Listen to advice and accept instruction,

and in the end you will be wise.

Many are the plans in a man’s heart,

but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.


--Proverbs 19:20-21 NIV


In 1929, Sam P. McConnell was milking cows and stoking a college gymnasium furnace in pursuit of a dream. Growing up one of eight children in a Methodist parsonage, he’d learned early the importance of a full day’s work and the value of a dollar. Those lessons were helping him pay his way through a second year at Hiwassee College in Madisonville, TN. He wanted to be a dentist and he was on his way, until the letter came from home.

It was February 1930, and the recent stock market crash had set the American economy reeling. With a heavy heart, the elder McConnell had to tell his oldest son their financial situation was, as he put it, “in collapse.” Sam would have to leave school and go to work.

The young man considered his options and offered a counter proposal.

“Father, I’ve worked ahead and there’s some back pay coming—enough to support me to the end of the semester.  If I can arrange a transfer to the teacher’s college at East Tennessee State, I’ll have enough hours to get a teacher’s certificate in May.”

His father agreed to the plan. After graduation, 18 year-old Sam came home to Chattanooga and got a job. In September he was off to school again, this time as a teacher.  It was initiation by fire.

Back then parents expected teachers to discipline their children and the teachers complied. After two weeks on the job, the new teacher hadn’t paddled anyone. The principal decided it was time. So he met young Sam in the hall and handed him three switches, each about 2 ½ feet long.

“I want you to go in there and thrash that bunch out and set’ em straight.” 

“I haven’t had any trouble with the seventh grade,” Sam protested.

“Well, one of the other teachers has, and I want you to show ‘em there’s another boss around here besides me,” said the 70 year-old administrator.

Some of those students were older than their teacher and twice as big. Scared to death, Sam took the switches and started toward the classroom with the principal hot on his heels. 

“I’ll handle this situation,” Sam called back over his shoulder.

His superior added, “I just want to see that it’s done right.” 

They opened the classroom door to find one of the seventh grade boys holding another in a hammerlock, rapping his knuckles across the victim’s face. Brandishing his switches, young Sam made three trips around the room in pursuit of those youngsters. By the third lap, there wasn’t much left of the switches and the principal motioned for the rookie to come outside. He closed the door.

“Son,” he said with a hearty handshake, “I believe you’re gonna make a teacher yet.”

After that, switches weren’t often needed. The new teacher learned that being fair and firm would earn him the respect he needed. The students learned there would be consequences for their actions. By the next fall, Sam was not only their teacher, he was the principal of Mountain Creek Elementary School!

During the Depression many children lacked the food and clothing they needed to come to school or the money to buy supplies. Through the generosity of a local cement company, Sam’s school received $125 a month to cover the 15-cent cost of a school lunch. In return a needy child received a sandwich with milk or soup. Many of the teachers also bought supplies for the students out of their meager salaries with help from the PTA. The total community pulled together to help make education available for their children. They were very proud and protective of their school and its educators.

After four years of diligence and hard work, times were better and Sam’s dad wanted to help his son become a dentist. By then, the match made in adversity had turned into the calling of a lifetime. Sam P. McConnell became a Doctor of Education instead of dentistry.  The Depression-era values that grounded him through difficult times, anchored him through post-war prosperity.

For 19 years, from 1955-1974, Dr. Sam was at the helm of Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga, TN and presided over one of the most ambitious building programs ever undertaken. While he was superintendent, every school in the county received either a new building or a substantial addition. 

In 1974, when he retired, two new schools had just been completed without floating a bond. They had been paid for with cash—money saved from a half cent sales tax increase. There was even a surplus. Almost two million dollars was invested for future building programs at the rate of 14 percent! 

When asked the key to his success over so many years, Dr. Sam cited three guiding principles:

“Be direct, but conciliatory. Convert an enemy to a friend. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”

Words of wisdom from a master teacher?

“Things I learned from my father,” Sam said. 

At his death in December 2000, a grateful community celebrated the life of the man who never became a dentist. Today a scholarship fund in his memory assists promising students who need financial help to fulfill their dream of going to college.


published at

Be direct but conciliatory. Convert an enemy to a friend. Don't make promises you can't keep.  

                                                                              --Sam P. McConnell

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