PIONEER John Bush, who was the first African-American teacher in the New Castle Area School District and one of the first two black professors at Westminster College, shares what things were like back then.











BY RENEE GENDREAU ncliving@ncnewsonline.com





In his life and in his work, Dr. John E. Bush sought an open door. Perhaps more importantly, he left it unlocked for those who followed him. A native of Wellsville, Ohio, Bush pursued a career path that took him to the University of Massachusetts with an extended stop in Lawrence County along the way. In the hallways of the former George Washington Junior High School and the classrooms of Westminster College, Bush was a pioneer, a black man teaching where only whites had instructed before.





EARLY EDUCATION Now 79, Bush recalled his earliest venture into teaching, as a 14-year-old Sunday school instructor guided by the superintendent, his father, Charlie, an electrician not admitted into the union because of his race. "I don't really remember thinking I wanted to teach, I just liked what I was doing. I was also inspired by my father, who was a good Christian man, not just religious, but Christian. He lived his life helping others," Bush said. After high school, Bush earned a bachelor's degree in sociology from Delaware State College and joined the Army. Serving during the Korean War, he was assigned to the medical corps, working in hospitals with men returning from battle. Conditions were less than perfect. "The segregation in the service was the most horrible I've ever seen. We were called the 'colored boys?' and separated from the whites," Bush remembered. "I keep saying 'this is madness. We're supposed to be going into this for our country.' "





COMING TO TOWN With his stint in the service complete, Bush arrived in Lawrence County as a graduate student majoring in education at Westminster. In August 1954, he became the first African-American to earn a master's degree from the New Wilmington school. Completing his student teaching at the Mt. Jackson elementary school, Bush lived and worked part time on the Chambers family farm in North Beaver Township, but his passion was education. "I can remember my brother being upset that I had a master's degree and I was doing farm work," Bush recalled. "But (the Chambers') daughters went into education and said that I inspired them. I've always thought that was really beautiful, that a black man could be the inspiration for well-established white folks." NEW CASTLE SCHOOLS Initially turned down for a position in the New Castle school system, Bush continued pursuing a job with the district when a new superintendent came on board. In September 1954, he was offered a temporary position. Bush accepted the proposal of a one-semester job teaching social studies at George Washington that came with the promise of a contract if things worked out. "Initially, I felt bad. Here I was with a bachelor's degree and a master's degree and I wasn't hired because I was a black person," Bush recalled. "Still, with everything I'd seen in the service, I was trying to hang in there, hoping someone would open the door. "At least I was given a chance. It was all I could get, but if I wanted to teach I had to take it. I had to prove my worth." Bush did just that and remained with the district for 11 years. "Generally speaking, everyone was polite and friendly, and I made some good friends there," he recalled. "I've always been the type of person to believe in people. If you're nice to them, they'll be nice to you. People are basically good if you give them a chance. "You never know when a door is going to open," he continued. "And, you never know who you touch in your life." In New Castle, he apparently impressed many. Pauline Pettegrew, whose children had Bush for a teacher, recalled the educator coming to the rescue of her youngest daughter in the "mean girl incident." Bush just happened to be driving by a group of girls who were taunting and beating Pettegrew's daughter. The teacher stopped, scooped up the child and drove her to the safety of a relative's home. "I always had a special affection for him because of that," noted the 93-year-old New Castle resident. "He was an extraordinary person." Dorothy Taylor recalled that Bush's involvement with youth extended beyond the classroom. The New Castle resident met Bush through the Sunday afternoon programs for youngsters he organized. "I'd be making sandwiches for the kids while they were listening to speakers he'd brought in. Lord knows how he found them, I even remember one man from India," said Taylor, who's kept in touch with Bush through the years. "We both worked with the youth in the churches. In the black community, you just met people that way because there aren't that many of us." And, in 1965, there was about to be one less. During his 11th year at George Washington, Bush recalled an administrator telling him he shouldn't be teaching junior high because he demanded too much from his students. "I wasn't sure if that was a compliment or they were telling me to get out." Either way, Bush ended up leaving. "But, there were 12 black teachers when I left, so I guess I opened the gates so to speak." Returning to education as a student, Bush completed a master's degree in sociology at the University of Pittsburgh in 1968. From there, he went on to spend a year on the faculty at Misericordia College in Dallas, Pa. "Those were the (Vietnam) war protest years and I was more liberal than a Catholic girls? school would like," Bush recalled of his short stay.





RETURN TO WESTMINSTER His search for a new position led Bush back to his alma mater. In the fall of 1969, he accepted a position in Westminster College's sociology department. That same semester, Harold Davis also began teaching in the physical education department, making them the first black professors in the college's history. Dr. Clarence Harms of New Wilmington started teaching at Westminster that fall and recalled Bush as a man "very, very much involved in social action" who "marched to his own drummer." A professor of biology emeritus and former chairman of the department, Harms recalled Bush's refusal to wear academic garb to a particular commencement, instead donning a blue suit with a red rose in his lapel. "It was the time of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement and activism," said Harms, who now directs the college's Field Station, an environmental learning center. "Students then were pleasantly more socially active than they are now, and John was always one of the faculty members to whom those students could come." After four years at Westminster, Bush recalled "the axe fell again" when he was called into the dean's office and not offered tenure. "When he left here, I regretted it very much," said Harms, noting his relationship with Bush was more one of a "professional buddy" than close friend. "He added a great deal to Westminster."





MOVING ON Bush's next job search, which would be his last, took him in 1973 to Southeastern Massachusetts University, which later became part of the University of Massachusetts. He completed Pitt's doctoral program in sociology in 1977 and for 23 years Bush "truly had the life of an academic." That life included two Fulbright scholarships to study in Brazil and teach in the Netherlands. "It was a wonderful experience," recalled Bush, who retired in 1996 and returned to the Cleveland area two years later.





RETIREMENT Feeling that he "retired too soon, even though I was beyond retirement age," Bush worked for a period as a volunteer with the Cleveland public schools helping youngsters learn to read. He now concentrates on his own writings in the form of essays and poetry he hopes to publish. "However, I haven't been too religious about it, so consequently they're not published," Bush remarked with a laugh. "I'm reading, writing and trying to organize my archives. I'm at the point in my life where it's time to decide where the best place will be for my books, writings and art collection," continued Bush, who never married. Bush also keeps busy speaking to others about his experiences. Last summer, he returned to New Castle for such a lecture, invited by Bob Presnar, executive director of the Lawrence County Historical Society. "In researching the history of local education, his name kept coming up," Presnar said. One thing Bush emphasizes when he speaks is that the work of the civil rights movement isn't done. "There are still residuals today. Things are better, but sometimes you see that they're not better," he explained. "In Cleveland, where I live, it's nice. But when I go across the highway, into the traditionally black neighborhoods where some of my family lives, you see we still have a way to go."





RETIREMENT Feeling that he "retired too soon, even though I was beyond retirement age," Bush worked for a period as a volunteer with the Cleveland public schools helping youngsters learn to read. He now concentrates on his own writings in the form of essays and poetry he hopes to publish. "However, I haven't been too religious about it, so consequently they're not published," Bush remarked with a laugh. "I'm reading, writing and trying to organize my archives. I'm at the point in my life where it's time to decide where the best place will be for my books, writings and art collection," continued Bush, who never married. Bush also keeps busy speaking to others about his experiences. Last summer, he returned to New Castle for such a lecture, invited by Bob Presnar, executive director of the Lawrence County Historical Society. "In researching the history of local education, his name kept coming up," Presnar said. One thing Bush emphasizes when he speaks is that the work of the civil rights movement isn't done. "There are still residuals today. Things are better, but sometimes you see that they're not better," he explained. "In Cleveland, where I live, it's nice. But when I go across the highway, into the traditionally black neighborhoods where some of my family lives, you see we still have a way to go."

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