Before we moved to Harlan, we visited with my Uncle Miller Wiley and his wife, Aunt Katharine, in Dearborn, Mich.; we had enjoyed their friendship while we were in Ann Arbor for three years, and we wanted to tell them of our plans to move to eastern Kentucky. We had hardly heard of Harlan, Kentucky, before hearing of the job opportunity there for Jerry, so I was very surprised to see the grave expression on my uncle’s face when I mentioned Harlan. He was a quiet man, and he was having trouble stating what he was feeling, but the words that came out of his mouth were, “When you get to Harlan, don’t ever tell anybody that you are a Wiley.” I was flabbergasted as he went on to explain that he and two of his brothers, my uncles, worked in Harlan as coal miners and school teachers off and on as they worked their way through Union College. He explained that they had been a bit “wild and crazy,” and it would be best for me if people didn’t associate me with them. I had no idea what might have happened in those years long ago, but I took his words very seriously, and I vowed to myself that in Harlan, I wouldn’t say “Wiley” ever. And I lived up to that vow until my mother and daddy (the Wileys) came to visit us. As we introduced them around the town, inevitably the question arose, “Are you related to Miller or James or Owen Wiley?” “Well, yes,” my dad said, “they are all my younger brothers.”
Then we would hear stories of how great these guys were, how they sang in church, taught in schools and lived in several of the local homes. I breathed a sigh of relief as I realized they either hid their “wild and crazies” really well, or the Harlan friends were not going to bring up any of these antics to us. That was a real relief, because I had always been proud of my Wiley name and had every intention of naming our first son, John Wiley Bryson.
When we first moved here, it didn’t take long to realize that in Harlan County, a person’s name was very important to him. Individuals were often referred to as “one of the Popes, or Howards or Middletons.” I also noticed that people running for public office were very careful to include the names of all the families that they were related to when designing their political ads. We had been away from our family roots ever since we had been married, so I was missing the whole thing that happens when someone has known your family for years. An odd thing happened when certain people in the community, such as Mr. Ed Cawood, Jim and Lib Welch, Roy and Maxine Pope, H. Fred Howard and George Riley Pope heard that I was a Wiley, instantly they began to treat me as though they had known me all of my life. My uncles had lived in the home of the George R. Pope family and had sung in the very church that we had chosen here. My Aunt Jean was the one who replaced H. Fred, teaching his chemistry and biology classes at Harlan High School, when he was called to World War II. One of my earliest Harlan favorites, Lavonne Smith, had even dated my Uncle Owen. (I sometimes call her my “almost aunt.”) What a warm feeling this being known brought to me, a young wife and mother who had not had a place to call home in a number of years. I felt like I was among people who knew and understood me.
My uncles (my father was one of 11 children born to a poor teacher/preacher/farmer) were very inventive and creative when it came to finding jobs. There were eight boys, so I was blessed with many uncles; each of these 11 children graduated from college, but they did this by going to college for a semester, then working for a semester, each helping the other 10 children until school was finished by all. Their undergraduate degrees were earned at Asbury, Union and UK.
Three of my uncles lived in Harlan; they first came to Harlan County during the mid-1930s; one day in the spring, My uncles Owen and Miller were college students “house sitting” for the president of Union College while he and his wife were away. The phone at the president’s house rang and Owen answered. A man on the phone, thinking that he was talking to the college president, said, “This is S.H. Rowland from Harlan County; I’m a school board member up here, and I need two of your students to teach school next fall. I will be in your cafeteria at 10 Friday morning. Please spread the word that I will be interviewing students then.” My Uncle Owen replied, “Yes sir,” and then according to Uncle Owen’s story, because he and his brother were desperate for a job to continue college, “forgot” to tell anyone else about the job interview. Since Dr. Rowland had only two prospective teachers show up to interview, he hired both of them. Thus, they arrived in Harlan County the next fall.
Owen loved to tell the story of his arrival in the coal camp that fall. The president of the coal company where the school was located called him to his office the first day. As Owen was introducing himself, the man turned his chair around, reached into a cabinet and brought out a bottle of whiskey and two small glasses. He poured a shot into each of the two glasses and slid one across the desk toward Owen and said, “Here, drink this.” He then said, “Since you are older, I’m putting you in charge of the school; the rules are simple. You will be in charge of discipline and making sure the school is warm in the winter months. As long as I don’t hear any complaints about you, you will have a job. On the other hand, if I start getting complaints, you will be fired.” With that, Owen, a young preacher’s son, was dismissed from the room with his first drink of whiskey and his first teaching job.
Owen and Miller were the first of six of my aunts and uncles who taught school in Harlan County at various times. They were happy, fun-loving people who made friends easily, loved to play tennis and have a good time.
They had good singing voices, and along with Roy Pope, formed a quartet and sang at churches and at social occasions. (My Aunt Martha, Uncle Owen’s widow, at age 92, still speaks so warmly of her memories of Harlan every year in her note at Christmas.) It indeed is a small world. And the fact that we came to the same small town in eastern Kentucky that my relatives came to 30 years before is indeed more than a circumstance.
(You can reach Pat Bryson at email@example.com)