CHALKBOARD JUNGLE: AUDIE GOES TO SCHOOL
by Vicki Ellis Griffis
Audie Murphy’s formal education did not last long in years, but his knowledge encompassed a lifetime of history.
According to Colonel Howard B. Simpson, Audie could have entered public school in the fall of 1931, when he was seven, but he didn’t attend until two years later when he was nine. Hopefully, being small in frame and having a youthful appearance hid the fact he was older than his classmates.
As per Sarah Roach Swindell’s research for Memories of Blue and White, A History of Celeste Schools, classes were held in a large, two-story building erected in 1914, after the previous school had burned. Other small rural schools of that time would have one teacher for the first eight grades, but Celeste was prosperous enough to have a teacher for each grade. Those listed in the book as Faculty and Administration for 1933-34 were J. Garland Roach, Superintendent; Charles A. Dupre, Principal; Edna Luna, Elementary Principal; Elizabeth Caston; Mrs. L. Eastham; Elizabeth Howell; Martha Kunkel; Mrs. Joe Garland Roach; Mrs. W. R. Roach; Mrs. Ruth Rutherford. Lewis Jones was president of the local school board and E. T. Fry was secretary.
Audie’s report card listed his scholastic name as Pat Murphy. The teachers called him, Little Pat. Audie never cared for that name. He didn’t like Audie either, thinking it too feminine. Although his sister, Corrine, thought he would never forgive her for naming him Leon, he actually preferred it over Audie, the name he asked to be called after he left school until he joined the Army. Then he was known as Murph.
Audie, in his autobiograpy, To Hell and Back, tells how a nurse (during a recuperation from a war injury) teased him, “What did the kids call you in school? Red or Freckles?” He replied,
“Short-Breeches. When I was in the fifth grade, I had just one pair of overalls. My mother washed them every night and dried them by the kitchen stove. They shrunk halfway to my knees. So the guys started calling me Short-Breeches, and I’d slug them. I fought every day. I guess I was trying to prove that I was as good as any of them. I lived on the wrong side of the tracks.”
Audie’s third grade teacher, Mrs. Myra Vestal, recalled a time this attitude got him in trouble. He was teasing a girl in class so she confined him to a cloakroom. Audie continuously knocked at the closed door asking to come out. She ignored him. When Audie got quiet, she opened the door. There sat Audie with an “impish look on his face.” There behind him was a raincoat which he had cut a triangular patch out of with his pocketknife. He told her he had just wanted to see what it looked like on the inside. His curiosity was rewarded with a paddling.
Audie refused to go back to school for two days, telling his friends he was never going back to school because he didn’t like the teacher. On the third day, he returned to school with two powder puffs for Ms. Vestal ‒- Audie’s way of apologizing.
Audie’s second grade teacher, Mrs. Ruth Rutherford, had great memories of him. “Audie did well in my class. He was anxious to learn and learned quickly. He loved to read and took great pride in his success at school,” she told Col. Simpson. “I quickly learned he could not be forced to do anything that he did not want to do, but by explaining the reasons for doing something, he could be coaxed to do what was expected of him. He seemed to love school and stayed every day after the other children left to see if he there was something he could do to help me ‒- erase or wash the blackboards, straighten up the books, carry out the trash.”
Mrs. Rutherford also recalled a heartwarming story between a young teacher and her favorite pupil. At Christmas time, the whole school had a big party and tree. The parents would bring gifts for their children to put on the tree to be given out by Santa. The school handed out gifts of fruit, candy, and nuts, which were delicacies back then. She knew Audie would not have a gift from his parents, so she bought him his first football, wrapped and under the tree. She ended with, “I will never forget the expression on his little face when Santa Claus presented him with that gift. He really did believe in Santa Claus that day.”
Most students brought their lunches from home and ate them in their room with the teacher. Mrs. Charles Dupre remembered Audie would often come to school without a lunch, and the teachers took turns sharing their lunches with him. Mrs. Rutherford remembered how she would think up all sorts of schemes and ways to share her lunch with him, because he was very proud and did not want favors.
In the second grade, he was a solid B student but missed over 25% of the days school was scheduled, missing 46 days out of 178. The third grade report card exhibited at Celeste ISD showed he was retained in that grade. It was signed by Mrs. Myra Vestal. Since his grades were acceptable, it was believed the retention was due to school absences. Such absences were not uncommon among sharecropper’s families. Truancy was not widely investigated because every hand, big and small, was needed to supplement the family income.
As Audie said, “I’m not mad at anybody. I’m glad that things happened as they did. We had a lot of kids in the family and needed food. Do you know what being hungry is? I do.”
So Audie learned to shoot straight. He only had a few bullets, so he couldn’t afford to miss.
To be continued . . . .This is the third in a series on Audie Leon Murphy, born in Kingston, Texas, reared in Celeste, who grew up to become the most decorated soldier of World War II.
Used with permission and courtesy of the author.