"I don't know how I got over the hill so many years
ago without ever getting anywhere near the top, but my
children and grandchildren are moving on up," says
Willie Mae Forester, who is a surprising 78 years old.
Relentlessly active, she also wears the ageless smile
familiar to many alumni of McKenzie High School, where
she taught English and Spanish for 24 years.
Her accomplishments are many, yet she finds her
greatest fulfillment in the lives of her family
"Let me tell you about my granddaughters," she says,
"The oldest, Rachel, is in her sophomore year at the
University of Mississippi. She went to London this
past summer to study Shakespearean drama and to attend
the theatre for college credit."
Rachel is the daughter of second son, Byron, who along
with his school teacher wife, Michelle, and two
youngest daughters, Elizabeth and Elea, lives in
Memphis. He is office manager for the Berry Company, a
subsidiary of Bell South and, a minister, is also
enrolled in the Memphis Theological Seminary.
Both Elizabeth, 10, and Elea, 5, play basketball on
teams at school and take lessons in piano, while
Elizabeth takes cello lessons as well. They toured New
York for their summer travel.
An avid reader, Elizabeth discovered while speaking
with Laura Bush, who visited her school last spring,
that she and the first lady share an enjoyment of
Elizabeth's favorite book, "Little Women". But, her
grandmother reports happily, when a television
crewmember was interviewing the children and asked
whether she would like to be first lady someday,
Elizabeth said, "No, but I would like to be
"I'm afraid I won't be around to see that happen, but
she is now serving as president of her fifth grade
class," Mrs. Willie Mae declares.
All of her sons followed in their parents' footsteps
to become Bethel alumni. Oldest son, Steve, taught for
a time before choosing other employment. He is now
employed in the Research and Development of New
Generations Furniture Company, developing patterns.
Third son David worked as a home builder in the
Nashville area for years and as warehouse manager at
Lowe's Home Center. After be began having physical
problems, he adjusted as manager of the Lowe's Garden
Center and continued to work for several years after
being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
"He now lives in Savannah in my childhood home and
enjoys gardening and landscaping as his health
permits," reports Willie Mae.
Youngest son Mark lives in Nashville with his wife,
Karen, a teacher, and daughter Hayley. He is a
journalist and is vice-president and editorial
director of Journal Communications in Brentwood.
Hayley is a senior at Hume Fogg Academic Magnet School
in Nashville where she recently learned she is a
semifinalist in the National Merit Scholarship
program. She excels in Latin and traveled to Rome,
Venice, and Paris with other art history students this
Her children's stories told, Willie Mae is able to
relax into her own story that began in Savannah,
Tennessee. One of five children born to John Claude
and Willie Moore Prince, she grew up there and in
Jackson, "a normal happy childhood without a lot of
privileges of today's children," but in which she
enjoyed swimming, horseback riding and playing with
"My father was a carpenter, farmer and school
teacher," she says. "In spite of the fact that he
couldn't support his family on a school teacher's
salary and had to do other work, he encouraged and
supported his children to pursue education."
His sister, Willie Mae's aunt Mary, was also a teacher
who encouraged her to pursue a career in education.
Another role model was Willie Mae's English, Latin and
homeroom teacher at Hardin County High School, Mrs.
"I worked under her supervision in the high school
newspaper and yearbook," says Willie Mae, citing the
teacher's enthusiasm for teaching and personal
interest in students as reasons for her influence.
"She brought in so much more, rather than just
teaching from the textbook," she says. "She got me
interested in literature and so many other things that
didn't ordinarily go along with the course she was
teaching. She led you to go beyond yourself to what
you could become and do - helped to give you a
Upon graduating from Hardin County High, Willie Mae
enrolled at Bethel College where she worked with the
college newspaper and yearbook as well as being
involved in numerous clubs and activities.
She explains, "Enrollment was so small during World
War II that students had to participate in many things
to keep the organizations going. Except for the
tragedies of war affecting us, the years at Bethel
were so enjoyable. I met my husband then - a
Willie Mae recalls each day sharing news and letters
among students whose brothers, spouses, or fiancés -
"sweethearts" - were overseas.
"It was a time when we bonded together," says Willie
Mae, whose older brother, John, was wounded in the
Battle of the Bulge and, unconscious for weeks, wasn't
expected to live. Shuttled to a hospital in France and
finally to England, his condition was complicated when
he contracted meningitis.
Willie Mae and her own sweetheart, J.C., graduated
from Bethel in 1946, about two weeks after her 20th
birthday, her education completed in just three years
owing to her attendance during two summers.
She then enrolled in advanced Spanish and education
courses during the summer session at Peabody College
and Vanderbilt in Nashville, in order to qualify for a
teaching position in Bridgeport, Illinois. Willie
Mae's candidacy for the Spanish-English teaching
position came through her Spanish teacher at Bethel.
She also credits Bethel professors for helping to
prepare her resume and offering letters of
"I was called to come for a personal interview and was
hired, although I hardly knew enough to come in out of
the rain as far as managing an apartment, buying
groceries, and cooking," she says.
While enrolled at the prestigious Nashville college,
Willie Mae assisted in recruiting from the Peabody
School of Library Science a librarian for the Illinois
"Because of her master's degree, she was to be paid
more," she says, "The school board felt that was
unfair to me and upped my salary; so I started out on
a master's degree salary although I didn't complete
that degree until 18 years later."
During her first year of teaching - "young,
inexperienced and gullible" - Willie Mae was "loaded
with extra responsibilities": sponsoring the school
newspaper, helping with plays, chaperoning trips, and
record keeping for G.I students taking nighttime
extension courses at the high school for credit with
the University of Illinois.
Meanwhile, J.C. was enrolled in the theological
seminary at Bethel, spending weekends in Greenville,
Kentucky where he pastored a church. Regular
correspondence between the two was punctuated by
J.C.'s drives to Bridgeport and Willie Mae's train
trips to McKenzie on days off from school, where she
stayed with friends at the girls' dorm.
After an August wedding, the couple settled in
Batesville, Arkansas where both he and Willie Mae
taught in the local high school for several years and
J.C. pastored a nearby church.
After the birth of her second son, she postponed her
career until 1964, when the family moved back to
McKenzie, by which time she had completed her master's
degree at North Texas University.
J.C. had also completed his seminary degree and had
pastored churches in Tennessee and Texas. He was
executive director of the Cumberland Presbyterian
Children's Home in Denton, Texas, for seven years
during which the family lived in the director's home
"It was interesting and rewarding work, but time
demanding with J.C.'s failing health after some heart
problems and a bout with cancer," says Willie Mae, who
confides his first episode of cancer came just three
years after their marriage.
The move to McKenzie placed the family halfway between
Savannah and J.C.'s family in Arkansas, and also gave
their sons the opportunity to attend Bethel. After two
years of recuperation, J.C. became pastor of Shiloh
Cumberland Presbyterian Church where he had pastored
for two years as a student at Bethel. He continued
that work until shortly before his death almost 21
"He got in a lot of years we didn't think possible,"
says Willie Mae.
She began teaching at McKenzie High School the first
year of their return, a position she held for 24
"I would say that teaching is a very rewarding career
although there were times when I was teaching that I
might not have agreed with that," she says. "I guess I
enjoyed the earlier years more when I was more relaxed
and could handle problems and turn off the work more
Still, she says, "It was good to get better acquainted
with students - and faculty as well - in activities
outside the classroom. As class sponsors, in earlier
days we directed the junior and senior class plays,
assisted in homecoming preparations, field day, chapel
programs, proms, and various club activities. I was
Beta Club sponsor for many years and went with
students to the state convention. I recall our club
campaigned for Chuck Purcell as president one year and
he won, making us all proud, and he did a great job.
There are many pleasant memories I cherish. I was
stunned but felt proud and humble when the school
yearbook was dedicated to me the year before I
She prizes the close friendships she has maintained
with many of her fellow teachers and says, "It is
especially rewarding to have former students recognize
and chat with me at various times and places.
"Often," she says, "they begin with, 'Mrs. Forester,
you may not recognize me but you were my freshman or
sophomore English teacher' or 'I was in your Spanish
"I may not be able to come up with a name, but I
recall the face and may even remember where he or she
sat in my classroom."
The students have the added advantage, frequently, of
recalling her name more easily in encounters at the
hospital in McKenzie, where she has been a volunteer
for the past 15 years, or during other volunteer
pursuits such as the Red Cross Bloodmobile or election
polls, where she wears a name tag.
Now 16 years into a busy retirement, she served for
several years as an officer in the hospital's
volunteer auxiliary. She also does volunteer work at
Bethel, helps with cancer drives, and has done editing
for Northwest Tennessee Head Start publications.
She had intended to do substitute teaching after her
retirement but instead provided tutoring for several
years. After many years of active membership in Delta
Kappa Gamma, an organization for women teachers, she
curtailed her participation because of out-of-town
night driving, but remains active in the Carroll
County Teacher's Association.
She is an elder in the Shiloh Cumberland Presbyterian
Church where she also sings in the choir, and has
taught Sunday School through the years. In the past,
she worked at church camps, has served on Presbyterian
committees and once was a commissioner to the General
Assembly of the CP church.
"I have enjoyed fairly good health," says Willie Mae,
who stays active by engaging in water aerobics at the
Bethel pool and exercising at the hospital wellness
center. And she enjoys spectator sports: "I always buy
a season ticket to Bethel's basketball games."
A member of the McKenzie Garden Club, her interests
also extend to gardening, reading, and travel.
"I always enjoyed vacation trips with my husband and
four sons," says Willie Mae, whose most recent
excursions have included a number of guided bus tours
to the Washington DC area, two trips to the northeast,
Canada, including Nova Scotia, and touring from the
southwest and northwest into western Canada. She has
also traveled in Mexico.
Several years ago, she journeyed to the orient on a
mission trip to Japan and Hong Kong, in China, with a
side trip to Hawaii. She still gets Christmas cards
from the Japanese family in whose home she stayed
several nights while in Japan.
Because of "old age ailments" Willie Mae generally
opts for shorter trips with church groups and the
Senior Circle, a service of McKenzie Regional Hospital
for those 50 years of age and over. She will be going
with that group in November to Gatlinburg and
Ashville, North Carolina.
"One kind of educational travel I have done and hope
to do more is with the Elderhostel program," says
Willie Mae, who traveled with Lanier Mabry to Denver
through the program several years ago, staying on a
college campus at night while sight-seeing during the
day. Some of her longer trips of two or three weeks
were shared with Virginia Walker.
This summer, she revisited the children's home in
Denton, Texas, where her husband was once director,
and attended a church convention in Irving, Texas,
staying in the home of an old college roommate,
Rebecca Allen Hugman, one of a circle of five friends
made at Bethel who have remained close over many
Her enduring smile flashes as she shares a book on
friendship given her by Becky, its patchwork cover
design speaking in tones as vibrant as the verses
inside: life is a treasure of family and friendship,
gilded by faith, and embroidered with love.
* More information about the Elderhostel program, a
value-priced travel organization for adults 55 and
over, is available at www.elderhostel.org. To find out
more about Senior Circle, see www.mckenzietn4u.com/recreation.htm.