Preston Lawhorne's Speech

Our guest speaker was our classmate, Preston Lawhorne, who has written several books about his experiences.  The following is one he shared at the reunion.



I only ditched high school once, and that decision started a chain reaction that changed my life. I was a senior at E. C. Glass High School and working at King’s Market on Main Street. The only day I ever had free time was Sunday. I usually used that day to do the hard homework assignments like writing papers or completing projects.

            It was a Sunday in early March, and I was totally burned out. I was just staring at the walls. Charlie Harris borrowed his family’s car and stopped by my house. We decided we needed to go cruising. We stopped by Bennie Ray Kidd’s house, but he had to work, so we drove aimlessly around town burning up fuel.

            “You have seen the ocean, right?” Charlie asked.

            “Bennie’s family took me with them on vacation a couple of times,” I answered.

            “I have never seen the Atlantic Ocean, and I am seventeen years old.” There was frustration in Charlie’s words. He had that same burned-out tone in his voice that I had recently developed.

            “It was pretty cool. Bennie Ray and I had a great time.”

            “Let’s make a road trip. Are you up for it?” Charlie asked.

            “Now? Like today? This minute?” I questioned.

            We discussed all the negatives, like school and our parents—not to mention the fact that it was winter at Virginia Beach, and it was deserted.

            “This is crazy. Besides, we have to be at work at 3:00 p.m. on Monday, or we both lose our jobs. I can’t risk that,” I lamely objected.

            “We will get back long before we have to go to work,” Charlie countered.

            I guess Charlie must have caught me at a weak moment because we decided to make a road trip. We gassed up his car and set out on our four-hour drive to visit Virginia Beach in the wintertime without telling our parents. It didn’t sound like a solid plan now, but I guess you had to be there. I should mention that no alcohol was consumed while making this decision or during this entire trip.

            Leaving at about 3:00 p.m., we would hit the surf at about 7:45 p.m. with a few pit stops. We planned to spend a couple of hours at the beach then drive back. Maybe our parents wouldn’t realize we were gone. Heck, we could even make the school bell for Monday. Of course, there were a few flaws in the plan, but we decided to take that risk.

            Driving to the beach felt like an adventure. We were free and driving down the road to see the world. We discussed taking off to see the country after high school. Both of us knew college wasn’t in our future. The Vietnam War was raging, and we would probably be drafted. Charlie’s brother had just “won” the draft, and he joined the Navy. Bennie Ray would be my next friend to play the military draft lottery. Of course, we both knew we would never drive around the country, but we could dream. This trip was the first time in my life that I felt freedom.

            Our plan was working, and we were on schedule. When we arrived, we cruised up and down Ocean Boulevard. Charlie’s Ford was the only car on the street. We stopped by a fast-food joint then walked to the Virginia Beach Pier. My friend was like a little kid viewing the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. It was dark, but you could see the incoming waves breaking on the beach. In the distance, we could see the lights of the big Navy ships passing on their way to the naval shipyard. Toto, we were not in Lynchburg anymore.

            When we walked off the pier to the beach, Charlie ran toward the water and started taking his clothes off down to his underwear. He ran into the water and dove into the waves. I watched in shock and amazement. The weather was cold, and the water was freezing, but he decided he needed to get in the ocean. Once he hit the water, he realized his mistake and quickly returned to shore. Of course, the dummy didn’t have a towel or dry underwear, but it didn’t seem to matter. When we got back to his car, Charlie put on some hunting clothes he found in his trunk.

            We stopped by a cheap souvenir store where he bought a beach towel and a tee shirt. The shirt had “Virginia Beach” on the front and “BULLSHIRT” on the back. He liked the play on words.

            After getting some coffee, we decided to rest up for an hour before we started back. I crawled in the back seat, and Charlie took the front for a quick nap. Our departure target was midnight. The nap idea turned out to be a terrible mistake.

            We woke up at about 2:00 a.m., and panicked. Doing the math, we would hit home around 6:30 a.m. His dad was due to work at 7:00 a.m., and we had the only family car. We wouldn’t have time to get ready for school. Our plan was unraveling.

            The drive back to Lynchburg was a blur. We made it in record time; pulling in the driveway at about 6:25 a.m. Charlie’s parents were upset since they had been up all night searching for us. They had checked the hospitals and the police department. Charlie’s dad just got into the car without even speaking to Charlie and drove to work. Mrs. Harris told me that I needed to head home. It was time to face the consequences of my actions.

            To say that my mom was upset was an understatement. I impolitely told my stepfather to stay the hell out of it. My mother gave me a verbal beating for several minutes, and then I stood up and walked toward my bedroom with my mom in close pursuit.

            “Where are you going? We aren’t finished here, mister,” she yelled.

            “Mom, I am tired, and I am going to bed.” It was the best answer I could give her.

            “What about school?”

            “I’m not going today. I am skipping.”

            “I will not write you an excuse, so you are on your own.”

            “No problem.”

            “I also need to call the police to let them know you found your way home.”


            I slowly walked into my room and got into bed with my clothes on and pulled the covers over my head. I hoped this would be over when I got up. There was no such luck.

            Mom was bewildered over my behavior. Her punishment was swift, but she took a different approach since I was too old to spank, and she knew she couldn’t ground me.

            First, she called the police, and they told her an officer would be out to talk to me. Her surprise move was calling the principal of my high school and suggesting he expel me for a few days. She knew how much I loved going to school, so she decided to try to take something away that meant the most to me.

            Around 10:00 a.m., the police arrived. Fortunately, the officer was Doug Chance. We had become friends over the last few months after my earlier incident with Officer Smith. He had even helped me get a job at the supermarket.

            “Preston, this is Officer Chance. Get up, and get dressed,” Doug said formally for Mom’s benefit. It sounded very official and professional, which caught me off guard.

            I got my butt out of bed, and he told my mom he was taking me downtown.

            “Great. Thanks, Mom. Remember that Mother’s Day and your birthday are coming, and gifts aren’t mandatory,” I mentioned, going out the door.

            We got in the police car.

            “Preston, you look like crap,” Doug began.

            “Jeez, I appreciate that, Doug,” I mumbled.

            “What the hell is wrong with your momma calling the police asking us to arrest you for one day?” Doug laughed.

            “Welcome to my world. I guess Mom wanted to deliver a message that I scared her to death last night.”

            We rode around to waste some time, and Doug bought us some breakfast at the Texas Tavern. I told him my story.

            “You OK?” he asked.

            “I am just tired and burned out. I didn’t have much to look forward to after graduation. I just needed a break,” I offered.

            “That is just part of life. You need to pick yourself up off the ground and keep moving forward.” His advice was short and sweet. You could tell he was former military. Ever forward!

            He drove me home and told my mom that they had fingerprinted and took mug shots of me. Then he created a rap sheet for any new incidents. He asked her to please call him personally if there were any further issues. For a policeman, he lied well. Mom was delighted. However, I am sure she was hoping a night in jail or a beating with a rubber hose might scare me straight.

            I took a shower and decided to go to work early. Another day is another dollar.

            Charlie didn’t show up for work or call in sick. His mom called the store later and told our store manager he had to quit his job to concentrate on school. I think his parents decided to ground him until their son turned twenty-one or joined the army, whichever came first. Charlie found a new job loading and unloading trucks at the Dr. Pepper plant a few weeks later. Compared to that, my bow tie–wearing grocery store job wasn’t that bad.

            The sad part of this story is that our friendship was never the same. I think Charlie’s parents blamed me for the misadventure. He was told not to hang around with those Lawhorne boys anymore. His parents later decided to move to a better part of town. I was happy for them trying to better themselves. I just hated that it felt like it was at my expense.

            When I went to school on Tuesday, there was a note from the principal that I was wanted in his office immediately. The principal of E. C. Glass was an older gentleman named L. H. McCue, Jr. Our high school had about twenty-five hundred students in the tenth through twelfth grades. This guy had several assistant principals to do the dirty work, and he generally never got involved in simple disciplinary matters. I had never really met the man because he was well above my pay grade. Mr. McCue was getting ready to retire and seemed detached from the student body. Now his secretary was summoning me to his private office. This little surprise wasn’t good news.

            I hardly ever visited this part of the building, but I finally found his office. This school was so large that when I had first started there, I didn’t locate my locker for a week. Mr. McCue’s secretary placed me in the waiting area, where I remained for over an hour. I guess they were giving me time to reflect on my past sins as I waited for my execution.

            Finally, Mr. McCue opened his door. He asked me to come in and take a seat. He was a short, bald guy with large, gray, bushy eyebrows. He was impeccably dressed in a dark suit and looked like a lawyer or a judge.

            “Preston, your mother called me yesterday and told me that you had skipped school. She demanded to speak to me personally. She even recommended a three-day suspension. Strange. Normally the parents are asking us not to suspend their kids,” Mr. McCue chuckled.

            “Mr. McCue, I am sorry she bothered you. I am guilty as charged and offer no excuse except that I am tired and burned out. I just needed a break from school,” I replied. No need to lie. Mom had turned me in. My only option was to ask for mercy.

            “Why would you feel burned out at your age, young man? You have your whole life before you and college to look forward to in the very near future,” he countered.

            “That isn’t happening,” I replied.

            “What do you mean? What isn’t happening? Talk me through this.”

            I guess Mr. McCue caught me at a weak moment, so I unloaded on him. I explained that I was tired because I had to work full-time to support myself. My family barely had the money to send me to high school. College wasn’t even an option. I would get a job at the paper mill or join the army. Graduating from high school was no big deal. Like an untouchable in the Hindu caste system, my fate and future were already sealed by birth.

            I think Mr. McCue was shocked. He told me he wanted to give this matter some consideration and told me to return to class. He said his secretary would schedule a meeting with me during my study period later in the week. We would discuss sentencing at that meeting.

            We met during my fourth period on Thursday, and I expected the worst.

            “OK, let’s start with skipping school. You get six hours’ detention after school, or you can work ten hours at the library during your study period. That is a way for you not to miss work. This punishment will be an honor system that I expect you to complete before the end of the school year,” Mr. McCue said.

            I decided to serve my time as a member of the library staff. I liked it enough to volunteer for the rest of the school year after my mandatory sentence was served. Working at the library turned out to be a great way to meet smart girls. I wished I had known this earlier.

            “Now, let’s discuss your situation,” Mr. McCue continued. “I have studied your school records and achievements. I have also talked to some of your teachers. You are one of our top students out of over eight hundred students in your class. You were elected to the National Honor Society. You are taking some advanced classes and doing well. Frankly, a lot of your fellow students that are far less qualified will be attending college.”

            “Mr. McCue, it is March, and I have not applied to a school. I don't even know how to apply to a college. My family can’t afford the application fees. I have never taken the scholastic aptitude tests (SATs) and can’t afford to take off on a Saturday to take the test anyway,” I argued. This man was just not getting it.

            “Would you even consider going to college if we could make this work?” he countered. This little guy was persistent.

            I hesitated to answer because I had learned not to get my hopes up dreaming impossible dreams.

            “I guess. I always figured I would go to college after I get out of the military.”

            “That is an option, but most guys never go back to college after the military. Let’s see what we can do, and then you can decide,” he said.

            We left it at that. I figured I would fade back into the student population never to hear from him again after he applied my logic to the problem.

            Just the opposite occurred. I became Mr. McCue’s pet project. We met or talked probably once a week. He had contacts at the University of Virginia, which had a Lynchburg remote campus as part of their university system. Their Lynchburg campus was going to become part of the new state community college system. The state had agreed to use the University of Virginia facilities and some of their professors the next year until the new campus could be completed. Mr. McCue introduced me to Dr. John Merritt, dean of admissions, from the college.

            I met with Dr. Merritt to discuss the situation the following week. Dr. Merritt presented a plan to get me into their program and helped me work through the application. I suspect but can’t prove that Mr. McCue paid the fees, or the charges were waived.

            The big elephant in the room was money. How would I even pay for this? I had missed the deadline for scholarships. I had not taken the SATs. My mother wouldn’t commit to signing up for financial aid, so that wasn’t an option. Mr. McCue said he might have an idea and would work on this part of the problem.

            By late April, I received a college acceptance letter with two contingencies. First, I had to take the SATs. Second, I had to make an initial August payment to be allowed to register for the fall classes.

            Mr. McCue found out when and where the next SATs were scheduled and signed me up. They were the SATs that juniors took as a practice for their senior year. I wouldn’t get to practice. My score would be my score. I have no idea who paid the fees, but I had a wild guess.

            Ralph King was the owner of the grocery store chain where I worked. Mr. King found out that I needed to miss work for the tests on a Saturday, and he paid me for it as a vacation day. I later found out he was a University of Virginia graduate. My SAT scores met the requirement, and we had jumped the first hurdle.

            The second week of May, Mr. McCue called me to his office.

            “Preston, I have some great news. I am telling you in advance, and I have already talked to Dr. Merritt. You will be a 1967 recipient of the E. C. Glass Memorial Scholarship Fund that will pay for your education if you maintain a B average. It should also cover most of your books and fees. Congratulations, my boy! You are going to college.” Mr. McCue exclaimed as he vigorously shook my hand.

            I stood in his office dumbfounded and speechless. What the heck just happened? I skipped school and ended up in college on a scholarship? This experience was just crazy talk!

            This guy was going to make me go to college whether I wanted to or not. I later found out from a member of the selection committee that Mr. McCue single-handedly drove my nomination through the board. She said he was a bulldog, and that she had never seen him take that much interest in a student.

            The final payment contingency almost derailed Mr. McCue’s plan. My funding wouldn’t pay out until September, and the initial payment was required in August. I met with Dr. Merritt at his office in the Krise Building and explained the situation. This guy picked up the phone and called the president of our local bank to and set up an appointment. Dr. Merritt walked over to Fidelity National Bank with me for the meeting.

            I know it sounds funny, but I had never been to a bank in my life and had no idea how any of this stuff worked. Dr. Merritt discussed the situation with Mr. Harris, the bank president, and they arranged something called a ninety-day note, but there was the problem with my age. Since I was under twenty-one years old, I couldn’t enter into a contract. My mother couldn’t sign the note because of our family’s financial situation. This loan had to be my responsibility somehow, or we needed to call this exercise off. I suggested we could wait until the winter quarter to start college.

            Dr. Merritt looked at me then took out his pen and signed for the loan with the fund as collateral. I had no idea what that meant. I might have agreed to give away my firstborn son or something, but Mr. Harris decided to issue a check in August to cover my fall tuition. Later, I learned Dr. Merritt had personally guaranteed this loan.

            Ditching school that March day changed my life forever. I was fortunate to have met three complete strangers who decided to take an interest in me. Their efforts altered the course of my life in fewer than ninety days!

            Mr. McCue and I stayed in contact after I graduated from school. I credit him for single-handedly forcing me to accept the fact I was going to college. I learned the definitions of sheer determination and brute force from this man. He taught me that a person didn’t have to accept their fate. This man truly changed my life because he gave me hope. I coined a phrase from this experience in his honor. It remains the core of my fundamental beliefs: “To Hell with Can’t.”