Monday, March 3, 2008

Volunteering: Jo Ann Surratt

Mountain, meet motivation and moxie – Jo Ann Surratt of Shelby.

The “mountain” consists of the thousands of historical object artifacts left behind in the old Cleveland County courthouse building when once-bright hopes for a local museum there faded. These artifacts have the stories of Cleveland County history in them – how we grew, worked, learned, lived, fought. But now stored and silent, these artifacts have no way to speak.

“Moxie” is a slang word summing up that combination of undaunted determination, know-how, persistence and inventiveness that would take on the mountain unfazed.

“This is a job that needs doing,” Jo Ann says, “and we can do it.” So for months now, she and other like-minded volunteers have spent many workdays at the old courthouse. They are uncovering these artifacts of our past, better ensuring their future, and envisioning a present when our ancestral touchstones are visible again.

The work is formally the Historic County Courthouse Collection Preservation Project of the History Committee of Destination Cleveland County.

Neither Jo Ann nor others involved in this project are quite certain just how many object artifacts there are. “We’ve made a big dent,” she says, turning to take another object from the workbox for cataloging and processing. And there’s no doubt in her voice the overall job will get finished even if it takes a few years.

Jo Ann heard about aspirations for the old courthouse building in early 2007 and responded to a call for volunteers. Since then, having seen the job that “needs doing,” she has spent most Fridays and Saturdays on the job in the workroom that houses exhibits and artifacts of the now-closed Cleveland County Hall of Fame.

It seems fitting that her customary place at the processing table is directly under a portrait of educator and Hall of Famer W. D. Burns, for whom Burns High School is named. Jo Ann is retired now after teaching for 33 years -- Spanish (and English and civics from time to time) at Burns High.

But she is a teacher still. Others who volunteer to help on Saturday workdays look to her as coach and leader, able to decipher the spidery handwriting in the accession ledgers of the former museum and not only to identify bewildering objects but also to figure out what standard museum classification they fit into.

For her, there is just a certain satisfaction in being able to fill in all the blanks on the forms used to name, classify, and describe each object. She likes to organize things, properly. (It is a small frustration now that she has hit a stop in a personal project to complete a 12-generation family tree of her Dalton, Hall, Freeman, and Huntley ancestors. “I’m stuck at Bushrod Conner in the 1800s,” she says. “I have to find Bushie’s parents.”)

Her parents were the late Boyce Freeman, whom many remember from his long career with Cleveland Lumber Company, and Estelle Hall Freeman, whom Jo Ann calls “an ultimate homemaker” who sewed her girls’ clothes and quilted and crocheted and in doing so gave Jo Ann a special appreciation for the exquisite, fragile needlework folded away as artifact at the old courthouse.

A graduate of Shelby High School and Appalachian State University, Jo Ann maintains her early interest in anthropology – the origin, development, social and cultural behavior of humans – even though first opting to shape young “humans” in the classroom.

So it’s a special pleasure and privilege now, she says, to hold evidence of our shared past in her hands.

Contributor: Pat Poston

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