February 5, 2011
What can you still recite? Quite a lot, actually
Kyle Slagle
Tom Burger (from left) remembers a Crest toothpaste commercial from the 1960s; Julia Murin Lee lists West Virginia counties alphabetically; Cheryl Plear can quote the Three Witches scene from "Macbeth"; Donald R. Call tells "The Famous Pig Tale"; and Elizabeth Fraser knows "Disobedience" by A.A. Milne.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Some retired West Virginia teachers can take comfort in how well they impressed upon a few of their long-ago students a lifelong lesson: How to recite from memory all the Mountain State's 55 counties.

In alphabetical order, of course.

That ability -- along with fragments of "Macbeth" and the World War I poem "In Flanders Fields" -- was one of the most oft cited when we asked Sunday Gazette-Mail readers: "What can you still recite?"

More specifically, we asked them to tell us (without Googling or checking a book) what they could still recite off the top of their heads from school days? Or what about the text of an ancient commercial that entered your head, took up residence and never left?

The companion video to this story here showcases a half-dozen of the more than 30 respondents to our question in full-on recite mode. We videotaped the first half-dozen people we could get to, although the list below will show just how many more potential stars are out there should a producer wish to spin off a "Reciting Idol" contest.

The video ranges from the cackling witches of "Macbeth" (Cheryl Plear) and the mournful "In Flanders Fields" (Sally Swisher), to commercials for Crest toothpaste (Tom Burger), and Duz laundry soap (Imogene Burdette), plus the important life lesson of "The Famous Pig Tale" (Donald Call).

It concludes with an above-the-call-of-duty, costumed rendition of the children's song "Don Gato," which lifelong pals Becky Bostic and Kim Vickers had to do in fourth grade at St. Albans Elementary. And still can do. With maracas.

Here is what some of our readers still have up their sleeves, or tucked away in musty corners of their cerebral cortex. They're just waiting to be called to the front of the class.


KENNETH ARNOTT, Dunbar: Sharon Pearson writes: My father, who is 85, memorized "In Flanders Fields" in elementary school in Roane County in the 1930s. He can still quote the poem and tells all his great grandchildren the meaning of remembering those who have sacrificed so much for our freedom.


BRAD BEANE, Belle: My situation is kind of unique, as I wasn't the one who had to memorize anything. Instead, in high school I had to prompt a classmate in homeroom through her recitation of Edna St. Vincent Millay's "The Courage That My Mother Had." So, while I can't recall the whole poem from memory, I can still recall the first stanza (and, admittedly, I Googled for the proper punctuation marks):

"The courage that my mother had

"Went with her, and is with her still:

"Rock from New England quarried;

"Now granite in a granite hill."



Tom Burger: The information about Crest toothpaste on the '60s box.

Bettijane Burger: "Song of the Chattahoochee" by Sidney Lanier, eighth grade, first few stanzas. And a poem about peace for the United Nations Assembly, "Thoughts Upon Seeing the United Nations Building" by Francis Tower, Morgantown High, 1963. And the 23rd Psalm -- a grade-school class recitation done every morning.


IMOGENE BURDETTE, Culloden: I am 77 years old, and I can recite "Abou Ben Adhem" from my two-room school days. And I still remember the advertising jingle about Duz washing powder, from the '40s. And the opening remarks from the old-time radio soap opera "Our Gal Sunday," which are: "Can this girl from a little mining town in the West find happiness as the wife of a wealthy and titled Englishman?"


DONALD CALL, Culloden: Daughter Janet McCoy wrote in on behalf of her 86-year-old father: He can recite many of the poems that he learned in a one-room school called Oak Dale on Sugar Camp Road in Putnam County. He can also recite many poems that he read to the three of us as children. The most famous one, at least for us, is "Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed." He quoted "The New Colossus" while headed for surgery and again coming out of anesthesia after heart surgery.


SUE ANN CHARLES, Glenville: When I was in fourth and fifth grades (1958-59 and 1959-60) at Glenville Grade School, we had a wonderful teacher who really emphasized memorization and recitation. Mr. John Montgomery required us to memorize the presidents, the states and capitals, West Virginia's counties and rivers, among other things. Now, some 53 years later, I can still recite all of West Virginia's counties in alphabetical order. I can also get through about half of the state's rivers. Learning how to memorize served me well in my education and teaching career.


MISTY COLLINS, Man: I am a pharmacist in Logan County. I can still recite a poem that I had to memorize and say in front of the class. I can't recite anything from high school or college and sometimes can't remember what I did the month before. But I do remember this poem:

"I think mice are rather nice/ Their tails are long/ Their faces small/ They haven't any chins at all/ Their ears are pink/ Their teeth are white/ They run about the house at night/ They nibble things they shouldn't touch/ And no one seems to like them much/ But I think mice are nice."


TOM DAMEWOOD, Charleston: Several quatrains from "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam."


BILL FLEMING, Ravenswood: Chris Landis writes: My 86-year-old father recites so many things from memory that I had to ask him what he remembered from his childhood. He is still memorizing poems today. From his childhood, he can recite "The Psalm of Life" by Henry W. Longfellow, the Gettysburg Address and, I believe, the Preamble of the Constitution. He can tell you the lineups of the St. Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers when they played in the World Series in 1934.


JEAN FLINT, Beckley: "So live that when thy summons comes to join the innumerable caravan that moves to the pale realms of shade where each shall take his chamber in the silent halls of death, thou go not like the quarry slave scourged to his dungeon at night, but sustained and soothed by an unflattering trust, approach thy grave as one who wraps the drapery of his couch about him and lies down to pleasant dreams."

She explains: About a hundred years ago, when I was a senior in high school (1945-46) our English teacher, Melrose "Higgy" Higgenbottom, assigned us "Thanatopsis." I learned a few lines, thought I could wing it (others were reciting a few lines and being excused). Didn't work! "And the next line is ...?" She gave me an F on my report card. I told her that was unacceptable and what could I do to change it? "Learn 'Thanatopsis,'" she said.


ELIZABETH FRASER, Charleston: I can recite yards of A.A. Milne poetry because of my dad. I can do almost all of "James James Morrison Morrison." I really like that I can remember bits of poetry from my parents reading to me all those years ago.

I work at the library and know that lots of former Garnet High students can quote poetry galore thanks to Mrs. Norman. They call from time to time to remember a few words, but remember most of the poems by heart.


BLAIR GARDNER, Charleston: Deborah Herndon writes in about her husband: He could recite the names of every president of the United States forward and backward in the second grade. His cousin (who was there) told me that he did this on the first day of second grade. ... He said that since they were United States presidents, he thought that they must be important people and he should know who they were. He is a lawyer, so is obligated not to cheat by writing them down to respond to you correctly or something equally inappropriate. He is proud of the fact that he can do this, but does not remember the grocery list.


ROSEMARY HALE, Scott Depot: Something from grade school in Boyd County, Ky., that I remember to this day. Although I can't remember the title or author, my grandkids get a kick out of my recitation. None of the eight grandkids have mastered this ridiculous little ditty yet:

"Once there was an Elephant

"who tried to use the Telephant.

"No, no, I mean an Elephone

"who tried to use the Telephone.

"Dear me, I am not certain quite

"that even now I've got it right.

"How 'ere it was he got his Trunk

"entangled in the Telephunk.

"The more he tried to get it free

"the louder buzzed the Telephee.

"I fear I'd better drop the song

"of Elehop and Telephong."


KAREN LOWERY HALL, South Charleston: For my English lit class during my junior year of high school, I had to choose a poem from our textbook to learn and recite. People who know me are never surprised to learn I chose "The Jabberwocky" by Lewis Carroll. Learning it was no chore -- the poem spoke to me. Plus, I loved the reaction it got from the rest of my classmates who were, for the most part, bored to tears by the assignment.

"The Jabberwocky" has remained with me. And on occasion (sometimes involving an element of tequila consumption), I will still launch into a rather dramatic recitation that has developed over time. I should probably record it so that it can someday be played at my funeral when the dear mome raths once again outgrabe. Carroll wasn't insane -- he just saw the world at a slightly skewed angle -- one to which I can relate.


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