By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
When Tom Farmer was a boy, he had two dreams to fulfill — marry the love of his life and attend West Virginia University.
Tommy M. “Tom” Farmer was frequently being asked about his past, so he recently compiled his many recollections in a book titled “The Cumberland Road Kid.” To start off, the date of his birth was especially memorable from a meteorological point of view.
“I was born on the Leatherwood Farm, at the dairy farms house” he recalled. “That was back in 1947 during a blizzard,” Farmer said. “My mom told me that and I thought she was exaggerating, but I went to an almanac and sure enough, she was right. Our region’s record 24-hour snowfall was on the day I was born. It helped make my book a little more exciting.”
In his book, Farmer speaks about the chain of events that led up to teaching in Mercer County’s schools.
“I taught for 33 years. It was a wonderful career,” Farmer recalled. “I enjoyed teaching and working with my students.”
When asked about the schools where he taught, Farmer started listing them.
“You name it. I started at Montcalm High School,” he said. “It was grades seven through 12. Then I went to my alma mater, Bluefield High School. I spent seven years there; and then, Princeton Junior High School and taught four years there; and then to Princeton Senior High School. I thought I would retire from there. I was teaching my favorite subject, algebra. It only lasted one year.”
Farmer next learned about a new class that needed a teacher.
“A position opened up at the Mercer County Technical Education Center and it was applied physics. They actually had some equipment where you could actually do some real labs. It was a federal program, and I was in seventh heaven with that program. It helped the students a lot,” he said.
“They were afraid because it was physics, and a lot of them, I had to teach them algebra, also. Some of them did not have experience with algebra, but it worked out nice. They finally discontinued that program,” Farmer said.
Farmer split his time between Bluefield High School and Princeton Senior High School for a year before a science position opened up at PikeView High School. He spent the last six years of his career at PikeView teaching physical science, earth science, and biology to ninth grade students. When a physics class was needed, Farmer would handle that, too.
“After six years, in 2002, I retired. I got to teach stuff that I really loved. And working with my students, that was special,” he said.
Farmer and his wife Mary Jane “Janie” are now world travelers. Their latest stop was Australia. They also have time to spoil their grandchildren. People who remembered Farmer when he was a young man often asked him how he met his wife and how he managed to attend West Virginia University when his family was considered poor.
“Those were two of my impossible dreams. When I saw my wife, I imagined her as my girl and she stayed on my mind all the time, but she was very popular. She was always dating somebody. She was even engaged to be married,” Farmer said.
Fulfilling the other dream seemed equally as daunting. “As I said, we were dirt poor, and WVU was a long ways off. A guidance counselor tried to bring me to my senses and asked me if I knew where Morgantown was. Well, I didn’t.”
The counselor got out a map displaying all the colleges and universities in West Virginia and traced a line from Bluefield to Morgantown; it was literally from one end of the state to the other.
“That didn’t bother me. I was going to go. I just stayed determined,” Farmer said.
Friends and family encouraged him to leave school and get a job to help support the family after his father died of a heart attack.
“My dad, they called him a route salesman. I called him a milkman.” The job involved not only selling milk, but selling dairy products such as ice cream and cottage cheese, too.
“He had a plum position. They always went to him because he worked hard and he was very dependable. He had all of south Bluefield,” Farmer said.
The impact on the family and Farmer’s plans was immediate.
“It was the worst thing I had ever gone through in my life. I thought everything was over,” he added.
Suddenly, the family didn’t have any income. His mother at first took odd jobs such as sewing and housekeeping, but she eventually found work at a local establishment called the Bel Air Hotel. It had a small dining room offering a light breakfast, and she was asked to manage it.
“She was good, she was a great cook,” Farmer said. “The bowling alley heard about her and talked her into cooking there. It had better pay. Then the Briar Restaurant — it was the restaurant in this whole area — heard about her. She helped make them popular because she knew how to make sourdough bread and she fixed the best beef roast. Some of the more wealthy clientele would take her to their houses to prepare their meals, and that helped with the income.”
Farmer received a $500 scholarship from Bluefield High School — a considerable amount of money in 1965 — but he still was not sure if he could get enough money to attend WVU. He was accepted and soon found himself on campus and standing in line with other first-time students. With each step in that long line, he wondered if his university career would stop before it ever started.
“The closer I got to the registration window, the more scared I became because I was afraid they were going to say you don’t have enough money,” Farmer said. “But it was taken care of. It’s still a mystery and I deal with it in the book. A lot of people think the Leatherwood Company funded my education initially.”
A woman who ran the tower dormitories at WVU was also able to help. In his book, Farmer dubbed the woman, Priscilla Haden, “My WVU Guardian Angel.”
“She kept me in jobs,” he recalled. Sometimes the jobs include tasks such as operating the towers’ game room and branch library; he could study while working. One particular job have him the opportunity to meet a lot of girls; he was assigned as receptionist in the girls’ dormitory. They were not used to hearing a male receptionist at the other end of the telephone.
“But the girls loved my voice,” Farmer reminisced with a smile. “I call it Appalachian English.” The girls would come downstairs to meet the man behind the voice.
This recollection and many others come naturally to Tom Farmer, who added that his memory was similar to “recording film.”
“I can think about it and I can see it. A lot of times I remember what people said, and in that regard, I’ve been very blessed,” he said.
Farmer concluded that he has had the two things that must be accomplished if a person is to have a happy life – someone to love and a decent job.
— Contact at Greg Jordan at