- Associated Press - Sunday, September 11, 2016

FRENCH CAMP, Miss. (AP) - He taught the principal, dean of students, school secretary and 11 teachers currently on staff at French Camp Academy.

The baseball field here is named after him. And many moons ago, he helped start the football program and build the field at Nanih Waiya High School in Winston County.

Charles Rich, 81, made his 59 years count as a history teacher and multi-sports coach.

“I don’t remember what I made in his class. I was an average student,” said Jo Ann Kirkpatrick, school secretary at French Camp, where she graduated in 1977. “But his class is one of the few I remember. He made history come alive. He would tell stories, read out of biographies and autobiographies. Sometimes, he would even break into a song.”

“I didn’t keep a lot of my notes after I graduated, but I kept the ones from Coach Rich’s class. I think that says a lot.”

He spent 54 years at French Camp, an interdenominational Christian boarding school located in Choctaw County, about 15 miles west of Ackerman. When the school threw a retirement party for Rich in July, more than 300 people attended, which is nearly twice the population of this town. He left to teach at Copiah-Lincoln Community College but returned after three years.

It didn’t take long into a 78-minute interview for this story to understand why Rich taught so well for so long. His voice grew louder and faster when he discussed his time and methods in the classroom.

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It should be noted that the administration of French Camp Academy remains loyal to Rich and others who have given decades to the school. Rich and his wife, Rose, still live on campus and are provided some meals out of the school cafeteria.

“We like our people to finish well,” was how Principal Rusty McKnight put it.

During an interview, the door popped open, and a man delivered Rich’s hearing aids, which he had left at home.

That man was former principal and head football coach John Cockrell, who now serves as athletic director and driver’s education teacher.

He, too, is 81.

Drawing pictures in your mind

As I spoke with Rich, McKnight sat across from him and helped him understand the questions. At times, McKnight walked over and shouted the questions in his ear.

“I’m one of the oddest people on earth,” Rich said.

He was always hard of hearing. Tests eventually revealed that he was born without the necessary nerves around his ears.

“Where you have nerves, I have bone,” he said.

The problem affected him as an elementary and junior high student in Philadelphia. “I was real introverted and still am,” he said. “But I read a lot, and I loved reading history. It made me want to become a teacher, but I knew that was going to be a challenge.”

After graduating from Philadelphia High in 1953, Rich attended Mississippi State. He met a teacher there who would change his life, though he can’t recall his name.

“He used words to draw pictures in your mind,” Rich said. “I liked that. I really admired him. I knew if I ever became a teacher, that’s how I wanted to do it.”

He transferred to Mississippi College and graduated with a history degree in 1957. He was offered a teaching job at Nanih Waiya.

“Three weeks before the season, the principal called and wanted to meet with me,” he said. “Seems there was talk of merging Nanih Waiya with Louisville because Nanih Waiya only offered one sport - basketball. He asked if I would be interested in coaching the football team if they started one. I told him the truth: I was on my high school team but not big enough to play. But I said I would do it.”

Nanih Waiya didn’t have a field to practice or play games on. Had no equipment, not even a football. And he had one hour to practice every day “because my players were all farm boys with chores. They had to catch the bus home.”

Rich’s Warriors were beaten to a bloody pulp their first two games, at Sturgis and Shuqualak. They showed improvement the third game, a 7-0 loss to Weir. In the fourth game, Rich’s team scored its first touchdown homecoming night against Hickory. The game was played at Noxapater, which loaned Nanih Waiya its field for homecoming. I find that hilarious. It was like the Hatfields sharing a meal with the McCoys before their feud began.

Then came the fifth and final game of the season.

“That’s all we could find because the other schools already had their schedules set,” Rich said.

We are going to hold off on Game 5 for just a bit. But it’s one of Rich’s favorite stories. And that is what he is - a man whose head is filled with stories and an ability to share them in a compelling way.

“It’s how he taught,” McKnight said. “He kept his students engaged with that ability.”

Teach and reach students

In 1959, he learned of an opening at French Camp to teach history.

“I’d heard of every town around it, but had never heard of French Camp,” he said.

He met with school officials for about an hour, shook hands on the position, and that’s how he joined the staff here. “Didn’t even sign a contract,” he said. “I never had a contract here in all my years.”

He taught five classes a day, became the coach of the basketball, baseball and football teams at various times. Baseball was his sport of choice.

“My daddy, who farmed for a living, played Triple A baseball, and he taught me the game,” he said. “To this day, I’ve got floaties in my eyes because of baseball.”

He took off his glasses and stared ahead, I assume to watch a few float past. “That’s what happens when you get hit with a baseball in the head enough times,” he said.

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French Camp is where he learned to teach and reach students. “Whenever we talk to students from years past, one of the things they always ask is ‘How is Coach Rich?’ ” McKnight said.

“Students learn by writing things down,” he said. “So I told them, ‘We will have a textbook, but my notes will be the real textbook. The tests will come from my notes, not the textbook.’

“And every class, I would write the notes on a chalkboard for the students to write down in their notebooks. As they wrote, they learned.”

Said Kirkpatrick: “He would write with one hand and erase (what he had written the previous period) with the other.”

He taught that way in 1959, and he did so last year, his final go-round in the classroom. He still used chalkboards after whiteboards all but replaced them. He refused to enter friendship with a computer, so he wrote down students’ grades in a book. Kirkpatrick would transfer them to a computer.

“My way,” he said, “worked.”

Still laughing

And now to Game 5 of Nanih Waiya’s 1957 football season.

Rich always sized up opponents during pregame warmups. He noticed a giant of a teenager playing left defensive tackle for Edinburg.

“We ran the single wing offense and had one boy who could throw a forward pass. His name was Joe, and I told him, ‘Whatever you do, don’t run play 86.’ That was right at that big ol’ boy.”

With his team trailing 12-6 late in the second quarter, Joe couldn’t help himself. He called ‘86.’ As he ran toward the hole, his blocking back hit the big boy at his ankles.

“He started falling like a tree,” Rich said, his hands making the motion. “Fell right on Joe.”

They hauled him to the sidelines, wrapped mountains of tape around his ribs because that’s where Joe said he was hurting the worst. Rich wanted someone to take Joe to the hospital at halftime. “But he begged me,” Rich said, his voice turning into a strained whisper. “He said, ‘Coach, it’ll be the last time I ever play an organized football game. Please let me stay.’ That hit me right in the heart. So we hauled him out to the bench and laid him down.’ “

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Late in the fourth quarter, Edinburg led by two touchdowns and had the ball on fourth down at the Nanih Waiya 20-yard line. “They lined up in punt formation, but nobody punts from the opponent’s 20,” he said. “So I yelled for a timeout. Suddenly, I felt this tug at my pants leg. It was Joe. ‘Coach, please let me go in. It’ll be my last play. Ever.’ It hit me again. So I told him to go in and stand at the back of the end zone.

“Guess what? They punted it. Right to Joe.”

Joe caught it and blistered the grass down the visitor’s sideline. “Ran right past me,” Rich said. All the way to the end zone.

“When he got there, he collapsed,” he said. “I thought he was dead. It turns out he had three cracked ribs, but he had set a Big Black Conference record for longest punt return. I said, ‘Joe, how could you run so fast?’ He said, ‘Coach, I was scared.’ “

Rich laughed as if he were hearing it for the first time.

As he laughed, he straightened his tie, given to him long ago during a senior trip to New York.

Rich said he had never been a wealthy man, money-wise at least.

“But I can always say I’m rich. Just look at my last name,” he said, still laughing at 81

___

Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, https://www.clarionledger.com

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