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Souders explores art, rivers, education

George Souders works on his latest piece at his home in Ramer, Tennessee. Staff Photo by Megan Smith

Sailing down the river serving food to tourists on the Arkansas explorer, working unceasingly to help a group of determined students to publish a school newspaper on deadline, and sitting shocked while being announced as Tennessee’s artist in residence do not seem like circumstances that one person could find themselves in during one lifetime.

However, George Souders of McNairy County has done all of these things and more.

Souders was born in Peoria, Illinois.  His father was in the navy and was stationed overseas when George and his twin brother Ralph were born.

“I guess Ralph and I were almost a year old before he saw us,” Souders said.  

“We have been raised navy,” said Souders.

Souders changed schools a lot and graduated from high school in Hawaii.   He went to college at Austin Peay State University, where he received a Bachelor of Science with a teaching certificate.  

Souders said that his father, Jay Souders, was an Oklahoma farm boy.  He had friends who owned a farm in McNairy, so the Souders family spent numerous weekends in the county.

“My father absolutely fell in love with this county, so he decided to buy a farm in the early 60’s,” said Souders.  “That kind of gets me here, with a real home instead of navy-based housing.”

When McNairy Central High School was first opened in ‘69, Souders began teaching there.  Prior to obtaining this position, Souders was the principal of Rose Creek Elementary.

Souders became interested in teaching during his time as a student at Austin Peay.

“Even though I thought I was going to major in business, I worked for the arts department.  I just loved working for those teachers, and I loved how they worked with their students,” said Souders.

Before being assigned to this particular work-study program, Souders’s love for art had not even been born.  

“My first exposure to art was at Austin Peay.  Why not start picking up some art electives, because I worked there.  It just seems like it snowballed, and all of the sudden there was no looking back; I wanted to be an art teacher.  That was it—signed, sealed, and cleared,” said Souders.  

When Souders took the job as principal of Rose Creaek, superintendent at the time Julius Hearst told him that he would just have to wait for the high school to be built, and then he could have the art department.

“That’s what I wanted—to teach art,” said Souders.   

Souders was selected as McNairy Central’s first teacher of the year.  “It meant a lot then, to be the first,” said Souders.

Souders remained at MCHS for two years before taking a position at the newly erected West View High School in Martin, TN as an art teacher.

Eventually, the time came for Souders to relocate again.

“I was lucky enough to be selected as Tennessee’s artist in residence,” stated Souders.  

To fulfill his duties as the artist in residence, Souders moved to Lexington, where he remained for four years.

“I just had an itch to get my masters, so in ’76 I went back and got my masters at the University of Memphis in painting,” said Souders.

After getting his masters, Souders struggled to find a teaching job, so he took a position as a cook aboard the Arkansas Explorer, which took tourists from Little Rock to New Orleans along the river.

“A lot of food, a lot of dishes, and a lot of travelling,” Souders stated concerning his time aboard the Explorer.

Souders was then offered a job running the art department at B. Dalton Book Sellers in New York City, a company with over 200 stores around the country.

Souders stated, “Who doesn’t want to go to New York City? So off I went for five years.

“In 1984, my mom had a stroke, and at that time I went ahead and resigned my job in New York and came home.”

Souders’s mother had a second stroke that left her bed-ridden.

“She never talked to us again for almost two years.  Dad was her day nurse, and I was her night nurse,” said Souders.

When Souders’s mother passed away in 1987, David Hearst, the principal of McNairy Central, offered Souders a position teaching at the high school.

“I subbed for a year, and I finally got hired as a history teacher, which was my minor in college,” said Souders.

Eventually, Souders was allowed to transform an old storeroom into an advanced art classroom.

Souders stated, “I got away from teaching history and could teach my first love—art.”

Souders then took over as yearbook sponsor at the high school.

However, this level of involvement was not enough for Souders.

“I started a newspaper called On the Hill, a school newspaper.  They hadn’t had one in years,” said Souders.

Souders then decided to start a literary magazine at the high school.

“I had my hands full,” stated Souders.  “I knew all 800 kids in McNairy Central for years and years.”

This is not a statement that could be boldly proclaimed by many, but for Souders, it is not an overstatement at all.

Last year, due to health reasons, Souders was forced to retire from his position at McNairy Central. 

Souders is also a very active participant in Arts in McNairy.  

“I’ve been on the board of directors almost from the beginning,” said Souders.

Souders is particularly active in the visual arts department of AiM.  In fact, he was the head of the visual arts department at one time.

“I helped with art exhibits out at UT Martin,” Souders stated concerning his involvement in AiM.

Souders also helps coordinate the photography contest every year.

When he is not encouraging students or supporting the arts in the community,
Souders enjoys collecting.

“I have probably over 100 African masks in my living room,” said Souders.

Also, Souders is curently workin on some small multi-medium art pieces that he describes as smaller and lighter than his earlier work.

Souders began with a plan to major in business at Austin Peay State University; he ended up as a chairman on an art board, an art teacher, founder of a high school newspaper and literary magazine, a
renowned artist, and, for a few months, a cook aboard a river tour boat.

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