Mary (seated) decorating a tree with Nashville Elementary students. Fern Howe and then principal Baxter Hamblen help. courtesy photo

Mary McGrayel

Appreciating “The Little Things”

by Bill Weaver

“I’m a foreigner,” laughs Mary McGrayel in her elegant downtown Nashville home. “I came from Knox County and went to school in Vincennes.”

Mary grew up during the Great Depression. “The only thing we bought—I can remember it vividly—were Post Toasties, Grape Nuts, or Shredded Wheat. My brother and I were permitted to choose one of those three. We didn’t even buy sugar. We had beehives and would get the honey. My folks had a couple of farms but of course back then you couldn’t even give produce away.

“One Christmas there was nothing for my parents to give so my mother gave me some beautiful yard goods she had because she hadn’t had time to make a dress—she was a wonderful seamstress. I can still see the material today. It was a tough time. But, my goodness, we ate well and lived in a nice, clean community and there were no chemicals in our food. Maybe that’s why I’m so old,” McGrayel laughs.

After receiving a teaching degree at Indiana University Mary moved to Columbus where she met Chuck Greller. Soon after their marriage Greller went to Europe where he fought at the Battle of the Bulge. Surviving the war Greller died soon after returning home from a heart condition. A month later Mary gave birth to their son Buddy.

It was after marrying Bill McGrayel two years later that she and Buddy moved to Nashville. “My husband’s family has been here since the 1860s when the McGrayel brothers came over from Ireland,” she remembers. “I’ve come to Brown County since I was a little girl because my mother would go to Bloomington to visit a friend of hers and then we would come over to Nashville. I can remember going up Kelley Hill when it was still limestone and gravel in our old Maxwell car. It was quite an event! I guess the love of the hills was just born in me because mother loved it so.”

McGrayel’s first teaching assignment in Brown County was in a one-room schoolhouse located in remote Stony Lonesome. “It was 1950, the spring after my daughter Lucy was born. The teacher there had died quite suddenly and they hired me to finish out the school year. Six grades in one room. The playground consisted of a hill in the back and the kids would bring shovels and slide down that hill in any kind of weather. That was their entertainment. We had outhouses and water was carried in. That was quite an experience but the children were nice and we managed.”

Mary was then hired to teach elementary classes in Nashville. “My first class was in the basement of the old high school building that stood where the Artists Colony Inn is now. Across the way was the other classroom, which was in the coal room. There was a slope where the coal trucks would drive down and empty their coal. Of course when it rained the water came down right through the classroom.

“I’m not making fun,” she says smiling gently. “I’m just explaining circumstances. I taught a total of 33 years, with 10 years in Columbus. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. I loved to teach. I love to see little guys absorb information.”

The school provided its students and teachers with desks and nothing else. “That was it. Any supplies we wanted or needed we had to fend for ourselves. Then along came school consolidation and it was a marvelous thing for us, bringing in federal funds and supporting the system that the county couldn’t afford. So any time any of my friends complains about the system today I say, ‘You need a little perspective. Look back a few years and I can tell you what an improvement we’ve made.’

“We have a fine school system. I say that with a little prejudice but I know so many of the people involved and I hate to hear criticism of it. It’s a tremendous job taking care of children—having to act like a parent, a teacher, and a councilor.”

Mary’s four children live nearby. Lucy, Buddy, and Jim reside in Brown County and Libby is in nearby Bloomington. “They’ve been a joy to me,” Mary says. “It’s been a good life. I am almost 88 and I’m so thankful I live here. I have nice neighbors. Georgia Snider takes me to the beauty shop and gets my groceries and runs errands for me. And then I have a woman who comes in every two weeks to clean. She’s a jewel. My dear neighbor next door brings me flowers and visits and she’s just a delight. Life is good.

“I love Brown County. I really do,” she continues. “I love the hills. To me they’re so peaceful. I’m appreciating all the little things that I was once too busy to notice.”