This small town provided a host of heroes

Greg Oliver - Contributing columnist

Editor’s Note: The writer has recently relocated back to Wilmington, and shares special memories.

My graduation date from the University of Tennessee was June 8, 1973, but by that time, I had already landed by first job in education.

A professor at Tennessee brought me in to his office in May of that year and told me that Great Oaks Joint Vocational School District in Cincinnati was doing some state-of-the-art high school programming in Southwest Ohio. The Laurel Oaks campus here in Wilmington was just about to complete their first year and Great Oaks was launching three new campuses the next fall, all in the Cincinnati area (Sharonville, Dent and Milford).

I reached out and was offered the opportunity to interview for a Business Education teaching position at my choice of campuses.

The personnel director was attracted to my resume, and when I arrived at district headquarters in Sharonville, he inquired as to what exactly was a “nutrient dispersal engineer.” I went on to say that while finishing my bachelor’s degree, I had a wife and two small children; therefore, I worked on the Agricultural campus at the UT Dairy, and was happy to be a delivery milk man for three years in addition to carrying a full academic load.

He found humor (or pity) and offered me a teaching position on the spot. He said that I could chose a campus in the Cincy area, or I could venture up to Wilmington to look at Laurel Oaks. He drew me a map (no GPS at that time) and I headed for the car — with hesitancy about the gas money situation.

As I was leaving, he appeared at the car, and asked if I was comfortable delivering the payroll to the director, Mr. Exley Wical. I guess I looked trustworthy! It was a different era — real checks!

The interview with Mr. Wical went well; not much in Wilmington at that time — small-town America, and not even a McDonald’s, etc. — but the chamber sent materials to us and made us feel welcome.

I remember great folks like John and Esther Janes who made wonderful donuts in the plaza and gave away dozens to deserving families and young couples with kids.

Cassano’s was capturing the market on pizza, but the clincher for me was the soft-serve chocolate ice cream at Vans Dairy bar (think Dominos next to Swindler’s).

I called home from a phone booth (it was pouring rain) to consult and to see if we mutually agreed that Wilmington might be a magical place to work and to raise children. We accepted the offer from Laurel, and never looked back.

This would be our new hometown! I would return to sign the contract ($ 7,300) with Mr. Wical, and he was more concerned about finding housing for this couple with two little ones.

Exley and his wife Annieowned some rentals and quickly hooked us up in a small flat on Norman Street — $100 per month, and it was only May, but he held the unit until August when school started.

Exley Wical was my hero #1 — a terrific, caring human being. He would share with me later that he probably got the job as director at Laurel Oaks because of his familiarity with the air base; he knew it from his military days, and had all the keys for the 35-plus buildings on the five miles of streets that the Clinton County air base deeded over to the city in 1971.

What vision and great planning: Look what we have today! Great Oaks was, and still is, a pioneer in vocational skill training for high school students.

Not long after arriving, I was invited out for breakfast at Charlie Campbell’s Breakfast Club (Streber’s Mortgage location). Oh, my… Charlie was the host, and his wife, Mary, worked with the kitchen staff and waitresses.

What a great pair they were. Great coffee, food and wonderful conversations that I soaked in … I quickly became a regular, usually at the 6 a.m. shift, but on weekends and other times, I joined the 7 a.m. or 8 a.m. table of “storytellers.”

Folks, this was a group of community giants, many now gone, but certainly not forgotten — some still getting coffee other places — these were all heroes to this young educator. I listened intently each day, and without them knowing it, each would provide clarity and direction.

As I reflect, they were mentors and heroes!

So … forgive me if I miss some … Here are some of my male heroes: Harry Myers, Harold Losey, Myron Hale, George Rice, David Adair, Darrell French, David Bailey, Howard Hiatt, Howard Sewell, Clarence Graham, Ted Van Dervort, Dan Buckley, Dr. Foster Boyd, Dr. Nathan Hale, Larry Bacon, Herschel Bolton, Gravy Williams, Bob Warren, Jim Cook, George Bush, Ron Carey, Don Rauch, Rodger Borror, John M. Smith, Pat Smith, J. Stephen Smith, Bob Germann, Roger Bennett, and many more.

What a collection of great community leaders! The impact these “all-stars” have had on my life is truly immeasurable.

By the way, the community has lots of female (past and present) leaders who influenced as well. The gentlemen listed were part of that “good old boys’ network” who loved their coffee and enjoyed the pleasure of spirited discussion. Boy, could they spin tales! I miss those days, but I cherish the mentoring.

I hope that you each have a hero! If so, listen to them very carefully.

Wilmington, through terrific and tough times, is a special place to call home. I am blessed to be back, for sure!

Get involved. I plan to try to contribute, and maybe spin tales!

Happy New Year!

Greg Oliver served as teacher and administrator on the Laurel Oaks campus from 1973-1985, principal at East Clinton High School 1985-1989, and still works in education as Specialist of Alliances and Partnerships with Pearson Education, with a remote office in Wilmington.

Greg Oliver

Contributing columnist