A Tradition of Work


by Jake Summerlin (16c)

Jake SummerlinLeon Elder has seen it all.

He sits patiently at a table while he tells his entire life story, from humble beginnings in Georgia to a peaceful retirement in the Florida Keys. With an Industrial Arts degree from Berry College, Mr. Elder found himself fighting for his country in the Korean War and then safely returning home to a career in training young men for combat in Ft. Benning, Ga. His business later took him north to Virginia where he spent the remainder of his working days continuing his combat training. He did all of this with an art degree from that small school in the Georgia Mountains, a school that according to Elder gave him more than any of life’s other adventures.

Elder talks over lunch at a table inside Ford Dining Hall at Berry College with hundreds of others just like him, who come back to their college to participate in the annual Alumni Work Week. They, like Elder, come to Berry every summer to do work around the campus. Whether it is a small task such as repairing a screen door to a rather tumultuous task of building and paving a pathway, these alumni work endlessly to get the job done because for them, this work was a part of their education at Berry.

Berry is a college founded on hard work. It was the hard work of a brave woman who started the schools at the turn of the century and the hard work of her students to keep it going. Their work was their education, and it is this hard working curriculum that allowed the school that started in a log cabin to develop into a fully developed college. The campus was quite literally built by its students; mostly every building on the grounds was built by student-made brick or timber taken from the nearby Lavender Mountain. It is a place crafted by hard working hands, hands that made their own path in life on the basis that work is just as important to education as books and numbers. 

This work ethic is what defines Berry today. It is what the school was built on and what continues to describe a person graduating from the college in the foothills of Lavender Mountain. It is enough to convince a noble group of alumni to sacrifice a week of their lives and come back to Berry to work all day in the Georgia heat. 

“There hasn’t been one day where I did not want to work,” Elder said at lunch while he was talking about his time at Berry. “I learned all of that from here.”

There is a portrait of a younger Elder inside Oak Hill and The Martha Berry Museum that has him smiling in his traditional Berry Blue work clothes. In those days a Berry student’s schedule was routine: go to school four days a week, work the other two, and go to church on Sunday. The boys in their blue clothes worked in the fields, in the dairy, and in the wood shop while the girls in pink and blue dresses worked inside, making handicrafts and other materials for inside the home. Much has changed since then. There are no longer uniforms at Berry and boys and girls share the same jobs,  but something is still the same as it was decades before. 

“The people change, the laws change, but the work ethic at Berry will always be the same,” said Harold Sowell, a 1956 graduate. “They have done an excellent job in making sure the work program is still strong.”

“If you don’t know how to work before you come to Berry, you certainly do before you leave,” Mary Patrick said as she was dumping a wheelbarrow full of gravel to be flattened over a path.

A ’69 graduate, Patrick was part of a group building and paving a path behind Oak Hill and The Martha Berry Museum. It wasn’t back-breaking work, but it was enough work to make you sweat a gallon and leave behind some gruesome blisters. It will not be a path traveled by many, just a small number of people who want a nice, short walk through the woods behind Oak Hill. The importance of the trail is not that important to this group. They will not worry how many actually walk on the path they sweated over and bled to build. All that matters to them is the work they put into it, the work that they learned at Berry and the work that brings them back here every year. This work gave them their education, and as Patrick put it, “gave us something that we could carry with us for the rest of our lives.”

This will be Leon Elder’s 10th year coming back to Alumni Work Week. He was in the museum one day looking at the portrait of himself in his blue work clothes. When asked why he comes back to work at Berry every year his answer was honest, “Well, when you live with people for four years, when you eat with them, sleep with them, and work with them, they become your family. So I come back here to be with family.”