John L. Finafrock - 1871-1941 Educator for Forty-six Years in Franklin County, Historian, and Gentleman in the True Sense of the Word

By Joan C. McCulloh

         In my home, as I am certain in many, many others, the name of Mr. Finafrock was held in great respect and high esteem. When my mother, Helen Garland, who had graduated from Mercersburg High School in 1924, began at age nineteen her teaching career at Locust Level after one summer at Shippensburg Normal School, John L. Finafrock was the county superintendent of schools. Like many other rural school teachers she walked to and from school - in her case two miles by road and by fields to school and the same two miles from school - from her family farm south of Welsh Run. Two years later - by now she was Helen Garland McCulloh - Mr. Finafrock asked her to come to his home on North Main Street in Mercersburg to consider another teaching assignment. He asked her to teach at the Shimpstown School. Since it had been a difficult school to teach, Mr. Finafrock thought that perhaps the school that had never had a woman teacher needed a woman teacher. He told her that she had to do three things: be able to do eighth grade arithmetic, keep order, and keep fire in the stove. He told her not to worry if she did not teach anything until October; she needed to get the school into order. A great encourager, he understood people, therefore, knew about classroom management, and was sensitive to the fact that the personality of the teacher set the tone of the one-room or two room schools She accepted the challenge, went there, loved it, and stayed there until I came into the world. Mr. Finafrock had great understanding and appreciation of the rural schools, the teachers in those schools, and the students in those schools.

          He understood the relationship of the rural school and its teacher to the community. He understood that the rural school teacher ran his or her own little world, that he or she was administrator, instructor - each teacher was his or her own little Socrates - nurse, counselor, psychologist, janitor, playground supervisor, and lunchroom supervisor and sometimes provider of food, who each day had to make certain that the school had drinking water from a nearby house or farm.

          His understanding and appreciation of the rural schools grew out of his own experience. John Leslie Finafrock was born to George and Leah Bermont Finafrock on December 16, 1871, on their farm on the Appleway south of Edenville in St. Thomas Township. Before the age of five he began school at the Mt. Rock School in St. Thomas Township. When he was eight, his family that included a sister, Mary Elizabeth, born in 1874, moved to a farm in Hamilton Township, and there he attended the Washington School. When he was thirteen, his father died, and his mother stayed on the farm. In the summer John worked on his family’s farm and on that of a neighbor. Two years after his father’s death Mrs. Finafrock and her two children moved back to St. Thomas Township. There John went to the Bratten School and one summer attended a thirteen week session at the St. Thomas Normal School. After that one summer session he, aged seventeen, began his teaching career at the Portico School in Hamilton Township. To get to that school he walked five miles and that many miles back home again. He then began to teach in St. Thomas Township, became principal of the St. Thomas Schools, continued his education each summer in the St. Thomas Normal School, and beginning in 1895 taught English, algebra, arithmetic, and classroom management in the summer Normal School there, and also earned his certification. After having taught seven years in St. Thomas Township, in July 1896 he was appointed to teach in Mercersburg and at that time became principal of the schools in Mercersburg until 1905.

          In 1905 an unfortunate event occurred - unfortunate for both John Finafrock and another young man. For some reason, possibly political as John Finafrock was a Democrat in a Republican community, in the spring of that year the school board dismissed John Finafrock as principal but retained him as a teacher without any assertion or evidence that he had done anything wrong and elected as principal a young man who had just graduated as valedictorian of his class at Shippensburg Normal School and who had relatives in Mercersburg. In June 1905 a mass meeting attended by men, women, and children was held in Town Hall to protest this dismissal and this election. The group formed itself into a committee with H.W. Byron as chair and John Z. Faust as assistant chair and appointed a committee to draw up a resolution expressing the townspeople’s displeasure. The chair of the resolutions committee was Dr. James G. Rose, pastor of the Presbyterian Church, with Dr. J. M. Kuhn, John Steiger, Harry Krebs, and William McKinstry as members. The resolution that the group approved that evening and that all agreed should not be published in the newspaper until after it had been taken to the school board stated that the young man who had been hired was too young and inexperienced. A committee consisting of Dr. D. F. Unger, H. W. Byron, Seth Dickey, John Steiger, D. W. Faust, and John Z. Faust took its resolution to the school board but to no avail. When the committee took the resolution to the school board, the school board contended that it was not conducting a business meeting that evening but a social meeting. This meeting between the school board and the committee was contentious. The headline in the Journal reporting this occasion was “Hot Words in a Hot Place on a Hot Night.” The school board itself seems to have been in turmoil as the Journal in early spring before the general election urged both the local Town Council and the school board to behave better. The Journal stated that the council and the school board “have not been such as to reflect the highest credit upon those bodies as a whole nor such as tend to the best interests of the community.”

          The committee, however, was accurate in its assessment. This new principal, who allegedly could not keep order, lasted only one year. With all of the controversy surrounding his appointment and the ensuing publicity he probably never had a chance to become successful. Later, however, he had an outstanding career in his chosen field. During this year every evidence indicates that John Finafrock, who sued the secretary of the school board for libel, conducted himself with dignity.

          In the spring of 1906 the school board, which now after the general election in April included new members, in order to terminate the employment of the unsuccessful principal passed a resolution saying that the unsuccessful principal had been hired illegally as he “did not have the necessary credentials” and then at the same meeting unanimously elected John Finafrock again to become principal this time at a salary of $70 a month. Sadie Parker, who earned $45 a month, was assistant principal, and the teachers, all of whom earned $35 a month, were Alice Bush, Ada Selser, Maude Long, Elizabeth Grove, Hannah Foster, Sophia Unger, Lula Keller, and Myrtle Steiger, who taught what was termed the colored school. John L. Finafrock remained successfully in that position until 1915. While serving the schools in Mercersburg for nineteen years, during the summers he continued his education with one summer at Cornell University and another at the University of Pennsylvania.

          In 1901 after the death of his mother in that year he moved to Mercersburg and in 1903 married Mary Fallon, a local young woman., whose grandfather, Michael Fallon, had immigrated to this country from the northern part of Ireland. The Finafrocks’ home was the stone house on the west side of North Main Street.

          During these early years Mr. Finafrock developed an abiding love of local history, especially that of the Colonial period. An immensely patient man who was a good listener and patient researcher, he began a prolific writing career with articles that are carefully researched and beautifully written. For anyone who has any affinity for local history his articles are a joy to read.

          In 1915 he was appointed to become the assistant county superintendent of schools in Franklin County, and during that time for a spring term he taught arithmetic and classroom management at Shippensburg Normal School.

          In 1922 he was elected with a vote of seventy to his opponent’s vote of seventeen to become the county superintendent of schools at a salary of $2,500 a year and was elected without opposition to that post in 1926 and again in 1930 and retired on his own volition in 1934, having served as assistant county superintendent and county superintendent for nineteen years. At the time of his election to become county superintendent in 1922 the Franklin Repository, a Chambersburg newspaper, reported the following: “Mr. Finafrock left Chambersburg for his home in Mercersburg. When he arrived on the outskirts of the town, he was met by a large crowd consisting of school directors, school teachers, and the entire body of school children of Mercersburg. With the new head of the county schools leading the procession, it moved to the public square in Mercersburg where the newly elected official was asked to address the crowd.” The Independent, the Mercersburg newspaper, in its April 14. 1922, issue stated: “All the children of the Mercersburg Public Schools who were in attendance Tuesday afternoon together with their teachers and members of the School Board celebrated the election of Mr. J. L. Finafrock by parading through the main street of the town.” Someone had the foresight to alert H. L. Lenherr, the local photographer, who had a studio adjacent to the Methodist Church on East Seminary Street, about this parade so that he would take pictures. The Independent noted that he immediately after the parade took the negatives to his studio and created lantern slides which were shown on the screen in the Star Theater that evening. The newspaper noted further that this was the first time that the process from camera to screen had occurred on one day in Mercersburg. A picture of the parade appeared in the Independent in the following week. During the time of his being superintendent he retained his interest in the schools of Mercersburg and in June 1922 organized the Mercersburg High School Alumni Association in a meeting in the Star Theater in which “he explained the needs and benefits of such an organization.” In 1923 he was also influential in the formation of a parent-teacher organization in Mercersburg and, according to The Jester, a student publication, “This address given by one so highly interested in the educational welfare of Mercersburg gave the added interest needed.”

           It was, of course, during these years from 1915 to 1934 that Mr. Finafrock visited the rural schools, encouraged and helped the teachers, listened to the students’ lessons, and consequently learned to know the community served by each school. In Elise Cook’s essay about a day at Center School in Warren Township Mrs. Cook mentioned Mr. Finafrock’s coming to school and listening to the music of the students. He also upon occasion visited the consolidated schools and heard lessons there.

          It was also during these years when the Franklin County School Annual was published each autumn that Mr. Finafrock made certain that articles of local history were included, many written by him without his name attached, a few written by him with his name attached, and some written by others. In the Introduction to the Franklin County School Annual published in 1922, the year of his election as county superintendent, Mr. Finafrock wrote about the historical articles to be included: “Whatever faults of composition these articles may have they contain material for the good teachers who wish to have the boys and girls of our county learn of the life and times of the pioneers.” Over the years he repeated this message. In another Introduction to a Franklin County School Annual Mr. Finafrock noted that the volumes contained historical material and that the teachers should feel free to share it with their students, In the Introduction to the school annual in 1927 Mr. Finafrock stated: “Teachers can make this material of value to their pupils in the study of the history of Franklin County and of the country about it and of the relation of that history to the history of the nation.”

          It was also, of course, during his Mercersburg years that he had a little friend whose family lived next door to him and Mrs. Fallon. That friend was Henry Steiger. Henry wrote: “I remember the neighbors on the north side - John L. Finafrock and his wife Mary Fallon Finafrock. They had no children and subsequently I spent many hours in preschool years with Johnny and Mamie Finafrock. One incident that I recall happened after a winter snowfall. Johnny was clearing the garden walk and making the snow fly. As I looked longingly out the kitchen window, he waved and threw some snow in the air to my delight. I went to Mother’s flour bin in the kitchen work table and proceeded to make snow fly in the kitchen. That happened only once.” Henry also remembered the many car rides he took with the Finafrocks. He noted that on one of these rides Mr. Finafrock ran out of gas. When Mr. Finafrock walked back to a store - I believe in Cove Gap - Henry wanted to go along and once there wanted something. Therefore, Mr. Finafrock bought him a chocolate bar. On their return to the car as Henry became tired of walking, Mr. Finafrock carried him on his shoulder. During that time Henry enjoyed his chocolate bar and got chocolate over the back of Mr. Finafrock’s white hair. Henry also remembered that Mr. Finafrock loved to grow flowers and especially liked gladiolas. Henry was impressed with Mr. Finafrock’s gardening and determined to plant something so he planted seed corn. He had such a good crop that his picture holding ears of corn was published in the Mercersburg Journal. When Henry entered first grade, Mr. Finafrock reminded him that in school he was Mr. Finafrock.

          In addition to his working for education and his writing articles of local history he accepted responsibilities in the community. During World War I he was the Educational Chair of the War Savings Stamps program in Pennsylvania. A member of the Trinity Reformed Church, he served that church as an elder and taught the women’s Bible Class. He was a member of the Board of Trustees of Shippensburg State College and served on the Board of Regents of Mercersburg Academy from 1930 until his death. Always interested in the welfare of children, he was a director of the Children’s Aid Society. With his interest in history he became a member of the Kittochtinny Historical Society in 1913 and was president of that organization from 1925 until his death and in 1929 was elected president of the Enoch Brown Association. He was elected president of the Southern District of the Pennsylvania State Education Association. His legacy in serving in these organizations was well-attested by those who knew him.

          His legacy in his writing is well attested to by those of us who read his articles in Old Mercersburg, the Franklin County School Annuals, and the Kittochtinny Historical Society papers. In Old Mercersburg, published in 1912 by the Women’s Club, he wrote about Robert McClellan, the Indian Scout, James Buchanan, and the Reverend Edward Buchanan. In his work he covered a wide range of subjects. The titles of those that the Kittochtinny Historical Society published in 1942 in book, Notes on Franklin County History, a compilation of articles written by and presented to the Society by Mr. Finafrock, are as follows: “Early Settlers,” “Inter-Colonial Wars,” “The French and Indian War,” “Pontiac’s War,” “Chambersburg - 1764,” “Revolutionary War,” “The County Established,” “Whiskey Rebellion,” “Frontier Forts in Franklin County,” and “Birth of Industries.” And there are many others.

          After having suffered two strokes and being ill for four months, he died at age sixty-nine on March 15, 1941 During his sixty-nine years he had served formal education for forty-six years and informal education for many more. The Reverend James W. Moyer, pastor of the Trinity Reformed Church, assisted by the Reverend James G. Rose, and the Reverend J. D. Edmiston Turner of the Presbyterian Church, officiated at the funeral service in the Trinity Church with interment in Fairview Cemetery.

          Many tributes followed. Dr. Boyd Edwards, headmaster of Mercersburg Academy, wrote the following: “The village of Mercersburg, the schools of Franklin County and the churches of the district and Synod, suffered a true loss from the death of John L. Finafrock….Mr. Finafrock was a man of extraordinary information - accurate, wide-ranging and significant.” Dr. Joel T. Boone, President of the Mercersburg Academy Alumni Association, wrote as follows: “His long and extensive years associated with education as teacher, director, trustee, and advisor fitted him admirably for the serious and responsible obligations of Regent of our Alma Mater. His studious and meditative habits expressed in literary accomplishments gave him an unusual insight into the psychological problems of youth.” Dr. Raymond G. Mowery, County Superintendent of Schools, and formerly Mr. Finafrock’s assistant in that post, stated: “After an intimate association with John L. Finafrock for twenty years, twelve years of which were spent as his assistant in the County Office of Superintendent, I can truthfully say that I have never known a man more human, more understanding, or more charitable in his evaluation of his fellow man. I never heard him speak unkindly of anyone.” Dr. Albert Rowland, President of Shippensburg State Teachers College, wrote the following: “His rich professional experience, his wise counsel and his gentle spirit were powerful factors in sustaining the atmosphere of harmony which consistently prevailed between the Board and the administration of the college.” For the Mercersburg Journal Bryan Barker wrote a long appreciation, in which he stated: “Never did I leave his presence without feeling better for having talked with him. - for the ideas he held - often different from mine - and the things he wanted to see done for the greater happiness of man.” An editorial in the Public Opinion stated: “A GENTLEMAN PASSES. The life and career of John L. Finafrock, retired superintendent of Franklin County schools, who died Saturday in Mercersburg, followed the familiar American pattern after which many useful lives have been fashioned Born on a farm in St. Thomas Township, Mr. Finafrock grew to manhood in an atmosphere of simplicity, industry, and thrift. First as a pupil in rural schools and later as a teacher who walked ten miles each day to and from classes, he learned the problems of the farm boy and noted the then disparity between his opportunities and those of his urban brother. These early lessons and experiences stood him in good stead when he was elected to administer the affairs of the county schools. His sound academic training, leavened by sympathy and understanding, made his administration a enlightened and progressive one.”

          Perhaps the greatest accolades, however, came from school teachers, especially those who, like my mother, taught in the rural schools, who knew deeply in their hearts that John L. Finafrock, who had been a great encourager to them, understood the ramifications of teaching and cared about their schools and them and their students. All of her life when discussions about classroom management arose, my mother stated simply but unequivocally about the topic being discussed: “Mr. Finafrock said.” And that was that.


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