Harry B. Riffle is one of my heroes.
I met him in about 1980. He was, I think, 79, still sharp and spry, a lover of golf, gardening, and upland bird hunting in his retirement. His years had definitely steeped him in the life of Fayette County in Western Pennsylvania along the Monongahela River, 50-some miles south of Pittsburgh along the West Virginia Border.
Fayette County is huge, about 44,800 square miles. It is at the eastern end of the Allegheny Plateau. Parts of it roll. Parts are mountainous, with ridges over 2,000 feet. The county is rich in history: George Washington did sleep there any number of times on trips to the western wilderness and during the French and Indian War.
By 1980, when I moved to New Geneva, a tiny village in southwestern Fayette County, most of the coalmines were played out, with all of the inherited environmental and social problems that are the legacy of mining. They were all part of the area’s storied past and troubled present. Harry, and his wife, Becky (Hiawatha Beck Riffle), lived down the hill in a 1770s Georgian stone house where she was born, on the main highway along the river.
As an up-and-coming educator in a changing rural county, Harry probably saw it all. Born in 1902, he entered teaching during the 1920s, weathered the Depression and World War II, moved up through the ranks, and was elected county school superintendent in 1958. Harry was a dedicated educator, away from home a lot. Becky didn’t seem to mind, joking that it probably saved their marriage .
Harry had learned from life. As a young teacher during the Depression, he saw hungry children and decimated families. “We had nothing to help us until the New Deal came along,” he would forcefully remind me when we talked.
The sense of injustice still smoldered in his voice and eyes half a century later. One of my favorite expressions of Harry’s was, “Now you tell me why (fill in the blank) is/was like that.” To his dying day in 1989, Harry remained an unabashed New Dealer, confident in the power of government and schools to do good and in favor of high taxes for the common good. This was refreshing at a time when government bashing was fashionable.
As superintendent, Harry faced an unpopular task. Fayette County was first in Pennsylvania to consolidate, merging 40 school districts into six. He was acting in accordance with what the Beaver County Times of February 5, 1962, called a controversial new law intended to reduce the number of school districts in the state from 2,300 to 600.
The law, passed in 1961, was opposed by the Pennsylvania State School Directors Association (that is, local school boards), as well as the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors. These groups represented local government.
State education leaders praised Fayette County for taking the lead in consolidation, according to the Times: “Not only did those in positions of leadership acquaint themselves with provisions of the act, but they carried the message to all 40 school boards, community organizations and to the people of Fayette County.”
Harry’s explanation in the paper was straightforward. The old system “represents at best a confused mixture of administration.” The short quote did not capture what I learned to cherish about him: his quest for quality education for children shaped his life’s work.
I knew little about rural education then, but as a budding community developer, Harry’s narrative about closing schools in 40 small districts left me queasy.
Even then, I had some sense that schools belong in communities. But Harry, like so many other educators of his generation, believed in consolidation.
His goal — and believe me, he was passionate about it years later — was to get rid of schools that were in poor condition and replace them with new schools. He wanted the best facilities for children that he could get with the money the state was offering. The schools were placed strategically to minimize bus travel times in the huge, mountainous county.
Consolidation was the solution that Pennsylvania’s General Assembly demanded, based on the belief that bigger schools were more efficient and could offer more classes and a better education for the Commonwealth’s children. As an elected official, Harry was bound to work with the new law, doing what it let him do for the betterment of schools.
From what Harry told me, a lot of people opposed consolidation and were still angry with him years later. Now I understand why.
Consolidation took something important from their communities, even if the new schools were so much better. Losing a community anchor was hard, given that the county and many of its villages and townships already were in the throes of decline.So, if my disagreement with consolidation has grown over the years, why is Harry Riffle one of my heroes? For better or for worse, he carried out the wishes of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly. He was courageous in the face of opposition. Most importantly, he was passionate about good schools and children. Professionally, he believed he was doing the right thing.
Harry believed in social justice and worked to bring it to the children of a poor county. He recognized that schools could not do everything to help the poor, but they had a responsibility to do what they could, and to do that, they needed the best facilities and teachers possible.
Harry taught me that we need to do the best we can in the times we live in and that we need to live out values of simple human decency.
Were he alive today, I would ask him a pointed question: “If the state had allowed it, would you have supported the smaller districts to bring their facilities up to snuff?” I think he might have answered yes, if he could have bern sure that it would achieve quality education for children.
We no longer live in the 1960s. Rural life has changed radically. Yet rural schools face continuing pressures to consolidate. It’s a solution that has been problematic and less tenable with the passing years. What may have worked then does not fit today’s conditions. It should be a last resort, not the only option.
Timothy Collins is assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.