When paying professional salaries, we can be pacesetters or pikers. Hopefully, the Alabama Senate will be as liberal in approving another pay raise for teachers as it was in upping pay of its own members in recently untimely legislation.

On NASCAR's benefits:
Oct. 16, 2007
"After editorializing about cashing NASCAR's checks, will the Star factually report on the net effect of the highly touted financial windfall on cultural values that money can't buy? ... Don't call me a pessimist for spurning tainted dollars. Those who find it necessary to drive on I-20 to and from Birmingham and Atlanta don't have to pay to witness what happens when thrill seekers put the pedal to the metal. Any highway patrolman can attest to the cultural toll paid for the thrill. The carnage is evident throughout the year.

On state-run lotteries:
Sept. 30, 1998:
"In Alabama there appears to be an erosion of support of the ninth commandment. Thus it is imperative that all citizens, regardless of religious affiliation, face the fact that state-sponsored lotteries begin with a LIE. Lottery advocates start with guile that there's free pie to divide.

From what Vanderford says is a long-forgotten source (nor could I find it when I Googled it), and which he has committed to memory:
Gobbledygook is circumlocution that's a periphrasis. "A periphrasis is a redundant circumlocution in which the major thesis at issue is circumscribed by a plethora of extraneous verbiage to such a stultifying degree that the mental impression being communicated is completely inundated by a flood of unintelligible phraseology. Or, as Vanderford noted, a roundabout way of saying practically nothing.

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