Stick together, study and know what's right

April 17, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

PORT DEPOSIT -- It isn't clear exactly why James and Rachel McFadden brought their family to a farm near here in 1920, but it may have had something to do with the water. James and his father were loggers, down in the Virginia mountains near the Kentucky border, and during the First World War they made some good money cutting white-oak logs for railroad ties. Feeling his independence, James wanted to move somewhere, but wasn't sure as to where. He found a farm he liked in Ohio, the story goes, but the water from the spring there tasted so bad he spat it out and went to Cecil County instead.

His decision worked out well for the county, the family and for the country too, as time went on. The McFaddens' story didn't seem an unusual one at all when it was unfolding, but from the perspective of a less-motivated era it's a truly amazing American tale.

In addition to decent water, James and Rachel were concerned about education. Cecil County in those days had a reputation for good schools. There was West Nottingham Academy up in the hills of Colora, and Tome down in Port Deposit. These weren't public schools, but they weren't expensive. Tome, endowed by the logging tycoon Jacob Tome, was free to poor children, and West Nottingham cost only $30 a year.

The McFaddens, who had eloped to Bristol, Tennessee, when Rachel was 16, already had nine children when they moved to Maryland. Three more were born here. There was plenty of work to do on the farm, and not much cash money, especially during the Depression, but all 12 found their way to college and acquired degrees.

Nellie Fay and Millie Mae McFadden graduated from West Nottingham's Class of 1923, which had five members. And from then until 1946, when Don, the youngest McFadden, returned from the Navy after World War II to finish school, there were McFaddens at West Nottingham or Tome.

There was special affection in the family for little brother Don, whom the big kids used to haul around in an old washtub when he was a baby. Don never realized, his brother Jim said the other day, that as the youngest child he was supposed to be a no-account.

Don lied about his age to get into the Navy. Then, knowing it was Navy policy not to let brothers serve on the same ship but wanting to stay with his brother Ray, he conveniently misspelled his name. As Don MacFadden, he served with Ray McFadden on aircraft carriers all through the war. Later he became a professor of biology.

Don died of cancer recently, which shocked as well as saddened his widespread family. ''We're all supposed to live into our 90s,'' said Jim McFadden, who's a vigorous 77. Their father, the former Virginia logger, died the week before his 100th birthday.

Memories to share

The McFaddens, quite a collection representing four generations, gathered at the Hopewell Methodist Church near here last Sunday for a memorial service for Don and a look back at their own family history. A few friends were in attendance as well, many with memories to share.

Ed Baker, the current headmaster of West Nottingham, spoke of the family's ''prideful determination'' and its resolute embrace of education as the foundation of a full and productive life.

Don's brother Earl, a psychiatrist, looked back over the generations at the McFaddens' route from Scotland to Cecil County and beyond. From the windswept Hebrides to Northern Ireland, from Northern Ireland to Nova Scotia, from Nova Scotia down the bad roads to the shadowy Appalachian country where feuding families sniped at one another from out of the mountain laurel.

''It used to be said down there that if you didn't have 20/20 vision and a .30-.30 rifle, you wouldn't have even a 50-50 chance,'' said Earl, one of the three siblings born in Maryland. But his parents knew their children would need more than marksmanship. They'd also need to read and write and think, to understand right and wrong, and to stick together as a family. None of the 12 siblings, incidentally, has been divorced.

''We grew up in a time when minds weren't stolen by TV or radio,'' said Jim McFadden. ''We learned to use the tools which were placed in our hands, and we used them well. It seems to me that when the older generation doesn't place tools in young people's hands, or when young people won't bother to learn to use the tools which are offered to them, we'll have a nation which won't amount to much.''

In other words, families that stick together, take education seriously and pass on basic values from one generation to one another are likely to thrive, as the McFaddens have. As for families that don't, well, that's another all-too-familiar story.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 4/17/97

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