Sgt. York: Hero of World War I...and Education
Alvin C. York was an unlikely war hero. If you’ve seen the 1941 film starring Gary Cooper, you know the basic story. York was a poor farmer from Pall Mall, Tennessee. A trouble-maker in his youth, he found religion in a local Christian church and gave up drinking and fighting. Then along came World War I
. York was drafted, but said that because his beliefs forbade violence, he claimed conscientious-objector
status. In fact, on his draft card, he wrote: “Don’t want to fight.” His company commander, also a devout Christian, argued Bible verses with him and sent him home to think it over. York eventually agreed to fight for the U.S.
In Europe, he took part in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive
, where, on October 8, 1918, he led an attack on a German machine gun nest, killed 25 Germans and almost single-handedly captured 132 enemy soldiers. For this heroic action, York became one of the most decorated U.S. soldiers of the war, receiving the Medal of Honor.
Alvin went home to find himself a hero, but, for the most part, he refused the spotlight. He married his long-time sweetheart Gracie and returned to farming. He turned down celebrity deals, including a run on Vaudeville, but he did agree to have a movie made about himself, and he traveled for some speaking engagements, but his main interest was raising money…not for himself but for a school. Having only received a third-grade education, York wanted the kids in his rural area to have a school of their own to attend. He mortgaged his farm twice and raised enough money to build and staff what would become the Alvin C. York Institute
, which still stands today. Using his own money and money he raised, York bought the school's buses, paid the drivers, bought the gas for the buses and paid the teachers. The Institute's principal, Jason Tompkins, is a graduate of that very school.
Every year, new students at the Institute learn about Sergeant York; not only his military exploits, but how he used his fame to help kids in his community. The school even shows the movie now and then for its students.
This October is the 100th
anniversary of Sgt. York’s heroics in France. It would be a good time for history teachers to use eLibrary's many World War I Research Topic pages to spark classroom discussions on York’s contributions on the battlefield and in the field of education. Also, work in some time to see the 1941 movie, Sergeant York!
In York’s honor, Tennessee established the Sgt. Alvin C. York State Park
. Alvin’s son, Andy, is a retired park ranger who worked at that very site.