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Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Αντίο , μεγάλος δάσκαλος

It's strange, reading that one of my high school English teachers was known as "Becky."

She was never that to me. She was Mrs. Hamrick, and that was that. In the faculty directory, she was Mrs. A. Vason Hamrick, Jr.

I'm not sure I ever knew Mrs. Hamrick had a first name. She was a presence, steaming into class, jaw set, like a dreadnought. Not a large woman, and only in her early fifties, she nonetheless possessed a monumentality, a quality of being outside time. It passed around her, not she through it. I could see her as a Delphic sibyl, shrouded in smoke, dispensing divinations from atop her tripod.

We were taking up the study of the Greeks, in Mrs. Hamrick's class, as my junior year in high school began. On September 5, 1972, Mrs. Hamrick surprised us: she brought a portable television to class and we watched live coverage of the massacre and hostage-taking at the Summer Olympic Games in Munich. Her granite jaw quivered as she tried, in real time, to discuss the profanation of the highest ideals of an ancient civilization, renewed in our time by the great games. In 1972, terrorism was relatively new under the sun, and live television of such events even more so. She grappled with finding the meaning of the incomprehensible as it unfolded before us. I had never seen a rattled authority figure before.

We were reading Edith Hamilton's The Greek Way, a small book, published in 1930 by a newly-retired girl's school head. At 62, Hamilton distilled her thoughts after forty years a teacher of the classics into the book; no archaeologist, and having never been to Greece, she approached the Greeks purely from their writings. It was well-regarded, as popular scholarship went. Hamilton was praised for her explanation of "the calm lucidity of the Greek mind" and her belief "that the great thinkers of Athens were unsurpassed in their mastery of truth and enlightenment." The New York Times admired the way it "brought into clear and brilliant focus the Golden Age of Greek life and thought ... with Homeric power and simplicity in her style of writing".

Improbably, when Edith Hamilton was 89, The Book of the Month Club made The Greek Way a featured selection, and she became a celebrity. The Greek government invited her to visit in 1957. She stood in the theater of Herodes Atticus, where King Paul of Greece awarded her the Golden Cross of the Order of Benefaction, making her an honorary citizen of Athens. Nodding to the applause of cabinet ministers, diplomats, and Athenian intellectuals, she walked to the microphone and in a firm voice cried, 'I am an Athenian citizen! I am an Athenian citizen! This is the proudest moment in all my life.'

Edith Hamilton died in 1963, at the age of 95.

Nine years later, in Mrs. Hamrick's class, Edith Hamilton stole my heart. The Greek Way was my travel guide to a past far from where I lived, and more than anything, Edith Hamilton led me to Aristophanes, the comic playwright. I found a copy of the Loeb Classics edition, bowdlerized and rendered dull as all hell; in college, I found the more vernacular translations of Dudley Fitts for Penguin, and wore out multiple copies.

Four years after Mrs. Hamrick's class, a friend and I watched Dick Cavett interview a little-known Princeton psychology lecturer, Julian Jaynes, on a book he'd written. It bore the laborious title, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, but it was a work of breathtaking originality that posited the rise of human self-awareness in the time of the Greeks (that is like saying Wagner's Ring is about a construction loan that went bad, but let it pass). It was so striking I drove to Charlotte to find a copy. I got one; the book sold so well, so fast, the first printing ran out before a second one could be produced. It has spawned decades of debate.

Five years after Mrs. Hamrick's class, in January 1977, I stood in the Theater of Herodes Atticus in Athens. Some friends and I read The Clouds, and at the center of the stage, where Edith Hamilton stood twenty years before, I left small pebble from my home ground.

Six years after Mrs. Hamrick's class, I entered the Honours School of Philosophy, Politics and Economics in the University of Oxford, one of the few places in the world where it was- and remains- possible to see Aristophanes' Lysistrata performed, in a college garden on a summer's evening, in Greek.

Forty years and more since Mrs. Hamrick's, the Greeks remain my bread and butter. One of last year's reads was Robert Kaplan's The Peloponnesian War.

Mrs. Hamrick and I parted on somewhat strained terms in 1974. At the end of my junior year, I landed a spot in one of the most coveted classes at Shelby High School: Mrs. Rogers' legendary Senior A.P. English. But during the summer, Mrs. Rogers was taken ill; cancer was diagnosed. She probably knew more than she let on, for she invited a small group of us to read A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich with her, at her home, that summer.

When school started in August 1973, Mrs. Rogers was still on leave. Mrs. Hamrick filled in for a time, but she was department chair and had her own full class load. A substitute was installed temporarily, but she was out of her depth with the material and lacked the authority to manage a room of bright, easily bored seventeen-year-olds. Soon we learned Mrs. Rogers would not return. The substitute stayed the year, and I went through the motions of the dreamed-of year that wasn't.

Came the spring, and I declined to take the A.P. English exam, which, if scored well on, was supposed to vault students ahead at college. I felt I had learned little, and saw no reason wasting a day to get a poor score as likely to set me back at college as move me ahead.

Mrs. Hamrick and I went a number of rounds, fighting to a draw. I was sent to see the principal, who said he respected my views, but the test was scheduled and I would be expected to be there. On the day, I went to the school library instead and read Plato. No one came looking for me; I wasn't summoned by the intercom, and there were no repercussions.

After I graduated, I only saw Mrs. Hamrick one more time: at a music recital nine years ago. She was much smaller, at 87, and steadied by a cane in each hand. When I spoke with her she still possessed that practiced manner of career teachers- the cordial greeting of someone not entirely clear in memory.

So now she has gone on, having lived a little longer even than Edith Hamilton. So many Shelby High graduates remain in town for the rest of their lives, I am sure she knew, every day, she had done her work well, as the fidgeting, hormone-drowned students of decades past rose to become community leaders.

I moved on, and away. But in a mind cluttered with half-remembered events, and others existing only in the memory that once I remembered them, I remember the month I spent in Greece in 1977 with complete clarity: where I went, what I saw, people I met, the meals I ate. I walked inside the Parthenon, now barred to tourists, and tested the acoustics of the amphitheater at Heraklion.  I ran the stadium at Olympia, and sat in the one at Delphi, above the sacred precincts and ruined treasuries, peering into the mists of the valley so deep it truly seemed the lip of the world, one silent afternoon.

I still have a copy of The Greek Way, which is still taught in colleges 86 years after it was published. All these things Mrs. Hamrick gave me when she handed me that little book forty-four years ago.

The Greeks believed that at the moment of death the psyche, or spirit of the dead, left the body as a little breath or puff of wind. Immortality, they maintained, lay in the continued remembrance of the dead by the living. It is an honor to carry that torch, for a little while, into the future.

This is what The Shelby Star published yesterday:


SHELBY- Rebecca "Becky" Hollowell Hamrick, age 96, died Monday, July 11, 2016, at Brookdale of Shelby. Born in historic, picturesque Edenton, on April 17, 1920, she was the daughter of the late Charles Thomas Hollowell, Sr. and Annie Gordon Hollowell. She was also preceded in death by her beloved husband, Alger Vason Hamrick, Jr. and her brother, Charles Thomas Hollowell, Jr. as well as her father-in-law, and mother-in-law, Alger Vason Hamrick, Sr. and Ettie Abernathy Hamrick.

Mrs. Hamrick graduated from Edenton High School in 1936; she received the Associate of Arts degree from Mars Hill College in 1938, her A.B. degree in English from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1940; and her M.Ed. in English from UNCG in 1959. In recent years, she was trained as a writing consultant through the National Writing Project at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Mrs. Hamrick's professional career was always varied and rewarding. After her first year of teaching at Taylorsville High School in 1940-41, she became office and traffic manager for Cooperative Mills, Inc., in Statesville as an efficient and capable substitute for her husband, who was away fighting in World War II. After he returned to resume his job, she next served eight years as bookkeeper and secretary in a family business in Shelby, A.V. Hamrick and Company, Inc. From 1957-1984, she taught English at Shelby High School. Through that position, which she viewed as a calling, she touched countless lives. Over the years former students have sent notes of appreciation attributing their college success, especially in English, to Mrs. Hamrick's inspiration and rigorous training. While at Shelby High School, she was department chairperson, helped to add Advanced Placement English to the curriculum, and was a long-time teacher of that course. She organized and led student trips to Europe on numerous occasions throughout her 27 years there.

The first ties to Cleveland County came in 1941 when she married Vason, a Shelby native whom she had first met at Mars Hill College. After World War II, when the family settled in Shelby, she became involved in church, community organizations, philanthropic concerns, and professional leagues. She became a member of First

Baptist Church of Shelby in 1948 and always enjoyed involvement in missions and choir. She showed her servant leadership by serving as a deacon numerous terms, and was chairman of the deacons. A former pastor described her as a woman of "inquiring mind, excellent personality, forthright demeanor, and incisive judgment."

In the community Mrs. Hamrick enjoyed being a member of the Cecilia Music Club and National Federation of Music Clubs, the VFW Auxiliary, and the Cleveland County Choral Society. She was an active part of the North Carolina Association of Educators, the North Carolina English Teachers Association; the National Council of Teachers of English; the American Association of University Women; the Alpha Delta Kappa Honor Sorority for Educators; and the P.E.O., a philanthropic educational organization. She was State President and South Atlantic Regional Secretary-Treasurer of the AAUW. Especially dear to her was her membership in Alpha Delta Kappa. She served as North Carolina State President, 1974-1976; she went on to become Southeast Regional Secretary, 1976-1978; and in recent years she was inducted into the North Carolina ADK Hall of Fame for her ongoing leadership.

Mrs. Hamrick received many honors over the years, including being named Shelby City Schools Teacher of the Year in 1980; however, she felt that her greatest accomplishment was being the mother of two sons, both of whom she taught at Shelby High School. She was always proud of them and their families. Family and friends were definitely of top importance to her. She also enjoyed reading, music, needlework, other artistic projects, and travels at home and abroad. She put her trust in God, inspired others to perform to the best of their ability, and embraced life with zest.

Mrs. Hamrick leaves behind to cherish her memory, sons, Dr. Alger Vason Hamrick, III and wife Ann of Raleigh; and Charles Gregory Hamrick and wife Marie of Belmont. She is also survived by four grandchildren, Rebecca Hamrick Boone (Robert) of Winston-Salem; Ann F. Hamrick of Raleigh; Alger Vason Hamrick, IV (Grace) of Raleigh; and Alice Hamrick Porter (Josh) of Oxford, MS; six great-grandchildren; brother-in-law, Dean Hamrick of Charlotte; and several precious nieces, nephews, and cousins.

Family will receive friends from 1 until 2 p.m., in the Ladies' Parlor.

The funeral service will be held at 2 p.m., Thursday, July 14, 2016, in Webb Chapel at First Baptist Church, officiated by the Rev. Perry Holloman.

Burial will follow at Sunset Cemetery.

The family would like to thank the doctors and staff at Shelby Medical and staff at Brookdale Shelby for their love and care.

In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to First Baptist Church, 120 N. Lafayette St., Shelby, NC 28150; or to Hospice Cleveland County, 951 Wendover Heights Drive, Shelby, NC 28150.

Online condolences may be made at

Cecil M Burton Funeral Home and Crematory is serving the family of Mrs. Hamrick.

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