Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Forever Mr. Fanslow - 1926-2008

From November 19, 2003:

The Teapot Dome Scandal had just broken and President Harding’s Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall was feeling the heat when Bob Fanslow ended his American History class last week.

When class resumes at the Kingsport Institute for Continued Learning in March, he’ll pick back up for his roomful of avid students, a few of whom were born during the Harding administration.

Bob Fanslow started teaching American History to senior citizens a decade ago. Eight years ago he asked the class, “What would you think if we started at the bottom and worked our way up?”

The class agreed and so he backtracked to the voyage of Columbus. A hundred or so classes later he is up to the Harding administration and the jazz age. With any luck, World War II may arrive this spring. If not spring, then maybe next fall.

When it comes to the teaching of American History, Bob Fanslow is a Kingsport institution. He began teaching American History here in September 1950. Except for a two-year time out for the Korean War, he’s been teaching it ever since. He retired from Dobyns-Bennett in 1991 after 39 years, then a couple of years later he picked back up at the Kingsport Institute for Continued Learning.

After his wife and his children, history is his love.

But I probably didn’t have to tell you that. Not after a half century of teaching in this town, some 6,000 students in all. You probably learned history from Bob, er, Mr. Fanslow.

He admits that his current class may “take as long to teach as the period itself. We flow from one period to another; we’ll work eventually to the present day if we’re all around. And I don’t wear out.”

There’s no chance of that, Bob Fanslow wearing out on history. “I do enjoy doing this sort of thing. If you don’t use it you lose it, as they say. I may be a stimulant to the class but the class is a stimulant to me.”

He’s been a learning stimulant in Kingsport for half a century and his former students still give him credit.

“Mr. Fanslow was my Mr. Chips and John Keating of Dead Poet's Society,” says Paula Bennett-Paddick, a D-B grad and retired teacher in Birmingham, Alabama. “He always caused me to study and learn more than I ever thought possible. And, the miracle of it all was that he made me want to do my best.”

Bruce Haney remembers, “I took Mr. Fanslow's class because my cousin Jack Windle told me what a good teacher he was. He was the first ‘college lecture’ quality teacher I can remember; one who was interesting enough you wanted to show up in class and actually listen instead of goofing off.”

Kingsport native Betty Hyder Stone, who now lives in Montgomery, Alabama, says, “I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for awakening in me some sense of the world! I began taking Time magazine during his class and still am a subscriber.”

He did more than stimulate, he also inspired. Dominick Jackson, a Kingsport native who now lives in Greeneville, says, “My Masters Degree in history is in many ways derived from the inspiration and support I received from Mr. Fanslow.”

Bennett-Paddick believes, “His model of teaching was evident in my career as a teacher. I worked hard at not just handing out challenging assignments, but dancing, cajoling, and nurturing my students to have a desire to learn. I found there was a massive difference in requiring an assignment and having students become excited and involved in their learning.”

The curriculum is a bit different in the senior classes. It’s mostly lecture. The unique aspects of teaching these classes are not lost on Mr. Fanslow. “No tests, no written work. People who want to be here. All the advantages of teaching and none of the disadvantages.”

Stone says wistfully, “Since technically I'm a ‘senior’ now, I'd love to take his class again. I'm so impressed that he continues to impart knowledge and to inspire. Wow.”




From June 28, 2006:


In the spring of 1956 Jane Compton was a senior at Dobyns-Bennett. As classes wound down, she knew she had to tell her history teacher Bob Fanslow what an impact his teaching had had on her. But she was a shy seventeen-year-old so she did the only thing she could think of to do. She wrote him a note and put it in his box. “But I didn’t sign it. And when I put it in his box, I made sure that no one saw me.”

Jump ahead half a century. Jane Compton is now an educator herself, teaching English at Manhattan’s elite Trinity School, and co-author of the just-published “Fiske WordPower,” a vocabulary building guide.

She is back in Kingsport for her 50th high school reunion. And when she discovers that Mr. Fanslow will be attending her reunion dinner, she decides that she will break her half-century silence. She will tell him she was the one who authored that anonymous fan letter back in the spring of 1956.

And then she begins to fret.

“What if he doesn’t remember me?”

When her classmates learn of her long ago letter and her decision to break her silence, they select her to present Mr. Fanslow with his boutonnière.

And she frets some more.

“What if I stick him when I put it on him? Maybe I should practice.”

She sits on the couch in the hall leading to the Ridgefields Country Club dining room, fussing with the red flower and anxiously awaiting Mr. Fanslow’s arrival.

After what seems like an interminable wait, he and his wife Linda pass through the portico at Ridgefields and begin their walk to the dining room.

Jane doesn’t hesitate. She races up to her old teacher. “I’m sorry I don’t have my nametag, Mr. Fanslow, but I’m Jane Compton and I was in your history class. They asked me to present you with this boutinierre.”

As she pins the red flower to his lapel, she begins the story she has been rehearsing for her entire adult life.

“When I was a senior, I wrote you a note to tell you how much I got from your class. You are the reason I went to graduate school. And I put the note in your box but I didn’t sign it. And I just wanted to tell you today that I was the one who wrote the note.”

Mr. Fanslow smiles at the compliment. But before he can say anything Jane blurts, “I’m an educator too so I know you don’t remember my note. But I wanted to tell you how much your classes meant to me.”

A man who has spent his entire career teaching integrity, cannot pretend that he remembers an anonymous note left in his office mailbox half a century ago. But then he gives Jane Compton a better response than she could have hoped.

“Well I remember you, Jane. And if you wrote it, I know it was brilliant.”

XXX

It wasn’t easy but Mr. Fanslow’s family managed to keep his surprise 80th birthday party at Friday night’s Frolics a surprise. With the family’s blessing, I had announced the party in my column in Friday’s paper. Mr. Fanslow’s wife Linda told me he kept asking about his Friday newspaper all day and she kept changing the subject.

XXX

Former students lined up at the party to offer congratulations and praise. They also wrote personalized congratulatory messages.

Carolyn Moffitt Smoot, D-B ’62, told him, “Thanks for being an inspiration and instilling a love for history in me.”

Wayne Powell, D-B ’55, wrote, “I really did learn a lot in your classes even though you probably didn’t think so at the time.”

Thom Throp ’76, recalled, “A paper I wrote for your federal government class, you gave me a B plus. I used the paper in graduate school at UT and received an A. You reread the paper for me and said you’d still give me a B plus. It was the best B plus I ever earned.”

Beth Williamson Geno, D’B ’67, summed it up for all his former students. “I’ll never forget you. Thank you for your inspiration. I’m a teacher now, too.”


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