Meeting Rebecca Sorrells is an education within itself. She sings, she dances, she recites poetry and proverbs with perfect memory. She is as close to what some may describe as a walking wonderland of uplifting emotions and heartfelt affection mixed with down-home hugs and Southern hospitality.
The soft-hearted educator with the bubbly personality seems larger than life with her entertaining and colorful theatrics that make her impossible to forget. The truth is, she is a person people want to remember, even cherish.
Born in Harriman, Sorrells was raised on a farm with her older sister, Laura, younger brother, Tom, and two parents, Bonnie and Irwin “Griz” Grizzard. They all fished, hunted, picked grapes, apples, berries and sold them. Her mom canned fruit and vegetables, made apple cider and grape juice. They were the typical all-American family with family values, and prayed every night before going to bed.
But Sorrells was born with talent and a desire to perform. The beautiful brunette found an outlet performing in the Carousel Theatre in Knoxville, served as publicity chairman for the Modern Dance Club and was an adagio, or acrobatic performer, for various Knoxville schools and organizations which helped pay her tuition while attending the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
While studying at UTK she met Harry Sorrells, a member of Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, during a dance. According to Sorrells, “It was love at first sight.”
“I had borrowed clothes so I would have something to wear in college,” Sorrells recalled. “The girls in the dormitory wanted to go to the Alpha Tau Omega house because they were having a dance. So I said OK. I walked into the room and there was this man standing across the room. I looked at him and I thought, ‘I’m not leaving this place until I dance with that man.’
“He had plenty of people around him. Finally, he asked me if I wanted to dance. He was a good dancer and he liked the way I danced. So he asked for my phone number. I gladly gave it to him. Two weeks went by before he called. Then, one of my friends said, ‘You know he goes with Miss Tennessee, (name deleted)?’ I said, ‘No. I didn’t know that.’ She said, ‘Well, he does. She is singing at a club. Do you want to go check her out?’ I said, ‘Sure. She can’t be all that.’ I walked in and let me tell you — she was all that! This lovely girl with long black hair, in a white dress, was singing. I thought, ‘Well, so much for that!’”
To her surprise, however, Harry did call and asked her out. The two shared a special chemistry. One date led to another and Harry wanted to see even more of her on the weekends.
“I would say no. I have to go home. Mom and I will be canning. We have turkeys to kill and berries to pick,” Sorrells explained. “His fraternity brothers asked him if he was really buying that? So I said, ‘Then you come home with me.’ And he did.”
Seeing her in that setting, working and attending to chores, did something to Harry. Sorrells said he told her mother, “I did not know they made people like your daughter.”
The couple dated exclusively for two years, then married after Harry graduated from UTK and moved to Charleston. Sorrells said he even welcomed her pet squirrel into their home. Later they moved to Calhoun, where he went to work at Bowater Paper Mill. As a happy young couple, they went on to have two beautiful daughters of their own. Sorrells said, “Harry was as wonderful a father as he was a husband. He taught Laura how to swim, ride a bike, play the piano and to play ball. Laura inherited his artistic talent. When Jill was born, she inherited Harry’s strength and shyness, but like Harry she is an angel right here on earth.”
After 2 1/2 years of marriage, however, Harry was diagnosed with melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer. He was given two years to live.
“And live he did,” Sorrells said. “He never felt sorry for himself and treated his cancer like a common cold. In between bouts of surgery he and Laura built an 18-foot sailboat, he painted, studied birds, wrote short stories and continued to work at Bowater.”
Between their living and loving, the couple lasted 13 years in holy wedlock. As Harry’s health deteriorated over the years, Sorrells recalls reading to Harry and seating him in a chair overlooking the Tennessee River after he had brain surgery. The peaceful surroundings and serenity they enjoyed brought them even closer. She was always by his side — even lying next to him in bed at the Harriman hospital as the family piled in to lay with Harry before he took his last breath. Harry died at age 40.
His final words were, “This is the most wonderful woman who ever lived.” Sorrells never forgot those words. The feeling was mutual.
Looking back, Sorrells said, “You can learn a lot about living from the dying.” She printed out a phrase and hung it over her desk — a phrase that has had a deep impact on her life: “If you can’t change your fate, change your attitude.”
Not only did she develop a positive attitude, but Sorrells would seek to inspire an optimistic attitude in everyone she met. Moving to Cleveland with two kids, and one on the way, she became a kindergarten teacher at Hopewell Elementary, making the kind of changes in students that last a lifetime — changes in manners and behaviors, as well as in the joy of learning through her animated and diversified teaching technique.
“I worked hard, earned my bachelor’s degree in education and fortunately was hired in the Bradley County Schools district,” she said “What wonderful, fulfilling years! I was free to teach basic skills in my own style, making learning fun while using as many senses as possible — music, art, puppetry, reliving history, science experiments — they all brought excitement to the students as well as to myself.”
Sorrells was listed three times in the Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers, awarded Outstanding Young Woman of America by the Calhoun Jaycees, named Teacher of the Year from Hopewell Elementary and received recognition for having the character trait of caring by her colleagues. She also conducted three teacher workshops on “Teaching Basic Skills through the Arts” before retiring after 20 years.
Sorrells, as vivacious and young at heart as ever, is still touching lives in the most meaningful ways. Her joy of living, laughing and loving are terms of endearment she extends to everyone she meets.
“I believe God wants me to serve, not to be served,” she said. “I ask myself each night, ‘Have I done anything to help lighten someone’s load? Whether a kind word, a visit to a nursing home, a card, phone call, cooking for someone who needs it — have I made any difference at all? Taking everything into consideration, my goal is to brighten the corner wherever I am and to God give the glory.”
With love and support from her two daughters and three grandsons, Sorrells is a real force of nature who knows how to live and love and keep her focus on the positive, without dwelling on the past. Quoting one of her favorite phrases, she said, “If you spend all your good times thinking about the bad times, that makes it all bad. I look back at the good things in life. Like William Wordsworth wrote in his famous poem “Splendour in the Grass”:
“What though the radiance
which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass,
of glory in the flower,
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind;
In the primal sympathy
Which having been must ever be;
In the soothing thoughts that spring
Out of human suffering;
In the faith that looks through death,
In years that bring the philosophic mind.”
She paused. She reflected. Then said, “Someone thought I was the best person they ever met. Everyone can’t say that. Those who can are truly blessed. To have someone think you are the most wonderful person in the world is very special. I will always have that.”
For the love she shares, generosity she shows and the encouragement she gives, Sorrells will also have the undying gratitude of the people whose lives she touches, and the light she brings to their lives.