When Wilma Cross shared her passion for the American Civil War with a group of Mayfield Elementary School students in 1964, she had no idea that one of the student’s lives would forever be changed.
Cross, who eventually left Mayfield to teach at Cleveland High School and has now taught in Cleveland public schools for 50 years, admits she hadn’t thought about the 1964 school field trip to Chickamauga Battlefield for decades until she attended a recent Cleveland High class reunion celebration and encountered former student John VanArsdall, son of the now retired ophthalmologist, James “J.R.” VanArsdall, M.D., who founded the Cleveland Eye Clinic and who maintained his practice in the medical specialty in Cleveland from 1963 until the early 1980s.
“I hadn’t seen John in forever, but he asked me if I was going to be attending the 150th anniversary Civil War re-enactments held at Chickamauga,” said Cross, now retired, but still substitute teaching in Cleveland City Schools part time. “I told him there was a good chance I would attend and he asked me to call him if I see him.”
Cross did make the trip to the recent Chickamauga event. She enjoyed the re-enactments but also got a surprise — VanArsdall presented her with a limited edition, blue and gray commemorative medallion made to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s pivotal campaigns in East Tennessee and North Georgia.
The medallion was presented on behalf of the 19th Tennessee Volunteer Infantry, CSA, the living history group of which VanArsdall is a member.
Cross said the medallion was a complete surprise — as was the reason behind the presentation.
VanArsdall explained to Cross that when she took the Mayfield Elementary students to Chickamauga Battlefield in 1964, that trip ignited a lifelong interest for him in the American Civil War.
“I can still remember the day Mrs. Cross took us to the battlefield and I saw and heard about the events of the Civil War for the first time,” said VanArsdall. “It blew me away. In the years after that trip, I began reading everything I could on the subject.”
After the 1964 experience, VanArsdall found himself reunited with Cross again during his time as a student at Cleveland High. Cross was then teaching American History, and she dedicated two weeks to a discussion of the Civil War.
“Her enthusiasm once again inspired me to keep learning about the war and the period of American history involving the period of the 1860s,” said VanArsdall, who graduated from Cleveland High in 1973. “I even got together with some of the other students and we started a Civil War club.”
VanArsdall’s interest in the Civil War remains strong to this day, as evidenced by his membership in the 19th Tennessee Infantry. He was a charter member of the Civil War Roundtable of Eastern North Carolina and has also been publicly performing American Civil War period music for more than 30 years. He gives all credit to Cross and says without her, his life would have likely taken a different direction.
“Teachers do make a difference and there is no doubt that Wilma Cross has inspired far more than just me,” he said. “I gave Mrs. Cross the medallion to honor her for her lifetime of teaching, but also to show other teachers that they do make a difference.”
Cross says she is grateful to VanArsdall for the medallion, as well as his kind words.
“John is a wonderful man and has lived a great life,” said Cross.
When he isn’t re-enacting at Civil War period events, VanArsdall makes a living as a Tennessee performing artist who tours the country and performs traditional Appalachian & Americana music on the fiddle and other stringed instruments. He is more commonly recognized publicly as "CanJoe John," performing his unique style of entertainment, especially on a one-stringed musical instrument called a "canjoe," an instrument made from a "stick, a string and a can.”
Now living in Blountville, VanArsdall is the sole proprietor of the CanJoe Company, provider of his one-stringed musical creations, and he restores 18th and early 19th century log buildings as the owner of Canjoeco Restorations.
Although the Cleveland High graduate has played his canjoe instrument at the Grand Ole Opry and at numerous festivals, he prefers to perform at children’s hospitals. He's been on tour of Tennessee children's hospitals for the past seven years, a tour known as the "Tour of Smiles," where he gives chronic care patients his handcrafted canjoe instruments to keep and use as "smile therapy.”
“I love to make children happy,” said VanArsdall. “I believe it is our duty on this earth to do whatever we can to help children who are in need.”
Visit www.canjoe.com to learn more about "CanJoe John" VanArsdall, his music, his musical works of art and his "Tour of Smiles."