Viola Berry calls it a career after 43 years

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

WYNONA -- Viola Berry has worked 43 years at the same job in the same town. She is about to retire, but she won’t be forgotten because she has done something rare. She has taught multiple generations of children in an American small town most of what they learned in school about English language literature.

Whatever the kids in Wynona, Oklahoma learned for the last four decades about Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet” or American playwright Arthur Miller’s 1953 hit “The Crucible,” they learned with Viola Berry’s guidance and encouragement. Not all of the youngsters liked the literature or the writing, but they noticed Ms. Berry’s kindness, decency and concern about their well-being.

Jeff Lay, who graduated in 1991 and has gone on to become an educator, reflected on her influence at a May 9 retirement party held for Berry in the school cafeteria.

““I still don’t like lit. I still don’t like writing. But I absolutely love you,” Lay said during a comment period. He added that he would likely not have become an educator without Berry’s influence. He was superintendent of Barnsdall Public Schools for several years and now works for the educational cooperative in Hominy.

Other graduates offered comments, as well, some of them through letters that had been solicited.

“I always secretly wished she would marry my dad so we could be family,” another former student revealed in a letter.

“Sometimes we were buttheads,” yet another confessed.

There were also kind words from a graduate who served more than 20 years in the military.

Viola Davis is a polite, smiling, reserved lady who will be 65 later this month. She was born in Tulsa but grew up on a farm and finished high school in Cleveland. She earned her teaching credentials at Oklahoma State University.

As a result of her youth on a farm, she knows how to hypnotize a chicken. She likes anything George Strait sings, and her favorite assignment for students she taught in Wynona was for seniors to commit to memory a poem in Old English.

“I always told them it wasn’t hard to learn it,” Berry said, explaining that her thought was the words of the memorized poem would come back to her students’ minds at some unexpected moment.

Ms. Berry’s retirement party was like a family celebration, with food donated by parents and comments both sought out ahead of time and offered on the spur of the moment. Former students enjoyed lingering and talking with her. Her mother, Barbara, attended.

Superintendent Shelly Shulanberger made a retirement presentation to Berry and commented that she appreciated working with her. Shulanberger offered to call Berry to substitute, but Berry declined.

Whether she sticks to that or reconsiders, Viola Berry’s influence is already all over the place all the time. Her former students carry her example and her words and the knowledge she imparted with them. Even if they don’t care for the lit, they know something about the lit because of her. She has transmitted to them the thoughts and sounds and modes of expression of the culture that birthed them.

George Strait is good, but he can’t top that.

Photo Caption: Viola Berry, right, is retiring after 43 years in the classroom at Wynona Public Schools. She is beloved to generations of Wynona graduates as their high school English teacher. Pictured with her is Superintendent Shelly Shulanberger, at left, making a thank-you presentation.