A heartfelt gathering to honor Spann Cordle has set in motion a series of positive events connecting three Chattoogans to the legacy of the late Rev. Howard Finster, long known as one of the two greatest American folk artists, rivaled only by Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses. The revised second edition of John Turner’s book, “God’s Junkman” now includes his former students, national disability spokesman Spann Cordle and artist Billy Smith, in a fitting epilogue to Turner’s journey as an educator mentored by Finster. The epilogue was authored by another of Turner’s former students, journalist Kay Willingham Shiver. Turner recently presented advance copies of his new book to all three former students.
“I was honored to write the epilogue of the second edition of John Turner’s book “God’s Junkman,” which gives us another window into the remarkable life of my friend, the late Reverend Howard Finster,” Shiver said. “It also describes what it was like to be a first year teacher in the idealistic 1970’s. Turner’s treatment of his conversations with Finster preserves the cadences and witticisms unique to the beloved artist. Howard Finster’s life has impacted many Chattoogans over the decades and his legacy continues to benefit the community. “God’s Junkman” captures the spirit of a man who inspired the Friendship Flag agenda. It also captures the spirit of the community that lives up to its legacy as The Friendship Capitol of the World. Chattooga Countians will recognize their neighbors and their own memories in Turner’s book.”
John Turner has deep pioneer roots in Summerville and Northwest Georgia dating back to the 1830s, although he spent much of his childhood on U.S. Air Force bases wherever his military family was stationed. He moved back to Summerville at age 12. After high school and prep school, he joined the Air Force Reserve, serving on active duty from 1966-69. He later attended Reinhardt College and graduated from Jacksonville State University. After graduating in 1974, he began his 30-year career teaching at Chattooga High School. Since retirement in 2003, he has remained active in education, serving 6 years on the Chattooga County Board of Education and working as an art therapist at Northwest Regional Hospital in Rome.
When Turner spoke at the February ceremony honoring disability spokesperson Cordle, he realized that he was witnessing the capstone of his teaching career, two decades after it had officially ended. That event became the full circle moment for Turner, the day when all the stories came together, inspiring not only an addition to his book, but adding a new pathway to make Summerville “The Friendship Capitol of The World” through his Friendship Flag Movement.
“Youthful idealism can do great things,” Turner said. Theultimate goal of Turner’s Friendship Flag project is to unite students and other young people in friendship to help feed hungry children. Turner is seeking to accomplish that goal through corporate sponsorships and has met with leaders of many organizations across the country. He has also visited many college and university campuses to promote his message.
Spann Cordle entered the national stage in 2008 after Walmart recognized him as a disability spokesperson. He has since done dozens of print and broadcast interviews in addition to maintaining a 16-year record for being on time every day he has worked at Walmart. He is currently a Self-Check Host at the Walmart Supercenter # 756 in Trion. Cordle reflected, “after growing up around Mr. Turner, knowing his parents and having him as a teacher,– to learn that he was writing a book was a twofold situation. I was so proud for him, but on the other hand, I was a bit taken aback, not doubting his ability, but yet finding it difficult to realize that someone that you are close to has written a book. While the book was in publication, I found out that I had been included in the epilogue of “God’s Junkman.” Words escape me as to how to thank him for such an honor, to be included in his initial endeavor as an author, and to think my small story may appeal to others is a blessing beyond words.”
“Being a disability advocate, you tend to view the workplace in a different way, you realize and see and sense things that others pass over or don’t realize at all. I’m hoping to increase my advocacy and hoping to become more engaged in the Friendship Flag Project with hopes that “The World Friendship Project” can intertwine with the disabled around the world and help to amplify the voices of the disabled and their plight to be accepted. I also hope that in some small way I can help that to become a reality.”
Speaking of Cordle, Turner said, “He is a rare individual who has redefined friendship on all levels. Spann’s indomitable spirit and courage have served as a deep well of inspiration for me. His unwavering spirit and genuine desire to help others has inspired me to seek my best self and to embrace the true essence of friendship.”
During challenging times when obstacles seem insurmountable, I often think of Spann and how he navigates through life with such grace and resilience. He has shown me that with the right attitude, determination and a genuine desire to help others, we can overcome any adversity.
Spann, with his glorious spirit and tenacity, continues to inspire me on my journey. He serves as a constant reminder that reaching our full potential is not limited by our circumstances but rather guided by our willingness to support and uplift one another. He has touched my life in immeasurable ways, and for that, I am forever grateful.”
Billy Smith, known for his “Backwoods Renaissance” paintings, has experienced a personal renaissance of his own since he was commissioned as a volunteer to paint the Coke Bottle art honoring Cordle and his beloved service dog, Finn. The interest in his work has motivated Smith to paint more canvases in his free time. “Things have picked up since the Coke bottle was revealed with Spann,” Smith said. “I’ve also met friends and relatives connected to Spann, Turner, and Finster.”
“I’m very thrilled to be included in Mr. Turner’s book about Howard,” Smith said. “I’m hoping the Friendship Flag will snowball into a positive movement that will put our small community on the globe. I’ve been having people walk up to me and ask, ‘are you Billy?’ lately, he added. “I was lost for words for some of the people that spoke to me. I hope I’m getting in different waters. Maybe I’ll learn to swim.”
“Billy was a fine student, always interested and totally absorbed in his creation,” Turner recalled. “He always wanted to learn as much as possible about technique. He had that artist light in his eyes. It was a rare and precious gift, you just know the ones that have it … Billy had it, and he still does. Billy also is a gentle spirit. This is a gift too. Those who know him experience him, and it is with warmth. I will say that warmth is the light of friendship. When we choose to be warm in our world, we light the pilot light of friendship and if we all do this we set the world aglow. If we all were a Billy and a Spann, what a truly blessed place the world would be.”
As an artist, Billy Smith is blessed to know one place so well, never traveling more than a few hundred miles from his Chattooga County home. His paintings reflect a deep understanding of traditions and events of his rural community including historical farm and woodland scenes, portraits, and images of the late Rev. Howard Finster at work in Paradise Garden. He shares a daughter and grandchildren with Melissa, his wife of 23 years. He found his interest in art in second grade when he began studying with his aunt, Sarah Joyce Daniel, who was an accomplished artist. In addition to his continuing study of art, Smith enjoys reading novels. “I got my colorful sayings from reading Stephen King. My mother got me hooked on reading when I was a kid.” Smith says he has come to the conclusion that “life is like a big fraternity … just fitting in a day–to–day life, you’ll get a little hazing just to taste that piece of pie. I learned that the hard way,” he said, “but I’m enjoying my journey.”
By: Kay Willingham Shiver, Former Editor, Career Pilot Magazine, Former News Editor Berry College Office of Public Information, Former Feature Writer, The Summerville News