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The Power of Encouragement

    "Correction does much, but encouragement does more."
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


Yes, I remember the last time I visited with Anna Mitchell. She was pushing her walker and laughing at some forgotten comment as I escorted her back to her daughter Victoria's booth at the Cherokee Art Market in 2011.

I towered over the 86-year-old "grandmother of Cherokee pottery" as we pushed through the crowds that graciously parted around us. She thanked me for walking her back, and I told her it was my pleasure. It was to be our last visit.

Anna Belle (Sixkiller) Mitchell, a Cherokee National Treasure, had made the trip around the corner and down the crowded aisle of vendors to our booth for one single purpose - to encourage our daughter Karen to continue her quest to master the intricate art of gourd carving.

For quite some time, they talked and giggled like schoolgirls as Anna recalled her early years, experimentation and failure, perseverance and success. Karen was having some success as a gourd carver, creating unique pieces that almost resemble pottery in their gleaming finished state. Like most artists tackling new projects, Karen was bumping up against obstacles, seeking answers to questions and pondering the wisdom of continuing.

It was as if Anna sensed her unease and saw an opportunity to extend her hand to a student needing encouragement. Anna is credited with single-handedly retrieving and rescuing the lost knowledge of making Cherokee pottery. She is idolized by many, including my wife Martha, a Cherokee beadwork artist who does her exquisite work with Anna looking over her shoulder from a small painting on an easel atop the filing cabinet.

Anna is Marti's hero and has been for years. It was Anna who quietly pushed Marti to continue her quest to bring the art of Cherokee beadwork back to the nation. It was Anna's unseen hand that steadied her when she needed support and pushed when she needed a prod. Anna's words brought strength, and her story - like the little water spider that brought light to the people - encouraged her to continue.

That day, a Cherokee National Treasure and two who soon would be - Anna's daughter Victoria, who followed her mother's path into pottery, and Marti, who is credited with reviving the lost art of Cherokee beadwork - graced our little booth. But as Marti chatted with Victoria, Anna's focus was on Karen, the young artist with dreams as shiny as her gleaming gourds.

Ignoring the half-century difference in their ages, they chattered away, heads close together, sharing, laughing and learning about each other. They talked of art and history, of patience and persistence, of overcoming obstacles and doing the hard work needed to master an art form.

But mostly, Anna was there to encourage, as she had with generations of artists. By the time she retreated to her own booth, Karen was ready to tackle the world.

There is power in encouragement. A few unexpected words can turn a person around. A smile from a stranger can lighten a load. A pat on the back can make a difference in success and failure.

I once wrote about my elementary school teacher Richard Fritschen and how we reconnected more than 50 years after he taught me in that little Kansas schoolhouse. His life lessons made an impact, and I wanted him to know how much he had meant to me. Hearing my words, he admitted, meant a lot to him as well.

If you are lucky, as I have been, there are many encouragers in your life. Family members surely leave their marks. But often, those who make a difference come from outside the home - coaches, teachers, the man who runs the corner store, your first boss, the woman who cared for you after school, the friend who convinced you to try something new...

A recent Facebook post of a photo of my high school football coach, Merle "Bones" Nay, brought back memories. First, let me say up front, I was no standout in sports. I was short, chubby and slow through my first three years... not the slowest, but definitely near the back of the pack. My lack of speed prompted an upper-classman I never liked to tag me with an annoying nickname. "Hey, Swift!" he would shout from the grandstands.

Coach Nay liked to use the bullhorn, and I remember his booming voice urging me to "pick it up, push it, push it" or "hang in there" during those awful mile runs at practice. I stuck it out for three years before seeing a growth spurt during the summer of '65. I grew four inches in height, but the bones in my feet took awhile to catch up. I hit the football field hobbled with growing pains through my final season, and again Coach Nay's bullhorn prodded me along, pushing me to "keep up, move it, bring it on home."

By wrestling season, my bones were strong, my legs were long and I was discovering they really were good for running after all. That winter as I took to the track to get in shape with the wrestling team, "Bones," now serving as assistant wrestling coach, was again on the bullhorn. I remember his amazement - and maybe even a bit of pride - as he looked for me at the back of the pack and found me at the front. For four years, he had pushed and prodded, not to make me quit, but to make me finish. And I did.

Thanks, Coach Nay. And thanks, Anna Belle Mitchell, Richard Fritschen... and all who inspire and encourage us. The words aren't hard. "Good job, well done, way to go, great effort, nice finish."

There's power in encouragement. Give it a try. You can do it.


Dave Berry is the former editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His weekly Focal Point column ran for three years. This one was published May 5, 2015.

Photo: Moral support and encouraging words make a difference at any age. This bronze at Tyler's Southside Park shows a brother's quiet support of his sister's effort to read. (Photo by Dave Berry)

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