Meeting Preacher Bill Along
The Road Knowledge
The Humor Of Preacher Fill And Homer And Henry
Continues To Fascinate Children Today
By: Bob Smith - 2007
I guess I'm one of those oddball characters that took three decades to blunder my way through the educational system to high school graduation. Oh, it didn't take me 30 years, only 12. It just seemed like 30. I started attending Neon Grade School in Letcher County in September 1949 and graduated from Lee County High School in May of 1961 with short stops in Perry County at the Upper Broadway Grade School in Hazard and the Klenco Grade School near Cornettsville.
When my occasional trips down memory lane take me back to the school days of my youth, I am inclined to remember most of my teachers as stern taskmasters. However, in all fairness to their memories, I remember any number of those former teachers as individuals dedicated to their profession and armed with the knowledge that a well-rounded student made a better citizen.
In that light, the more enlightened educators attended the school of thought that "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." Teachers with that attitude generally tried to make learning an enjoyable experience for their students. When I was first starting out in school, the teacher taught us to sing those silly little songs that generations of school children have come to enjoy. She often joined in the playground games and helped us learn the rules of those games.
As the years slowly passed, there would be teachers who would teach kids to appreciate the value of art and music in their classes. Even in grade school, we would learn to enjoy the pleasure of sports and physical competition. The teachers who taught me to read did not teach me to love reading. That privilege belonged to my mother. Long before I started school, my mother was teaching me to read the words on the sides of Quaker Oatmeal boxes and magazines and phrases from my comic books.
In those days there were no television sets in the schools and homes, no VCRs, no DVDs, and no computers. Most of us were still trying to learn to play the radio. We had never seen a television set and the smartest teachers would have been hard put to explain what a computer was to their class. They existed only in theory anyway. The teachers of that era sometimes used a projector and a movie film as a teaching aid and a treat for the kids. The teachers generally sent a note home with the kids the day before a movie was scheduled for showing in the classroom. The going rate was ten cents. Yep! If you wanted to watch this upcoming adventure on the silver screen, all you needed was one thin dime, and those dimes weren't always easy to come by. Of course, we didn't get to see Roy Rogers or Gene Autry shoot up the place. The film had to have some redeeming educational value or it never made it into our schools. I think I must have seen Treasure Island 10 or 12 times over the years and was fascinated every time. I'm sure there must have been another film or two, but dadblamed if I can remember what any of them were. On the other hand, I don't think I'll ever forget seeing the sails unfurl as Jim Hawkins, Long John Silver, and the rest of the gang put out to sea to find the treasure. Any thoughts I may have had about growing up to be a pirate were dispelled, however, by an old gentleman who lived in our community. He had a hook for a hand, walked with a limp, and had a funny smell. He had a hooked nose, or Roman nose as some folks called it, and piercing black eyes that seemed to look right through you. He was probably harmless enough, but one would never have convinced the kids in the neighborhood of it.
Preacher Bill Holeman with sidekicks, Homer and Henry. They have been visiting Eastern Kentucky Schools since the 1950s.
All sorts of folks stopped by our schools to visit the kids. Some, like Cowboy Homer Harris, came by with his wonder horse to collect our dimes. When I remember some of his tricks and the way that horse could count, I would swear it was smarter than half the kids in my class. We had magicians and jugglers that showed up, too, and then there were the church folks. The missionaries would stop by from time to time to offer Bible classes in the school. To encourage students to learn Bible verses, they would offer copies of the New Testament and various other incentives.
The faces of most of these folks have faded from my memories, but one of them stands out-Preacher Bill Holeman of Kentucky Mountain Missions. "Preacher Bill" came to this region from California in 1953 and has served as a missionary and ambassador of good will to the public schools of southeastern Kentucky ever since.
Preacher Bill was a little different than the run of the mill fire-and-brimstone missionary we were used to seeing in the schools. His smile stretched from ear to ear and provided a startling contrast to the pinched-faced preachers with the perpetual scowl that was all too familiar. In short, Preacher Bill made the kids laugh while getting his message across. As a result, he had a big advantage over his predecessors-two advantages to be specific-Homer and Henry. You see, Preacher Bill was a ventriloquist and Homer and Henry were his "dummies" or sidekicks. He always came off as the straight man to the wise-cracking duo; however, students learned a lot about character, morals, and the Gospel from these energetic missionaries. Students came to expect humor and reverse psychology from Homer and Henry, while Preacher Bill appeared content to muddle through in his role as referee, mentor, and even parent, and kids loved the show.
Preacher Bill started his Kentucky ministry in Clay County before expanding to Jackson County. There were still numerous one-room schools in this area in the mid-1950s and Preacher Bill probably visited most of them. His donation supported ministry quickly developed into a full-time occupation.
I think I first enjoyed Preacher Bill, Homer, and Henry around 1956 or 1957, and I've been a fan ever since. Theirs was a humor that kept the class rocking with laughter. It also made the kids think about their own lives and their relationship with their peers and their creator.
In the 1950s, driving from county to county was still an adventure in motoring, and Preacher Bill saw it all-bad roads, bad weather, and unreliable transportation, as he sometimes visited as many as four schools a day. Of course, Henry and Homer saw little of the countryside from the inside of their suitcase.
In his spare time, Preacher Bill and his wife, Joyce, were busy rearing a family, starting a church on Jack's Branch, conducting religious services at the county jail, establishing the Christian Youth Center in Clay County, and working with the Youth Haven Bible Camp in Lee County.
Now fifty-some years later, Preacher Bill and Homer and Henry still work with a group called the "Crusaders" visiting various schools in 24 counties. In his late 70s, he works as his health permits and still finds time to attend the Bear Track Bible Church and actively enjoys numerous church activities. Visitors to Bear Track have seen Preacher Bill driving the Youth Haven Bible Camp "train" about the grounds and see him "high fiving" the children before and after church on Sunday morning. His interrelationship with small children is clearly evident to friends and strangers alike and the bond appears to be as strong as it was a half-century ago.
The humor of Preacher Bill and his sidekicks continues to appeal to the small children, and they never fail to elicit a chuckle from those of us who heard them so many years ago.
Over the years, the accumulated adventures of Preacher Bill and Homer and Henry could have filled a book, and recently, he simply turned that idea into a reality by writing and publishing a book called The Dummy in the Middle. Proceeds from the publication are donated to support the Youth Haven Bible Camp. The books can be purchased from any number of retail outlets in Lee, Owsley, Estill, Clay, and Jackson counties. They are also available at the Three Forks Tradition office or can be ordered by sending $10 plus $2.50 shipping and handling to: Preacher Bill, 1033 HWY 399, Beattyville, KY 41311.
Bob Smith, Editor-Publisher of The Three Forks Tradition newspaper, kindly shares a little part of Kentucky's history with our readers each month. He is a native of Fleming-Neon and would appreciate any historical information from that area. He can be reached at: The Three Forks Tradition, P. O. Box 557, Beattyville, KY 41311; 606/464-2888.