March 17, 2003
On a cold March day in 1958, outside the door leading to the office of John Beck, principal of the Sand Springs, Oklahoma, high school, Clarence Clay “Pappy” Jelks slumped to the ice-covered. He died in the arms of his close friend Lewis M. Kibbe, Jr., longtime Jr. High Principal, and high school administrator and teacher.
The sudden heart attack had claimed a remarkable man, a much beloved and gifted teacher; and a great friend to students from his 35 years at the school.
He was known as “C.C.” or “Mr. Jelks” to school associates and others. Most of his students called him “Pappy.”
“Pappy” Jelks was an American original, and the most remarkable secondary school educator I ever knew. He joined the Sand Springs school system in the early 1920s. Pappy was a teacher, philosopher, and a counselor and father figure to many.
It’s hard to imagine Pappy Jelks in today’s educational environment. It’s doubtful that Pappy the teacher would have allowed Jelks the teachers-union member to play hooky from teaching to travel halfway across the state to lobby the state legislature.
Pappy loved teaching so much it’s doubtful he would have used lack of funds as an excuse for not teaching schools have always been short of funds. It’s probable, too, that he would probably reject much of what passes as conventional wisdom in education today. For example, Pappy never bought into the latter-day blather that a poor environment and economic deprivation excuses ugly, immoral or illegal behavior.
Pappy was a product of both the formal school and the school of hard knocks. He used his teaching skills learned in the former to shorten the time his students had to spend in the latter.
Along the way he dispensed book knowledge, real-world knowledge, philosophy, principles of being a decent human being and "The Facts of Life According to Pappy." That rare combination taught students about the world, and showed them that learning about it could be fun.
Pappy could be stern. But he usually approached a subject with a twinkle in his eye and a ready smile and his booming laugh might startle everyone in the room if the discussion took a jocular turn.
Knowing more was important to Pappy. And “more,” included everything in the universe: chemistry, mathematics, manufacturing processes, world affairs, behavior, religion he actually spoke the words “God” and “Jesus Christ” Shakespeare, history, ad infinitum.
Some school board members probably would have had a conniption fit if they had known what all Pappy taught. He didn’t just skim the surface of a subject. He dumped the whole load, and we got so caught up in learning about things far beyond our little mill-town world, that no one dozed or goofed off in class.
Today, no statues or monuments exist that pay tribute to C. C. Jelks in the community where he labored, loved and inspired. But instead of pigeon-decorated bronze or stone, there are countless living "monuments," productive humans, shaped by Pappy's wisdom and enthusiasm. They are the ones who yielded to the teaching touch and wit of a lovable, natural teacher.
I recently visited with Lewis Kibbe on his 95th birthday, and he recalled that cold March day when Pappy died on the icy walk. I mentioned that history does a poor job of recording the accomplishments and contributions of the Pappys of the world, often taking note of the wrong people, and for the wrong reasons. Kibbe agreed, adding, “C.C. Jelks was the most naturally gifted teacher I ever met.”
But someone should write of the jovial and gentle teacher who appreciated the potential of each student. And write of the teacher who cared enough for his "boys and girls" to teach them that learning can be fun, and has a goal beyond that day’s class.
Someone should write of all these things, and mention that words cannot do justice to the extraordinary man we lovingly and respectfully called Pappy. But words and memories are the best we can do, when honoring a man whose life was made nobler by the selfless sharing of his God-given gifts with so many.
Someone should write lovingly of a man who loved and gave so much, and of the love so many felt for him. Someone just did, but sadly, it comes 45 years too late for him to hear it.
But somehow, I think he knows. Pappy had a way of learning about things.