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Lessons From the Lawnmower Shop

Mower shop

Myers Mower and Tiller in Fort Smith, Arkansas

A familiar pungent vapor suddenly burned my nostrils. I stopped and raised the hood to see gasoline spattering onto the motor of my riding lawnmower. I quickly shut off the engine and stepped a few feet away to fill my lungs with fresh air, thankful that there was no fire.

I stood motionless, staring at the hot gasoline-covered engine crackling in the sun, waiting for it to cool. When would I find the time to make two trips hauling that mower to and from the repair shop as my grass continued to grow?

Then, I thought about Saturdays from my childhood while watching my dad repair our old riding mower I’d nicknamed “Death-Trap” because of the way its single steel blade threw rocks and limbs from underneath the deck. It’s a wonder I still have all my toes.  

Maybe I should at least make an attempt at repairing this much newer machine. I decided to remove the offending parts, one of which I couldn’t identify.

When I got to the mower shop, I presented the parts to Rick, the expert behind the counter. “I need a fuel filter and this other thing,” I said, thumping my finger against the black plastic casing. He raised his eyebrows at my little display. He was crisp and clean in his dark green company overalls, but it was early in the day.

“Oh, you need a fuel pump.”

“I thought a fuel pump would be bigger.”

Rick bent the connecting hoses to reveal small cracks and said, “I’ll throw in a piece of new hose, too.” He stepped quickly away to retrieve the parts and returned in less than a minute.

I moved to the cash register and said, “My dad could fix anything, but I didn’t get that trait. Do you charge double for repairs gone wrong?”

Rick laughed and said, “My whole family sings beautifully, but I can’t carry a tune. When I was 12 years old, our preacher said something about the joys of singing and my mother elbowed me and said, ‘Not you. You can’t sing.’ She wasn’t trying to be mean, but I got the message.”

I tilted my head, frowned, and said, “You should go ahead and sing anyway.” I didn’t mention to him that I was a musician.

He smiled and said, “Hope the mower repair works. If you get into a bind, just bring it in, and we’ll take care of it.”

While getting in my truck to leave, I felt a tinge of sadness at Rick’s comments about singing. I thought about how different my life might have been if my parents had pointed out things I couldn’t do. Daddy never said I couldn’t fix things or that everything I touched ended up broken even though I showed little evidence of being handy with tools and was sometimes accident prone.

When I got back home, the engine was cool to the touch. After installing the fuel filter and pump and making the hoses match the picture I took with my phone before removing them, I cranked up the mower. I watched the golden gasoline begin flowing through the clear fuel filter housing. Nothing was spewing from that little black fuel pump, and the motor was running normally. I smiled, thinking of how proud Daddy would be.

As I began cutting our tall grass, I thought about how I dreaded those childhood mowing days with my father. Back then, what should have been a two-hour job often took most of the day, because old “Death-Trap” often broke down. Now, I’m thankful for those Saturdays spent watching Daddy repair that riding mower. Both of us were unaware of the lessons being taught. I wonder if he knew how those lessons would be remembered years later at a lawn mower shop, by a much older son who is still in awe of the man whose example he still tries to follow.


ACT Aspire Video Message

Please view the following information from counselors, students, teachers, and principals. Thank you to the AHS Videographers for assistance with the recording and editing of this 4-minute video.

Senate Bill 349 Provides Punishment Rather than Support and Oversight

I don’t normally get political but reading State Senator Alan Clark’s Senate Bill 349 demanded a response, so I wrote the following to two members of the Arkansas Senate Education Committee.

We’ve had a problem in this country with reading for much of my life. “Reading wars” have been fought for years. Finally, we seem to be at a point that there is a good understanding and evidence for what works best in reading instruction. As a state, we’re early in the training and implementation of required “Science of Reading” programs. Alma School District acted early and made significant investments to implement Connections, one of the top science-based reading programs, so my concern here is not so much for Alma as it is for the rest of the state where resources might be lacking. 

Children who happen to be born into poverty have inadequate health care, poor nutrition, and limited exposure to learning experiences when their minds are at crucial developmental stages. Often these children have traumatic experiences and cope with toxic stress that interferes with their ability to receive and process new learning. Children in poverty have much less exposure to conversation, text and learning opportunities than their middle and upper-income peers.

When these Arkansas children of poverty enter our schools, thankfully, they begin to receive state-mandated evidence-based instruction in reading (Science of Reading) that is still early in implementation at this point. Ideally, this instruction will be led by highly trained teachers who receive continued professional development in the Science of Reading.

Republican State Senator Alan Clark of Lonsdale proposes in SB349 that if these children of poverty don’t respond to this good reading instruction in a timely manner, their schools should be penalized by reducing the money available for teacher training and additional personnel. I guess hitting people with a stick when they’re down is a simple solution but it doesn’t meet the minimum requirements for a rational or humane response to a complex problem.

I’m not sure if the reason for Alan Clark’s proposed bill is lack of understanding or meanness. A rational response would be to provide adequate oversight and strong intervention if districts refuse to implement Science of Reading programs, but that would be a complex response to a complex problem, not a popular approach these days.

Jim Warnock, Principal, Alma Intermediate School

February 22 update: After reading Alan Clark’s response to criticisms of his bill and rereading the bill itself, I still agree with everything I wrote above about this bill.

After looking at last year’s ACT Aspire scores for many schools in the state, most schools in poverty have less than 70% of their students scoring Ready or Exceeding in reading. Aspire is beneficial for monitoring the progress of student, but to make a school’s funding dependent on one single assessment is not a sound practice. Taking funding intended to improve teachers away from schools with large numbers of students living in poverty still seems simple-minded and/or mean to me. It’s an example of throwing a simple (and unjust) solution at a complex problem.

Learning From the Children

Scout cymbal011319r

Sometimes teachers come from unlikely places. Sometimes they’re much younger…and smaller!

A good teacher brings new ways of looking at a task. Such is the case with one of my teachers, Scout. In the last couple of years, I’ve learned lessons from this young drummer each Sunday morning before the worship service begins.

I’ve learned from Scout that there is great joy in playing music, regardless of where you are in your development. Scout plays with total abandon! He explores the sounds of drums and cymbals with an enthusiasm that has impacted my playing. Tapping along with Scout on the drums makes me want to play better and continue learning and listening. More important, his playing helps me understand what a wonderful gift it is to create sounds that blend with others…to make music.

When I found this 12-inch splash cymbal at a local pawn shop, I knew it had to be in Scout’s set. I was excited to present this little cymbal to my favorite young drummer.

I’m looking forward to watching the continued growth of this talented young fella and appreciate what he has taught me about playing the drums.

Relationship builder in music and words: Dr. Francis McBeth


I met Dr. Francis McBeth when I was a senior in high school. I made a phone call and set up a time to meet with him in his studio on a college visit day at Ouachita Baptist University. He gave me advice and spoke to me in a way that made me feel comfortable, eliminating the fear I should have felt in the presence of a world-famous composer and musician.

I ended up at Henderson State University, across the street, but continued to watch Dr. McBeth for years, enjoying the privilege of playing some of his compositions in manuscript as he listened and consulted with Wendell O. Evanson, Director of Bands at Henderson. Watching these great musicians’ friendship and professional respect for each other was a lesson in itself.

Well into his 80s, my wife and I saw Dr. McBeth and his wife at a restaurant in Arkadelphia. I introduced myself and Becca and then we enjoyed the same relaxed and friendly conversation I’d had with him years before.

He was not only a world famous musician, composer, and conductor. He was a great teacher! The following story from Dr. McBeth illustrates his influence and how he valued relationships with students.

W. Francis McBeth in 1997:
Some years ago in Knoxville, Tennessee I stepped into the hotel coffee shop following a concert and saw Wynton Marsalis sitting with his high school band director, Peter Dombourian. Because I knew Pete well, I thought it a great opportunity to meet this trumpet virtuoso.

Wynton MarsalisAs I approached the table Wynton Marsalis got up, walked toward me, and called me by name. I was so surprised and asked him if we had met before. He replied that he was in the Louisiana All State Band in Shreveport when I was the guest conductor.

Marsalis proceeded to list the entire program that we had played, piece by piece, and during our visit quoted many things that I had said. It was after this visit that I began to reflect on the seriousness of every comment in front of an ensemble. Here was a world-class performer who remembered what I had said when he was in high school. It brought home to me that anything I say in front of an honor band had better be correct, especially the criticism, because those students will never forget it. That’s a heavy responsibility.

That responsibility to use words carefully with others was something Dr. McBeth took seriously, whether he met you in an honor band or at an Arby’s Restaurant. When I praise a child for good work or give corrective comments, I often think of Dr. McBeth in hopes that my words will honor his legacy as a teacher who spoke with care, knowing that some of our words might influence children’s lives for years to come.

Burdick Rollins Clark Evanson McBeth

Dr. McBeth is pictured here with some of his musician/conductor friends and peers:  L to R: Dr. Jim Buckner, David Rollins, Dr. Bill Clark, Wendell Evanson, Dr. Francis McBeth

Here’s a musical sample: Masque by Dr. Francis McBeth

Alma Intermediate School Newsletter, September 2018

IMG_0175From the Principal…

The most significant learning in my life has often come as a result of discomfort or discontent. As a seventh grade percussionist (drummer), I auditioned for All-Region Band. While listening to some of the other players, I realized just how unprepared I was. I didn’t make All-Region that first year which hurt my pride.

However, my discomfort with the weakness of my performance caused me to practice and seek out players better than me so I could learn from them. I ordered music books and figured out ways to read difficult rhythms from musical notation.

The next year and every year after that, I made All-Region Band and then All-State in high school. Those were great experiences, but if I hadn’t had that early failure and the pain that resulted, I might never have understood the work and new learning required to perform better.

Fast-forward many years, and I’m a school principal in south Arkansas with just a few years of experience. Everyone seemed happy with what we were doing, so I thought things were fine.

Then, I attended the Arkansas Leadership Academy and what would later be called the Principals’ Institute. I was challenged to make big changes in my approach to working with teachers and students. I saw the ineffectiveness of what I had been doing, and it was a painful experience.

That discomfort pushed me to learn better practices as a principal. I’m still trying to improve today, but without that challenging and unpleasant experience, I might have continued for years without making changes to help my teachers and students reach higher levels of performance.

Learning can be a little painful sometimes, but it’s also exciting as we master new skills and knowledge. What both of these challenging learning experiences had in common was that caring and skillful teachers supported me through the process of gaining new skills. It excites me today to see our teachers work with our students in this same way every day as we all continue to grow and learn!

Link to open this month’s newsletter: News Alma Intermediate 0918

Seeing Mother

Family 8rr

My mother turned 87 on Wednesday, August 8th. When I see her, I see the total of who she has been throughout my life.

I see a loving mother, a committed wife to my dad, and a devoted member of her extended family. I’ve seen her strength in the face of tragedy, illness, and loss. Her small frame stood firm through any challenges that came her way.

Elsie Warnock Yocum 1959

The principal and mother’s class at a school built in 1928 and still in use today. Her son would eventually serve as principal at Yocum from 1994-2001 (long after her retirement).

When I look at my mother, I see a teacher with an amazing work-ethic who invested herself in the lives of children throughout her career. I see someone dedicated to her faith and church. She could write thoughtful and beautiful stories. If a community group needed a directory, she’d organize and type it up. If her church needed a play or program, she’d write and direct it. The little lady got stuff done!


Painting by mother’s brother, Reese Kennedy

I see a mother who was patient with my reluctance to read and obsession with drumming and all things music. She gave me space to explore and follow my interests. She was interested in what I was doing but didn’t hover, or try to control the outcome of everything. Ironically, music led me to greater learning in all areas. She seemed to understand that both of her children were unique and would grow healthier if given love, emotional safety, and the freedom to travel their individual paths in life.

Someone recently lamented the fact that I hadn’t been on any long hiking trips lately due to my parents’ health. I said with a laugh, “They let me live through those rebellious teenage years. The least I can do is help out now.” I’m thankful for the times I’ve been able to serve and assist her during physical struggles. I need the chance to give more than she needs the assistance.

When I see mother today, I do see her loss of mobility and declining eyesight, two things that she finds frustrating because they limit her ability to serve and stay connected to others. More importantly, though, I see a person of dignity in the face of physical challenges. Her humor and kind words for others still brighten a room. Her commitment to my dad is still on full display.

I’m thankful for my mother and grateful for the memories and and vibrant personality that weave into the image I see when I’m with her today.

Mother and Daddy 1

Jimmy & Elsie Warnock

Gratitude to a Surgeon, Especially on the Hills


The end of a climb in the Richland Creek Wilderness Area

I mentioned in the preface of my Ozarks trail guide that medical advancements cause me to hike with a thankful heart, literally.

When I was 16, Dr. Henry Rogers, our family doctor, discovered the blood pressure between my arms and lower legs was different during a routine exam. He recommended some tests in Little Rock. The doctor there referred me to Houston for more tests.

I remember with fascination as doctors conducted a catheterization to inspect the valves and chambers of my heart. I was awake and could see the small tube as it moved through my heart.

Denton Cooley 1

The next day, Dr. Denton Cooley and an entourage of interns, whispering in several languages, entered my room. He listened to my heart with his stethoscope, turned to my parents and said, “We’ll fix him up in the morning.” He was pleasant but moved on quickly.

The following morning he corrected the coarctation of my aorta, a routine surgery for him. Without this procedure, my life would probably have been cut short as a young adult.

Following a short time of recovery, I was able to ride my bike, play sports, march in the high school band, and years later, march through the Ozarks and other beautiful locations. I sent Dr. Cooley a thank you note when I completed my first 100-mile bicycle ride in the 1990s.

Recently I was overcome with a sense of gratitude while climbing a hill in the Ozarks. This led me to search for information about Denton Cooley who died at the age of 96 in 2016.  I discovered a couple of videos and his Heart Institute that I will link below.

Denton Cooley 2

Denton Cooley in college

Seeing video clips of Dr. Cooley made it seem like yesterday that he said, “We’ll fix him up in the morning.” He possessed confidence without arrogance, and I learned from the video that he cared greatly about his patients.

He also valued teaching and research, making sure that the Texas Heart Institute maintained a focus on research and teaching young surgeons.

I learned that he played basketball in high school and college. He credited basketball with helping him understand how to lead a team as well as maintain physical endurance for his work. His coach encouraged him to stay at the University of Texas for his full four years of eligibility which resulted in him pursuing medical school instead of another route. As an adult, he played upright bass in a band called The Heartbeats and commented that creativity and imagination were important in his work.

Denton Cooley 3I’m thankful that Dr. Cooley was a part of innovations that made much of what I’ve enjoyed for years possible. Dr. Cooley thought he was in the right place at the right time. I agree!

As an insecure teenager, I was bothered by the 7-inch scar on the left side of my rib cage. Today I’m thankful for that scar and the health that resulted from the skillful minds and hands of medical professionals. I’d like to give a word of thanks to Dr. Henry Rogers, Dr. Denton Cooley, and my current physician, Dr. Ron Schlabach, for helping me stay on the trails!

Texas Heart Institute (THI), founded by world-renowned cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Denton A. Cooley in 1962

Video interview of Dr. Cooley from 1991 – This is one hour in length but filled with many lessons from his life and example.

Seven-minute video showing Dr. Cooley’s life history.

Five-minute video interview of Dr. Cooley three years prior to his death. This included several photos from developments during his working years.

God not allowed in schools?

God in school quote

This meme consisting of a question from a concerned student and God’s alleged reply makes the rounds on social media regularly. In any of its variations, the message conflicts with my understanding of school and God.

Those who espouse this meme are also likely to say that God is omnipotent (able to do anything) and omnipresent (everywhere at the same time). Then it is said that God is not allowed in schools and implied that this is the reason innocent children in some schools experience terrible violence. I also read and hear that “prayer has been taken out of the schools” which is simply not true. 

In public schools, we don’t dictate what individuals should believe or lead students in acts of worship, but everyone within a school has the right to their spiritual and prayer life, or lack thereof.

As a school principal who watches the miraculous work of teachers, I’ve seen evidence of divine work, guidance, and intervention in the lives of children. I’m saddened by statements like this meme that reduce the Creator of all that is known to a little boxy god that can be placed inside some institutions and supposedly removed or banned from others.

Sorry about the sermon…
Jim Warnock 


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