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Old APSU college friends reunite after 70 years

4/25/2012

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            CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – It was a little hard to believe on that cold winter morning that Chic Rye and Woodson Oliver hadn’t seen each other in 70 years. The two old college friends sat near the fire going in Oliver’s living room, cutting up and telling stories as if they were still students at Austin Peay State College in the years leading up to World War II.

            “Hell, everybody knew him,” Rye said. “He was on the football team. But I didn’t go to the games.”

            “They weren’t hardly worth going to,” Oliver said.

            Together, the two men possess a reservoir of memories about a lost time and a lost place – a small teaching school in Clarksville that had just turned into a full-fledged college. Buildings have come and gone in the years since they attended, but Oliver and Rye both have sharp, long-term memories, allowing them to easily recall sepia-tined images of the college in the 1940s.

            “You can’t image what Austin Peay was back then,” Rye said. “I think 325 people was the whole caboodle at the school. We knew everybody on campus.”

            Oliver leaned back in his chair and let his mind drift back to 1940, when he was finishing up high school and trying to figure out what to do with his life.

            “My lifelong ambition at that point was to be a mail carrier,” he said. “Get one of them new Fords every year. But anyway, I said I’ll go to Austin Peay, and my dad said, ‘I’ll give you $25. If you can stay on that, stay.’”

            Oliver enrolled at the school and earned a little extra money tending to the turnip green patch that was situated between two buildings known as Robb Hall and Calvin Hall.

            In 1941, Rye began attending classes at APSC. He commuted from Houston County, which meant he spent hours on narrow dirt roads, trying to get to school.

            “Coming from Houston County back then was like going from here to Mexico,” he said.

            The two men became friends, studied to become teachers and probably caused a little too much grief for the college’s faculty members at the time. Then came Dec. 7, 1941. Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor. War was soon declared in the South Pacific and in Europe.

            “Everybody started getting drafted and going up in the service,” Oliver said. “There were no men there on campus. They started calling us up.”

            Rye and Oliver saw their friends leave. Four of their buddies never returned from the fighting. Eventually, in 1942, the two men separated. Oliver flew Corsair fighter planes for the Navy and Rye went to Pacific Theater with the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps.

            When the war ended, they both returned to Austin Peay to finish their degrees, though at different times. Life kept them from getting back in touch. Both men married, had families, and pursued successful careers.

            Then one day in the winter of 2011, Cass Rye, Chic’s son, was out on a job site in northern Montgomery County. Cass is a consultant with Rye Engineering. He introduced himself to one of the neighboring homeowners, who happened to be Oliver. When Cass said his last name was Rye, Oliver asked him about Chic.

            “He said they went to Austin Peay together,” Cass said. “I pulled my phone out and called my father and said, ‘there’s a man named Oliver out here.’ And he said immediately, ‘his name’s Woodson.’ Seventy years later, and he called it all back.”

            The reunion was low key. Cass brought his father to Oliver’s house on that cold, gray morning in February. The two men didn’t pause or hesitate, ignoring the large seven-decade gap between their last meeting. They laughed, told stories, asked if they remembered former classmates or professors and recalled lost ambitions.

            “My one goal back then was to bird hunt,” Rye said.

            “That was my goal too,” Oliver said.

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