ROGERSVILLE — Although principals, teachers and students have come and gone at Bulls Gap School over the past 60 years, one thing has remained the same.
Sue Farmer sees everything and she knows everything that goes on inside that school.
But a huge group of friends, family, and colleagues both past and present, finally got something past her Friday afternoon in the cafeteria, pulling off a successful surprise party to celebrate the beginning of Farmer’s 60th year as the school’s secretary.
They got her good.
Around 11 a.m., Principal Sharon Southern took Farmer to Office Max in Morristown, supposedly on school business.
They got back around 1 p.m.
There are only two ways into the cafeteria, and as luck would have it, they decided to come in the wrong door, which was locked.
As everybody did a quick “180” and school board member Holly Helton opened the door for them, it was obvious that Farmer was caught off guard by the sight of about 100 people waiting for her. At first she let the door close, locking herself and Southern out again.
However, someone quickly reopened the door, and as Farmer greeted the party guests, her expression went from terror, to shock, to outrage and finally to acceptance that there was no getting away from this surprise party.
There was also a lot of tears and laughter thrown in the mix.
Bulls Gap teacher Andy Palko said he’d doubted that they could fool Farmer.
“I was sure she knew, but if she knew when she walked through that door, she’s the best actress I’ve ever seen,” he said.
Among the visitors on hand to help celebrate the beginning of Farmer’s 60th year were former Hawkins County superintendents Clayton Armstrong and Charlotte Britton; recently retired Kingsport school director Lyle Ailshie, who is a past principal at Bulls Gap; former principals Beth Holt and Reba Bailey, who are now in the Central Office; and current Director of Schools Steve Starnes.
Southern, who masterminded Friday’s surprise party, noted that the full cafeteria was a testament to the kind of person Farmer is. She said Friday’s big surprise was “all out of love and all out of appreciation.”
“She is a vital part of this school; she is a vital part of the community,” Southern said. “She has mentored many teachers, and she has mentored many folks who have been administrators and have gone on to do bigger and better things. Dr. Ailshie was principal here, and he has gone on to the state. Beth and Reba were principals here. She trained them, and they are at the Central Office. She worked with Mr. Starnes in attendance, and she trained him to be director of schools.”
A plaque presented to Farmer reads, “The Hawkins County Board of Education and Bulls Gap School staff and students would like to honor Sue Farmer. We would like to thank you for 60 years of service as secretary of Bulls Gap School. Thank you for your compassion, loyalty, and dedication to all students and staff. We appreciate everything you do for each and every one of us.”
The party featured a barbecue lunch, but first Farmer was treated to a humorous poetic reading by Palko and a musical performance by a Village People tribute group who sang a Bulls Gap School version of “YMCA.”
Before they ate, however, Palko got serious for a moment.
He suggested that on Monday a parent, grandparent, or even a great-grandparent who attended Bulls Gap as a child might be dropping off a child for the first day of school Monday.
“That great-grandparent may walk into this school and say, ‘Wow, it’s changed a lot since I’ve been here,” Palko said. “They might look at the staff and say, ‘There’s nobody here that I had when I went here. ... But as they walk through the front door and into the lobby, and they look to the left through that window, they’re going to see Sue Farmer sitting behind that desk in the main office.
“And they can tell that little kid who’s gonna go into first grade, ‘Miss Sue was here when I went to school here.’ ... In this day and age, when things change increasingly faster, for 60 years Bulls Gap School has had something stable and important and reassuring in Sue Farmer.”
When it was her turn to address the crowd Farmer said she was in shock, and almost too overwhelmed to speak.
"I just want to say thank you to all of you who are here," she said. "I've enjoyed it. When people asked me today why I still stay, I said I enjoy the faculty, I enjoy the students, and I don't feel like it's a job. It's just a pleasure for me to be able to come to work all these years with all you wonderful people."