Sharp as a tack|Educator tackled the job with common sense

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 7, 2010

He was my teacher and principal, and then I taught with him and, later, for him. I admire and respect Sharp W. Banks Jr. and appreciate what he did for education in Warren County.

Recently I had the opportunity to talk with him about his career, to get a view of his dedication and accomplishments, so many that I could touch on just a few.

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Traffic was heavy as workers, getting off from their jobs at LeTourneau and Westinghouse, clogged Highway 61 about the same time school buses loaded with children were trying to leave Jett School. It was a dangerous situation, but the solution was a simple one.

The principal at Jett, Sharp W. Banks Jr., changed the school clock, setting it forward about five minutes.

That’s the way Banks approached problems — with simple, direct and logical solutions, whether the difficulty was a small matter like this one or of a much larger scale. He always quietly took the practical approach.

Banks, who is now 86, spent 38 years in the Warren County school system in the roles of coach, teacher, principal and superintendent of education. Reflecting recently on his career, having taught one year in his home county of Neshoba, he said he came here to Redwood High School “kind of by the back door.”

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.

He and his wife, Joy, moved here in December 1949 from Oxford, just weeks before he graduated from Ole Miss. In his youth he had played football at East Central Junior College and left there for 3 1/2 years in the Navy where he served as radar man 3rd class for 2 1/2 years on the USS West Virginia during World War II. He returned to East Central, then went to Ole Miss for his bachelor’s in education, later going back for his master’s in school administration and principalship.

Banks’ in-laws owned a butane/propane company, and he went to work for them here in 1950 “hauling gas all over.” He often parked his truck at F.E. Opperman’s service station on South Washington Street. One day, after he had been on the road for a week and a half and was completely worn out, Opperman suggested they sit down for a drink at a nearby restaurant. He was president of the county school board, and he told Banks that a coach for girls’ basketball was needed at Redwood, then asked, “Can you coach?” Despite Banks’ reply that he had never coached girls, Opperman urged him to visit Floyd Franklin, the principal at Redwood, who was Joy Banks’ uncle, “and, before I knew what was going on, he had hired me.”

He was 26 and looked younger, so much so that the music teacher, Opal Setaro, thought he was a student. He remained at Redwood for two years. He remembers it as “a real learning experience. The Redwood community took me in and guided me through the rough spots.”

When the principal at Jett died, Banks went there in 1952 to fill that slot. There were many demands on a principal at a small school. He also taught bookkeeping, coached girls’ basketball and was expected to meet with parents, public officials, teachers, salesmen and anyone else who might have a problem or a grievance. Despite the extra duties, the pay was only about $600 a year more than that earned by a classroom teacher.

“It was a different teaching world back then,” he said. “When school was out in the afternoon, we were through for the day, except for the bus drivers. It wasn’t as pressurized back then.”

He recalled the relaxed atmosphere of the small school. Rules were few and easy to follow. Discipline was applied according to the infraction and the situation. He remembers an incident when he was returning to Jett one day when he picked up a boy who was hitchhiking, a student who never expected to get the ride he got. “I never said a word,” Banks laughed, “but, boy, was he sweating. I don’t think he ever played hookey again.”

After 10 years at Jett, the superintendent of education, Noel Nutt, resigned to take another job, and Banks ran for the post. He was easily elected and, at 37, was a very young superintendent.

He hadn’t had the job long when he faced the biggest challenge in his life, and that was the growth of the school system and deciding what to do about it. Enrollment was accelerating. Additional classrooms were needed, along with more teachers. He and the board explored the need for a county high school, combining Culkin, Jett and Redwood. His job was to sell the public on the idea, so he talked to every group, every civic club, every farmers’ club, to any group who would listen, explaining the advantages students would have with a consolidated school which they would never enjoy otherwise, “and I convinced enough of ’em.”

He was facing not only school rivalries but also doubts and mistrust by some of the community leaders. In 1963 the public approved a $1,250,000 bond to fund the new high school, which opened Sept. 13, 1965. A million-dollar bond issue passed in 1966 for construction of an additional building for the high school and a new elementary school at Warrenton. Improvements were made at other school facilities.

One of the major problems, Banks said, was the logistics of getting students to school, for there were routes, such as the one that began on the far side of Eagle Lake, that were more than 40 miles long.

The advantages, however, far outweighed the drawbacks. From each school came the best teachers and new ones were hired. Classes such as calculus and advanced math were the equivalent of college prep courses. Other advanced subjects were included, and Warren Central became the first local public high school to offer art. The school band rated all superiors its first year, and a foundation was laid for a strong sports program.

Banks doesn’t recall what the budget was in the 1960s, but is sure there is no comparison to what is spent today.

“We had enough to do most of what we needed to do,” he said. “We didn’t do everything, but we got a lot done and had our priorities straight.”

One of the most important challenges came with the racial integration of schools in the late 1960s. Banks said he knew “it had to be coming, and I talked with the board about how to handle it.”

It was decided that when any student applied, they would be enrolled without fanfare. The first was a second-grade child whose mother seemed surprised that there were no problems. Aware of probable criticism, Banks made sure the child sat in front of his daughter Tina.

The next year there were 13 or 14 more applicants, and school officials never said no, “The smartest thing to do,” Banks said. “We had some problems, but we made some lucky moves. We kind of did what we wanted to do without rubbing anyone the wrong way.” Fortunately, he developed a smooth working relationship with one of the black leaders.

Banks’ work went beyond the local schools, for he was a leader in improving public education throughout the state. He helped affect a merger between Hinds and Utica junior colleges and helped secure funding for the Hinds Vo-Tech center. A building at the local branch is named in his honor. His influence went far beyond structures, for he worked with the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges in the evaluation process and in other similar areas. The list of accomplishments is a long one.

Sharp Banks was always a visible part of the community, serving on the board of the YMCA and working with the Optimist Club, the Chamber of Commerce, the Historical Society and the Country Club.

There were those who probably didn’t know Sharp Banks to see him — but they knew his voice. For 35 years he announced the home football games from the press box, and for 20 years he taught the men’s Bible class at Gibson Memorial United Methodist Church, which was broadcast over a local radio station.

Banks had five children: Tere, Sharp III, Paula Glen, Tina and George. Sharp III, called “Bussie,” developed a grave illness from a blood clot in his head in 1959, when he was 8. After nine months in a hospital, he was brought home, developed encephalitis and spent the rest of his life in a coma, dying in 1964. It was a terrible tragedy for the family. Sharp and Joy eventually divorced and, in 1975, he married Winnie Rogers.

When the two local school systems, city and county, began to talk of consolidation, Banks submitted his resume for the job of superintendent but had already decided to retire. City expansion, he said, dictated the necessity of consolidation, for annexation would not only take students away from the county but would make a tremendous cut into the tax base, so much so, Banks said, “that we couldn’t survive. There was no choice but to consolidate.”

Banks and his wife, Winnie, moved to Covington, La., where they settled on a 27-acre tree farm which, with the use of a tractor, a four-wheeler and a lot of manual labor, they transformed into a picturesque retreat.

After Katrina, though, the farm suffered minor damage, so he decided to move to Mandeville. Health problems called for more doctors’ appointments — plus he wanted to be closer to a golf course.

A few months ago he underwent a colostomy and said, “I still have a little soreness. But, heck, I can’t complain. It’s better than I thought it was going to be, though I have lost a lot of weight.”

And his favorite game of golf? “I hit a bucket of balls last week, the first time I’d picked up a golf club in seven or eight months.”

To what does Banks attribute the success of his years in the school system? “Mostly the choice of personnel and putting them in the right spot.” He mentioned, in particular, Kalar Fultz, his assistant in the county office, and O.W. Mendrop, principal of Jett and Warren Central.

The highlight of his years here, he said, is something he can’t pinpoint: “A number of things that happened, things that really didn’t impress anybody but me. I like the way things just fell into place.”

The honors he has received have been numerous, but probably at the top of the list is the Golden Lamp Award, given by the state’s School Superintendents Association to the outstanding administrator. He was the first recipient.

Life today, he said, is about taking it easy.

One can see why, upon his retirement, the Vicksburg Evening Post called him “the father of the county schools.”