Though the lore of Martha Berry and her historic school has been added to over the years, a new book brings to light a part of the story that many have never heard.
Jennifer Dickey has penned “A History of the Berry Schools on the Mountain Campus,” giving readers a glimpse of a very particular period in Berry history — the high school that existed on the Mountain Campus at Berry for more than six decades.
“This is the first book about the Berry Schools that focuses exclusively on the high school operations,” Dickey said of the book. “Berry began as a high school in 1902 — a boarding school for boys known as the Boys Industrial School — and the high school that closed in 1983, Berry Academy, was the most direct descendant of Martha Berry’s first boarding school.”
Dickey, a graduate of Berry Academy and Berry College, includes the voices of students, faculty and staff and presents a clear narrative of the evolution of the high school from its creation in 1902, its transition from the lower campus to the mountain campus in the 1920s, and its closing in 1983.
“This is the first time that anyone has looked in detail at the historical records of the closing,” she added. “It’s also the first time anyone has interviewed any of the faculty, staff and students who were there at the end. I thought it was critically important to get the voice of the last headmaster, Dr. William Scheel, into this story. Dr. Scheel was given the unenviable task of carrying out the closure, something to which he was personally opposed because he believed the school was still viable, and he did so with amazing grace and dignity. He very graciously agreed to talk to me about his experience. That had to be very painful for him, but it shed new light on things for me. I greatly appreciated his willingness to share his experience with me.”
A former director and curator of Oak Hill and the Martha Berry Museum, Dickey began doing research for the book in 2009 at the request of Dr. Stephen Briggs and has worked on it mostly in the summers when she wasn’t teaching. It took just over four years to complete.
The book includes accounts of the school’s history, its students, faculty, classes, farming, the gymnasium, dormitory, as well as compelling photographs and maps.
“All of the photographs, with the exception of a handful that were taken by me, were from the Berry College Archives,” Dickey said. “The Archives has a phenomenal photographic collection, especially of the early years of Berry’s history. The Archives was also the main place where I conducted most of my research. A book like this requires that the author take a close look at the primary sources materials, so I spent the better part of one summer in the Archives going through Martha Berry’s correspondence and the papers of Berry’s presidents and board of trustees, as well as numerous reports from outside consultants who visited the school over the years.”
She also reviewed all of the campus publications — the newspapers, newsletters, catalogs, alumni magazines, fundraising magazines, and anything else published by the Berry Schools over the years. Dickey said some of her most important sources were the more than 60 alumni and former faculty and staff she interviewed for this project.
“To a person, everyone was forthcoming with stories about what their time at Berry had meant to them — the good times and the bad times,” she said. “Many of the interviewees came to Berry because of unfortunate or tragic circumstances at home, and they were all really honest about their life stories. The interviews offered me a chance to connect with alumni from every decade of the school’s history from the 1930s to 1983 and offered great insight into why the high school on the mountain campus made such an impact on so many people.
One provocative aspect of the book is Dickey’s assertion that the closing of Berry Academy in 1983 left many students, alumni, faculty, and staff feeling angry. She suggests that because of the way the closing was handled, people felt betrayed and that over time, the story of the schools (the Mountain Farm School, the Foundation School, the Mount Berry School for Boys, and Berry Academy) that operated on the mountain campus seemed to disappear from the broader story of Berry College. Many of the alumni felt their school, which had a link back to Martha Berry’s first school, had faded into oblivion. A group of those alumni began having monthly meetings to talk about what could be done to help preserve this history. This group, the Berry Breakfast Club, met with Briggs and proposed a number of initiatives that would help keep the story of these schools alive.
“This book and the changes that we are making to the main exhibit at the Martha Berry Museum are the result of the efforts of the Berry Breakfast Club,” Dickey said.
The author realizes that the book is unlikely to soothe any anger about the loss of something “so precious,” but she hopes it will help readers get a better understand about the history of the institution.