Veterans Remembered column: World War II vet molded Heath Springs Class of ’64

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Guest columnist Charles Ussery is vice president of the Heath Springs Veterans Monument Committee.

Veterans Remembered is the sixth in a series written in support of the Veterans Monument being built for the veterans of Lancaster County in hopes it will stimulate readers to remember those veterans who touched their lives and provide support of the Veterans Monument project.
I have always contended that I never had a bad school teacher. Some teachers were just better than others. In my small world of the 1950s, there was a comfortable order to life at Heath Springs School. I liked school and respected my teachers. It was a good time in my life – a time that would cause my small world to grow just a little more each day.
But there was a new order at Heath Springs Elementary in 1957 as I entered the sixth grade. The name of the new order was Joseph Elbert Gregory. He was the new principal, girls’ basketball coach at the high school and assistant football coach.
He was a graduate of The Citadel, where he played football. Our class estimated Mr. Gregory to be 36 years old. He was a World War II veteran, who had served 14 months in the Pacific theater as a Marine.
As a class, we had no experience handling a Marine Corps veteran. He was not impressed by any of our show and tell. We were going to have to conform and perform.
Everything about Mr. Gregory was military, except his speech. He spoke softly, but firmly, was always in control of his emotions and provided just a little encouragement.
The school janitor never had to clean our classroom. Mr. Gregory organized the seven rows of eight students per row to clean every inch of our room and empty the trash daily. Each Friday, we cleaned the upstairs hallway. Daily cleaning took only five minutes and Friday cleaning took 10 minutes.
There was competition between each row of students in our class for neatness and cleanliness and we were graded each Friday, with winners being rewarded with a week’s worth of privileges.
We had standing orders in our classroom and orders of the day. One of the standing orders was no talking after the first period bell. If talking continued, Mr. Gregory would stand and slowly rake his fingernails across the blackboard. Faces twisted, heads went to their desk, and some of the girls claimed the sound made their hair frizz.
Mr. Gregory interacted with our class in all of our activities. He acquired sports equipment for our class that was kept in our room. He escorted us to the athletic field and organized team play. He often participated to ensure the games were balanced. He would take the third strike for the girls if we were playing softball.
Mr. Gregory commanded respect wherever he was on the school campus. His dress was immaculate and the girls found him easy to look at.
In those two years with Mr. Gregory, the Class of 1964 bonded and matured with newfound respect for each other and for our school. We were influenced as we developed as adults to be good citizens and that we must be responsible for our actions.
In 2004, Mr. Gregory honored the Class of ’64 by attending our 40th class reunion. His dress was as sharp as ever and his speech was soft, but firm as he told us how proud he was to have been a part of the Class of ’64.
Mr. Gregory provided that positive influence wherever he taught school until his retirement.
What started in elementary school in 1957 became a lifelong friendship and today we remember Joseph Elbert Gregory for the service to his country and for the students he influenced during his teaching career.
In September 2010, Mr. Gregory’s wife and children honored him by registering his name on the Heath Springs Veterans Monument.