As a youth, Henry Wilson says, he was kind of a know-it-all. So it only makes sense that as he has matured, he has become a teach-it-all.
Wilson, a retired college professor, launches a new class at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 9, at the Carter Senior Center, 9036 Asheville Highway. This one is “You’re Not From Around Here, Are You? How To Talk in East Tennessee.” Each Wednesday through Feb. 27, Wilson will discuss the history and geographic roots of East Tennessee’s unique dialect in the free course.
“I don’t get paid, so you don’t have to pay,” Wilson quips.
Wilson has been teaching at the Carter Senior Center for about three years. He started out as a student in a Spanish class. He’d taken Spanish at the University of Tennessee and was just looking for a refresher. But the teacher moved, and before he left town he tapped Wilson to take over instructor duties.
When that class ended, Wilson wanted to continue as a volunteer teacher. He had earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate in English at UT, so he suggested a literature course. Unfortunately, the center had had a bad experience with a previous lit class that veered off into a subject that proved too “vulgar,” so he and center director Tara Stirone agreed that he would teach history, another one of his interests.
Wilson’s past courses have covered the Great Smoky Mountains, TVA, Oak Ridge, Knoxville, war heroes of East Tennessee and the lives and deeds of outstanding East Tennessee women. He says he likes to keep control of the class, but he doesn’t lecture, and he doesn’t want to be called Dr. Wilson.
Wilson grew up in the Carter community, attending the now-defunct Ramsey Elementary School and Carter High School. After graduating, he took a few years off – “loafing around,” as he puts it – before “following the path of least resistance” and enrolling at UT in 1982.
He discovered that he really liked being a student, which led him to the trifecta of academic degrees. He selected English, but he also loaded up on history courses, which came in handy when he finally got around to looking for a job. Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., hired him to teach Western civilization classes as an assistant professor.
“I was a good teacher and administrator, but I didn’t get things published,” he says. He moved on to teach at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania, and he ran into the same publishing/tenure obstacle.
“I probably had some sort of professional death wish,” he says. “I figured if they promoted me, I’d have to live up there.”
Instead, Wilson took early retirement and in 2003 abandoned the North and moved back to East Knox County. He helps his parents, a retired postal worker and homemaker, and fills his days with learning when he’s not teaching. He’s a familiar face at the East Tennessee History Center. He has also taken stand-up comedy classes.
He will teach two classes this spring through UT’s non-credit programs. On Monday nights in March, he will teach “Uncle Sam Comes to Appalachia,” surveying the impact of the Manhattan Project, TVA and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on East Tennessee. In May, he’s teaching “Folklore & Folk Wisdom of East Tennessee” on Thursday nights. (Click here for more info.)
Wilson resisted the call of technology as long as possible, but he finally broke down and got a smartphone and even joined Facebook, where he posts his “highly accurate” weather forecasts (he’s had an interest in meteorology since his teens).
Saying he likes “to explain things,” Wilson teaches five two-month courses a year at the senior center. Ironically, he’s thinking of taking his topics from those classes and turning them into a book.
He welcomes new students and says they aren’t required to attend every week. The Carter center doesn’t get the kind of attendance that the John T. O’Connor Center does, he says.
“People seem hesitant,” says Wilson. “The mayor (Glenn Jacobs) came up here for a meet and greet. I asked him to send people this way.”