Archived Opinion

Get busy living, or get busy dying

Get busy living, or get busy dying

During the 1970s, my dad spent some time in prison. For over three years, he taught GED prep classes at the old Craggy Prison that still stands barricaded on Riverside Drive in Asheville. I’ve always known he taught inmates, but only recently have I become intrigued about this time in his life.

Something about losing my mom at a relatively young age has made me latch onto everything my dad says. Both my mom and dad lived tragically enchanting lives worthy of movie plots. I know bits and pieces of their many stories, but not enough.

I’m a lover of stories, and last August, I lost one of my beloved storytellers.

But I still have one here on earth and I can’t take that for granted. One day my parents’ stories will be the living memory helping my heart beat.

When I think of my childhood years, I recall my dad having an array of friends. From the political leaders of Madison County to top educators of Asheville City Schools to recently-released prisoners, my dad has the ability to see the good in people and be a friend to many, no matter their background or standing.

I remember him telling me he taught night classes to prisoners, but my dad is such a unique man with so many talents, I didn’t find this odd in the least, even when I was a very young girl.

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The other day, I started thinking how cool it was he did this. I mentioned Papa Bill’s time at Craggy Prison to my little boys, and they wanted to see the old relic.

So, the next time we were in Asheville, I drove over to Riverside Drive, pulled up partway on the entrance hill and showed them the foreboding building. I could sense the ghosts but in true kid-like fashion, they weren’t scared as much as awestruck.

A lot of questions ensued and at that moment, I realized I didn’t know enough of this story.

At dinner the other night, I asked my dad to tell me about it.

In the early 1970s, he was hired by AB-Tech to teach GED prep classes to inmates. Every Tuesday and Thursday at 6 p.m., he entered Craggy to be searched and processed before starting class at 6:30 pm. His students earned a spot in his class and once they finished, they could take the GED. Most passed, many with outstanding scores.

My dad said they had to take their test with an armed guard standing directly over them.

When and if they were released, having earned their GED significantly improved their chances of finding a job. Some weren’t concerned about passing the GED. Some took my dad’s class to learn to read.

My dad developed strong relationships with many of these men. He told me of one large, burly Native American man with the name Walkingstick. For reference, my dad is exactly the size of Barney Fife, so the two of them made an unlikely pair, but they had a mutual respect and concern for one another. Walkingstick was one of a number of gentleman my dad talked about.

There’s a quote in education that states, “Your students don’t care what you know until they know you care.”

These men knew first and foremost my dad cared, so they listened. They listened, they learned and they achieved.

During my dad’s time at Craggy, he established a prison library in a mobile building on the premises. He let the community know about the library and books were donated from all types of people and establishments. When I listen to his stories I can’t help but think of Tim Robbins in “Shawshank Redemption” doing the same things, although he was a prisoner himself.

Ironically, a friend recently sent me a clip from “Shawshank Redemption.” My friend and I had just had a conversation about perseverance. It’s the scene where Robbins finally gets word and a check from the state allowing him to expand the prison library. Robbins wrote a letter of request every week for six years until he was finally approved.

With all this prison talk, I decided to watch the movie in its entirety. It was the first time I’d watched it since high school and man, it’s a good movie.

In it, Robbins’ character famously says, “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living, or get busy dying.”

When my dad talks about his time at the prison, his face lights up. I can tell it was a life honor to make a difference in the lives of many broken men. My dad dodged being a broken man himself so his compassion for the inmates was raw and knowing.

I told my dad I want to go on a long road trip in his RV with a pen and notepad in my hand. His only two tasks are to drive and talk. There are so many stories in that mind of his. I want them out in the universe.

Despite a life of hardships and heartaches, my dad’s never been busy dying. In fact, he’s been very busy living. It’s my goal to do the same and to ensure his life’s adventures are always remembered.

(Susanna Barbee lives in Haywood County. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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