BY THOMAS KIMBRELL
It was the late 1960s and we were living in a revolution, arguably the last revolution up until now, 2020. The revolution of the 60s was the coalescence of the Vietnam War; the civil rights movement which lead to desegregation; President Johnson’s Great Society; the Cold War; the countercultural revolution; the sexual revolution; the space race; and a nascent technologic revolution. On the positive side, the music was incredible! Needless to say, the world was spinning around us and chronicled on the burgeoning news networks, which had us all glued to our TVs at 6 o’clock every evening. America was transfixed by the daily dose of the Vietnam War and the concomitant riots in the streets.
In 1966 I was in the seventh grade in North Carolina. This was the first year that we experienced desegregation, and the first African-American student to come to our school was in my class. His name was Curtis Kimbrough. Since my last name was Kimbrell, my classmates enjoyed giving me a hard time about my “brother.” Actually, I felt a bit sorry for Curtis and befriended him early on. He was a good guy, and we came to enjoy sharing similar last names and dealing with the inanity of middle school kids. I liked Curtis and really never thought of him any differently than I would another student. Life went on. And with each succeeding year, more black students arrived at Oakwood Middle School without issue.
That changed in high school. It was 1969. Up until this point, we hadn’t had any black teachers. The first to come to our high school was a Geography and History teacher by the name of Mr. Wilmer Derr. As fate would have it, he was my Geography teacher. The first day Mr. Derr came to my class, I was extremely impressed. He was striking in every way: tall, handsome, and impeccably dressed with his fashionable bow tie. He always exuded a calm and competent presence — Ghandi-esque in a way — in spite of his suffering on a daily basis from his recalcitrant students. When he turned his back to the students in order to write on the chalkboard, a barrage of spit wads and/or paper clips would splat on either side of him. He never flinched. He simply continued his focus on teaching us about the world.
It was during his classes that I became interested in traveling the globe. Although this globe was literally blowing up around us, Mr. Derr exuded an inner peace and sense of humor that tended to melt any discord in the classroom. He was so far above the petulance. His manner showed a strength of character that, previously, I was unaware existed.
One of my favorite films is “The Bridge of Spies.” In one scene, the Russian spy, who had been captured and jailed by the FBI, related a story to his attorney about a man who stood up to the Fascists who raided his home. That man was struck down time and time again, and he would always stand back up, showing no fear — only strength in the face of his captors. The Russian spy called him “Stoykiy Muzhik,” the Standing Man. To me, Mr. Derr personified the Standing Man. We all have teachers who have changed our lives and provided enlightenment. Mr. Derr was that man to me. With our world on such shaky ground, he was indeed a Standing Man. He reminded me somewhat of another standing man during that time, Malcolm X. Though many people felt that Malcolm X was too much of a revolutionary, too much of a radical for the times, his presence was very similar to Mr. Derr’s. I’m not sure if my teacher was a follower of Malcolm X; however, I felt that both men were impeccable in dress and both exuded peaceful resistance to the forces against them, Standing Men.
Recently, I reached out to my classmates through social media to find out what had happened to Mr. Derr. As it turned out he passed away about 12 years ago. However, I discovered that his wife Edith is still alive, at 94 years old. According to friends who attended her church, she is still quite active and sharp. So I decided to give her a call. We had a fine conversation, and indeed Edith is decidedly very much with it. She related things about her husband that I was totally unaware of. As it turned out, both of them were teachers at the local black schools. Desegregation closed their respective schools. As a result, both were facing unemployment.
Mr. Derr had been offered a position to teach business administration at Winston-Salem State College. He was also offered a position to teach at my alma mater, Statesville Senior High School. Edith was offered a position to teach at a local elementary school. Both husband and wife were to be the first black teachers at their respective schools. In Edith’s case, she was approached by the principal, Breck Alexander. Mr. Alexander was a forward-thinking administrator for those times. He brought Edith in for an interview, and once she decided to work with him, he looked through all of the upcoming third-grade students that she could possibly have out of the three incoming classes. Mr. Alexander sorted through all of the students and their family history’s and hand-picked a class for Edith that he felt would be supportive of her teaching there. In addition, he placed his own son Phillip into her class. As it turned out, Philip became her class helper. She related that she never experienced anything but support from her students, parents, school staff and administration.
Mr. Derr was warmly received by his peers at SHS. He continued to teach for another 12 years before retiring. Five decades later, I still remember his peace and strength during those tumultuous times, and thank him for encouraging me to explore our amazing world.
Thomas Kimbrell is a former Statesville resident. He currently resides in Taos, N.M.