WALNUT — Seventy-eight-year-old Anthony “Tony” Finger takes a seat at his dining room table inside his 2,000-square-foot, two-story house on a bumpy, pot-hole filled Tippah County Road 302.
The narrow, mostly one-lane road and the landowner’s 40 acres suggest the rural landscape it perhaps may be, but the Finger homeplace is actually in Walnut’s city limits.
The 35-year retired educator who served in the classroom and as a teacher, principal and administrator in the central office has been busy on this extremely hot July morning.
“There is always something to do around here,” said the property caretaker, who mows his own sizable yard and takes care of a large vegetable garden.
Tomatoes are now coming in and Finger spent the morning watering his plants and checking for ripened fruit before those record-setting 100-degree temperatures hit. He took care of his purple hull pea patch as well, planted inside a fence to keep the deer from snacking on his favorite supper.
Finger – a father and grandfather – remains in good health, but he admits his memory is not what it once was.
He smiled when he said his voice may be a tad loud – not so much as those earlier days as a classroom teacher or school principal – but his hearing may be slipping as well as the years have gone by.
Finger retired in 2004 and built his three-bedroom house the following year just down the country lane where his grandfather owned 80 acres and not far from where his other grandfather had 180 acres in nearby Tiplersville.
“I can call it home now,” said Finger. “But it sure took me awhile to friendly up this place.”
The landowner bought the Tippah County acreage when he was a young man, “because I wanted to keep it in the family,” he said.
And then he admitted, again smiling, “I never intended to live here.”
But live “here” he does, red soil and all, where rabbits eat his green bean crop and deer try to eat his peas.
“Here” where a John Deere lawn mower keeps the yard trimmed and a tractor or side-by-side might be the mode of transportation to explore the homeplace grounds.
But “here” it will be for Anthony Finger, but friends and family call him Tony.
“Here” may have plenty of potholes out on the “street,” where a white gravel driveway leads to his house. “Here” keeps him busy in his retirement years, where fall means turnip greens out planted in the pea patch.
“Here” is a long way from Chicago, where Tony Finger made a name for himself in education and influenced thousands of youth.
“It was a hard move,” he admitted. “And a big adjustment.”
But the Windy City remains a memory and going to the big city now is a trip into Walnut to visit the Dollar General or Shop Easy.
And so, adjustment it will continue to be.
The Chicago Years
Finger spent 32 years of his career with Chicago Public Schools, rising through the ranks to become an administrator in special education, overseeing 13 high schools and supporting 100 classroom teachers and 2,000 special education students.
For six years, the educator was a liason for the department of special education for the school district. Team facilitator, clinic teacher and resource teacher were titles in the journey.
His first assignment was as a special education teacher in 1973-74, the time frame when “special ed was beginning to get a name. It was big,” he said.
The mid-70s was also a time when race may have come into play for education opportunities. “By me being a black male, I could do it,” he said. “I did not resent that at all. Not one bit.”
“Learning disabilities classroom” was a term first being used in education.
“It was just the beginning,” he said. “People didn’t tell you what was coming next.”
The teacher didn’t choose his career path. The path chose him.
A lifelong career in special education was begun.
Along the way, Finger became a father and reared two kids. Today he also enjoys two grandchildren.
Daughter Jacqueline Jones lives in San Antonio, Texas. Tragedy struck the Finger family in September when he lost his son, Michael Finger of Morgantown, West Virginia, a victim of heart issues, said his dad.
The father spoke of many fond memories rearing his two children and becoming close to so many of their friends. His wide grin developed at the thought of taking a group of kids to Chicago White Sox baseball games.
“Some of my former students have visited here,” he said. “Many went to school with my kids.”
“I am proud of what I produced,” he said, referring to both roles as educator and father, as during the last eight years with Chicago schools, he was director/principal of Hernandez Academic Prep Center.
As the educator reflected on his career, there was mention of accomplishments.
“The bottom line – things change,” he said.
Over the years the degrees and certifications were all about accepting another position.
For example, a second master’s degree “was to get me qualified for a job in the central office,” he explained.
Finger owns four hard-earned degrees, the first being a B.S. in Elementary Education from Chicago State University.
A Master’s Degree in Urban Teacher Education followed from Governors State University, then he obtained a Master’s Degree in School Administration and Supervision from Roosevelt University.
His Education Specialist Degree in School Administration and Adult Continuing Education was his last diploma obtained in higher learning from Northern Illinois University.
But where did all this learning begin? It all started in a small, two-room schoolhouse in Corinth. Sumner School and the adjacent Mason St. Luke Baptist Church is where he cracked his first book, wrote on the chalkboard and learned the three R’s.
The Early Years
Just a quarter mile from his Walnut property today, Finger’s parents lived and had two children. General Finger – it’s a given name and not an Army title – and the former Madel Hines would eventually have seven kids.
Tony arrived some 14 years after the first two Finger kids. Tony was born in Corinth and the family had moved to 1708 East Fifth Street. The Fingers also maintained a farm just across the stateline in Guys, Tenn.
Two of Tony’s brothers – Jerry Finger and Daniel Finger – still reside in Corinth today.
Tony has found memories of Sumner School, where about 20 young minds got their formal education – half in one room for grades 1-5 and the other half in the second room for grades 6-8.
Third-grade teacher Jessie Maye Agnew had a huge influence on the student.
“She motivated me,” he said. “She told me I had what it took to be successful in the educational field. She saw the potential in me.”
“I had absolutely no idea I was going to be a teacher,” added the former Sumner School student. “But I knew I had the tools.”
He paused. Thought for a second. “Little things were happening which were so very important to a young child.”
The student also had “my first encouraging moment” while attending Mason St. Luke next to the school, he said.
“The school and church were very connected,” he recalled. “Programs were presented in the church so the community got a chance to get to know the student and the progress being made in school.”
“The church is still there today,” said Finger, as he continues to attend church today in his retirement years at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Ripley.
Finger graduated in 1963 from McNairy County High School in Selmer, Tenn., a direct link to the family farm in Guys.
Last Career Stop
Finger ended his career in education back in Mississippi, where for three years he served as director of education at Parkwood Academy in Olive Branch. The facility was an “educational institution within itself,” where youth ages 13-17 get psychological help, he explained.
“It was the most doable job I ever had,” he said, as he saw the impact the facility had on improving adolescent behavior.
Now 14 years removed from his last place of employment, Finger enjoys his time on his 40 acres not far from where it all began for the Finger family.
Life has truly come full circle for the man proud to have celebrated his 78th birthday.
Finger sat in his front porch rocking chair to reflect on his life, but admits the heat index of 110 degrees on this day might mean a retreat to the cooler indoors.
As the late summer afternoon brings relief from the heat, he’ll venture out once again into to the yard, his garage or perhaps his garden.
Because he said it best, “There’s always something to do around here.”