Maryville High School students in the 1960s and ’70s lived through turbulent times, but Wednesday two alumni from those days assured today’s students the school has prepared them for greater challenges ahead.

Assistant Principal Brett Coulter graduated in 1980 and has been a Maryville teacher, coach and administrator for 35 years. For this month’s session of the MHS Centennial Speakers Series, he introduced students to a friend he called “one of the greatest alumni of Maryville High School.”

“I’ve been a minister, a lawyer, a law professor, a teacher, a USA Today columnist, a school superintendent, a foundation director. So I’ve had a lot of different careers, and my guess is a lot of you will have that,” Oliver “Buzz” Thomas said in introducing himself to the students.

“I started out as an inner-city pastor in New Orleans, right about the time crack cocaine hit the inner cities,” said Thomas, a 1973 graduate of MHS.

Maryville not only prepared him well to “breeze through” the University of Tennessee but also to study law at the University of Virginia, teach at Georgetown University and lecture at Harvard University, Thomas told them.

“Despite my hillbilly accent,” he told the students, “Maryville High School prepared me to compete at any level I wanted to go to.”

He credited his family, classmates and the teachers.

“I’m standing here in the presence of one of the great high school English teachers in America. She was a National Teacher of the Year, Dr. Penny Ferguson,” he said, noting that he was a student during her second year as a teacher.

Community support

“If I could give you anything at all today, it would be a dream stretcher,” Thomas told today’s students. “What happened to me at Maryville High School is my teachers and friends and parents incubated a dream in me that I could do anything.”

Thomas recalled the day he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., on a proposed constitutional amendment and saw in the audience a former MHS classmate who was working at the Pentagon then, Col. Bill Stooksbury. They hadn’t seen each other in about a decade.

“’I figured I’d probably disagree with you, but I figured I’d back you up anyway, because you’re a Maryville guy,’” Thomas recalled his friend saying.

“That kind of loyalty to people, apart from what you think about an issue, whether you vote Democratic or vote Republican, or you’re a Baptist or you’re an atheist, or whatever you are, the fact that you have people in your community who loved you and backed your play made all the difference for me in my career,” said Thomas, who most recently led the Great Schools Partnership and served as interim superintendent of Knox County Schools.

Maryville High School is not a building, Thomas and Coulter told the students, but the people inside it who are a reflection of a community that supports education.

But they contrasted a campus where visitors now have to scan their identification and have a photo taken before entering the building to the days when they were able to leave campus for lunch.

“I don’t think it’s as much fun to do anything now as it was when I was your age,” Thomas said. “I think the post-9/11 world that we live in is a world where fear is playing a much bigger role in your lives than it did in my life.”

Many of the extracurricular activities were the same in their high school days, but few students had cars, so they had to work at staying connected outside of school.

“We had the mountains. We had the rivers. We had the lake,” Coulter said. “We didn’t have the mall. We didn’t have the Internet. We didn’t have computers.”

Disadvantage: lack of diversity

Thomas noted something that MHS is missing.

“Look around you. Most everybody looks alike. There’s not much diversity in Maryville, and I find that a weakness for us,” he said.

The nation and the world don’t look like Maryville.

“You’ve got to learn to get along in a world that doesn’t look like you, where the majority of the people are not white, where they may not be English speakers, where they may have a completely different background from you,” he said.

And despite the emphasis on individual drive, setting goals and determination, Thomas told the students, “The truth of the matter is that nearly everything that matters gets accomplished by a group of people.”

“The biggest threat to America right now, one of them to me, is tribalism,” he said. “You know, we’re hunkered down with the people that look like us and think like us, and we either watch Fox News or we watch MSNBC, or we do this and we do that, and we’re not talking and working with the people who don’t talk and think like we do.”

“Help us get over that,” he told the students. “Help us get back to where our differences are not the main thing we talk about, but we paid attention to what we had in common.”

Coulter told the students that he learned a basic formula for success at MHS: hard work, loyalty, effort and perseverance. “The only way to be successful at Maryville High School is to have all of those things,” he said.

Thomas also urged the students to think about what success means. “If it doesn’t get bigger than your bank account or how many Facebook friends you have, or what kind of car you’re driving, you’re going to live a dreary, lonely life.”

“Having 5,000 Facebook friends is not having 5,000 friends,” he said.

If he were stuck in Nome, Alaska, and called Coulter or Stooksbury for help, Thomas said he knows they would come. “When I talk about friends, that’s what I’m talking about,” he said.

There’s something else that every successful person has, Thomas told the students.

“Looks are highly overrated. Athleticism is highly overrated. Get this, IQ is highly overrated,” he said. “Every single one of you sitting here today is smart enough to be successful.”

What they also need is “grit.”

“Grit is stuff that doesn’t panic when the wheels fall off, and doesn’t look around for somebody to blame or somebody to call or whatever,” Thomas told them. “People that have grit just get out and fix the freakin’ wheel or walk or run. I mean, it’s an attitude that will carry you through everything.”

And, he told them, each will face a situation in their life when it feels like the wheels fell off.

Their generation also will face the effects of climate change, a huge national debt and a world in which automation will replace half of American jobs in the next 20 years. Those are problems that will take teams, organizations and nations to solve.

“It’s a little scary when you think about it, but you know what? Hey, y’all are Maryville people,” he said. “Bring it on. Go out and solve the big problems.”

“Nothing you’re going to deal with is not solvable,” Thomas said.

Amy Beth earned her degree from West Virginia. She joined The Daily Times in 2016 on the education beat covering Alcoa, Maryville and Blount County school systems.

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