Jewish World Review Nov. 4, 2005 / 2 Mar-Cheshvan,
Of the old school
One by one, they join the silent majority. But thinking about them provides some of the comfort and assurance that being with them once did.
When I read that Henry Pennymon had died at the age of 83, I pictured him back at UAPB, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff the state's once-segregated black college. Neat, precise, every hair in place, Mr. Pennymon was a walking advertisement for self-respect. You could tell he took pride in his appearance a small vice but one he made a virtue. For with Mr. Pennymon, the outward man went all the way through.
Henry Pennymon was the perfect choice to direct alumni affairs at an historically black school that had just gone through some chaotic times and needed all the support it could garner from its graduates.
Every troubled institution needs a Mr. Pennymon not just because of how well he does his job but what he symbolizes: competence, courtesy, organization . . . what used to be called Knowing How to Do.
"He prided himself on being a gentleman," said his son. "He was what they call Old School."
It was the perfect summation of Henry Pennymon, and reading his son's words, another alumnus of the Old School came to mind: Billy Moore Clark, late of Little Rock, Ark., counselor-at-law, antique collector, philanthropist and all-around character.
He introduced himself as Billy-Mo' Clahk in his classic South Arkansas accent. He was a member of the same old school as Henry Pennymon. Different accent, different race, different background, different social class, different style (flamboyant rather than restrained) but, yes, the same old school.
In Mister Billy Mo's case, the actual schools were Vanderbilt, Yale Law and the U.S. Navy, but mainly the landed gentry of South Arkansas. You could hear it in his vowels and consonants, or rather in the absence of one of the latter. The educated Southerner, Mark Twain once observed, has no use for an R except at the beginning of a word. Hence Billy-Mo'-Clahk.
As for dress, Counselor Clark affected a Scottish tartan in place of an overcoat the pattern of the Buchanan clan, as best I recall because, he claimed, it was so much more "practical." If Mr. Pennymon always wore the perfect gentleman's tie that is, never a memorable one Billy Mo's costume was impossible to forget.
At the end of an evening, sipping a nightcap. Billy Mo' would lean forward, look you in the eye and confide, in the style of Walker Percy's "The Last Gentleman," "There are only a few of us left."
It's a common delusion in these latitudes and has been since The War: that each generation is the last of its kind. It's much like the Southerner's standard question when in an existential, semi-philosophical mood: Is there still a South?
The elegiac remains the most popular style in Southern literature, perhaps because it is the product of a civilization cut short by a war.
But somehow the old ways keep being passed on. And the next generation, too, will surely have its models of restraint like Henry Pennymon and its Billy Mo' Clarks who play Old South to beat the band.
Old School types come in different varieties, but they all have one thing in common: a personal code of honor.
Billy Mo' posed as a throwback, like his antiques. But these days being out of style tends to be in style. Retro is the reigning fashion. Note all the new old ballparks and the resurrected turn-of-the-last-century trolley cars that have just been introduced in downtown Little Rock.
How explain this new interest in the old? Maybe it's a natural reaction a longing for formality when its opposite is so widespread. As you've surely noticed. Have you had a total stranger address you by your first name today? Have you walked through a crowded airport lately and noticed the state of people's dress, or rather undress?
Do you wonder how those otherwise attractive young people with multiple rings through the most unlikely parts of their bodies got past the metal detectors?
Even dining out or attending a worship service, those of us of a certain age share the same instinct: We avert our eyes. No wonder so many yearn for a return to the past. It would be progress.
I remember a pretty young reporter when I was at the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial. She was showing some pictures around the newsroom. When I asked what they were, she told me they were nude photos of a friend of hers who had hopes of becoming a model. "Wanna see?" she asked with a mischievous grin.
"No, thank you," I said.
She seemed puzzled, but then recognition dawned.
"Oh," she said, "you're of the old school."
I didn't deserve the compliment, and I'm not even sure it was intended as a compliment, but after all these years I still treasure it.
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