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Remarkable Rutherford Woman: From teaching in a van to leading state's teachers

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Starting as a speech therapist teaching out of a school van, Judy Beasley Whitehill's career in education includes presidency of the TEA and service on the State Board of Education. JOHN BUTWELL / The Murfreesboro Post

Her first job was offering speech therapy to 90 students a week in a van outside Bellwood, Hobgood and Bradley schools. Judy Beasley Whitehill was only the second speech therapist hired by Murfreesboro City Schools in 1973.

Since then, she's been president of the Tennessee Education Association and the first teacher to serve on the State Board of Education. It's what comes of having a passion to teach - and facing adverse conditions to do so.

When Whitehill was observed during her second year in the tiny van, her observer had to sit in the driver's seat since there was no other chair.

Observer 'appalled'

"She was appalled," says Whitehill. "She asked what would happen if there was a severe storm, and I told her hopefully someone would knock on the van and tell me."

The third year the schools brought the speech classes inside, sometimes in the hallway or a closet, but inside, she recalls.

Finally, when Northfield opened, she became the speech teacher there with a room designed for a speech class.

But the school needed an extra kindergarten classroom - and again, Whitehill was bumped to "a closet."

Library becomes classroom

Then when Whitehill was offered a position as school librarian, her library became the scene of another class, since another school was being remodeled and Northfield helped by giving space to students from the other school.

All these things left her with an appreciation of the needs of teachers and students - an appreciation she brought to the TEA. She became a teaching advocate, she says.

"If we value education and students, we need to give them what they need," she adds. "Then they learn that they are valued."

She says that when the TEA asked teachers across the state what they needed to do a good job, they responded, "Computers, training to use them, textbooks and materials." None of those surveyed asked for money, she added.

Lobbies the legislature

She has lobbied - and plans to continue to lobby - the state legislature to get teachers the things they need. And her interest in teaching goes back to her childhood.

"I loved to play school," she says. "I liked to babysit and loved learning vocabulary. I even tried to help a younger cousin learn to say words right."

She was born in Nashville and started to school there, but moved to Murfreesboro back in 1966. Her parents Bridges and Sue Anderson taught her that public schools are the cornerstone of our country because they give opportunity to all children - and she still lives by that precept.

Her dad was a truck driver and her mom ran a small department store called Davis Dress Shop in the Jackson Heights Shopping Center, so Whitehill points out that public schools gave her the chance to be educated and succeed.

Went to Central, MTSU

After Whitehill's family moved here in '66, she attended high school at Central while her younger brother Roger Anderson went to Hobgood Elementary.

Next, she attended MTSU - where she met Dr. Lana Seivers, dean of the College of Education. Seivers encouraged Whitehill to take a speech and hearing class, and one class was all it took -- Whitehill knew speech therapy was where she belonged.

"I loved speech," she says with a happy smile - even when she had to teach it in "the van."

And the rest, as they say, is history. Her initial involvement with TEA led then-Gov. Ned McWhorter to appoint her to a six-year term (1991-'97) on the State Board of Education, where she represented the needs and ideas of teachers statewide.

Elected TEA president

Then in 1997, she went back to TEA as vice president - and in 2002, she became president of the organization. She made it her priority to visit schools across the state.

"I visited 90 counties and 700 schools in the first two years," she says. "I wanted to see what they all were doing - and share it."

She continued as president until 2006 and served as a TEA staff member for three additional years.

Now as a retired teacher, she is an active member of the Rutherford County Retired Teachers Association and served as its president during the 2014-'15 school year. Whitehill also has chaired the Rutherford County Democratic Party.

Her experience brings with it opinions about how the education system should function. She disapproves of vouchers to transfer public school funds to private schools.

"Choice is fine," Whitehill says. "But vouchers don't pay for the actual cost, so it helps the rich but is not enough for a poor family. It's selfish, greedy and wrong. I believe education needs to be fair."

Marries Gibson Guitar chief

Most of her former students will remember her as Mrs. Beasley - but she has married Jim Whitehill, from Vermont, since she retired.

He came to Nashville as president of Gibson Guitars, and later set up his own printing business called Image Builders.

Her son, Thomas Beasley, is a captain in the Air Force in Maryland. Plus, she has a pet border collie named Jamie, who has become her hero.

Jamie can tell when Jim - a diabetic - has seriously low blood sugar. Recently, the dog woke Jim up and was quite upset. When Jim checked his blood sugar, it was dangerously low and he ate some sweets to bring it up.

A special dog

Whitehill says the dog has no special training, but some dogs have that ability - and now Jamie goes everywhere with her master and wears a special therapy dog collar.

She and her husband also enjoy traveling and have been to Australia and New Zealand as well as taking a European river cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest.

This remarkable Rutherford woman has made friends all across the state - and says she will continue to advocate for a better education for Tennessee children.

Writer Connie Esh may be contacted at cewrites@yahoo.com.


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