Column – Suffolk’s folk tale

Published 5:29 pm Tuesday, September 5, 2023

As 1985 began, minds were on safety. In January, a House committee approved legislation sponsored by Suffolk Del. J. Samuel Glasscock seeking mandatory use of seatbelts.

As the discussions over schools continued, a new program launched a summer pilot. Nineteen Suffolk public and private school students honed their talents in the performing and visual arts when they participated in the Governor’s Magnet School.

The summer program was scheduled to be repeated in 1986, and a full-time fine arts school for regional high schoolers started in the fall of ’86.


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Newspapers have often been a way to spread the word about crime. In one case, the criminal herself spread the word. In April 1985, a woman who had fled Suffolk while being sought on charges of torching and killing her boyfriend was arrested in New York. She had been carrying a month-old “wanted” Crime Line clipping from the Suffolk News-Herald in her purse. When she began showing that clipping to acquaintances in the Bronx, one of them turned her in to New York police in order to receive the reward. 

In the ’80s, boomboxes were the way to listen to your music while you were on the go. However, many public areas began outlawing them as a nuisance to the public. In October of ’85, Virginia Beach joined the list of places banning boomboxes at the oceanfront and on the boardwalk. 

On Jan. 28, 1986, thousands of people, including schoolchildren across the nation,  watched as the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded two minutes after liftoff. The explosion killed its seven-member crew, including teacher Christa McAuliffe. The spacecraft veered wildly out of control and fell toward the ocean. A brilliant ball of incandescent flame erupted when the $1.1 billion shuttle exploded. 

For one Suffolk teacher, the shuttle explosion had a bigger impact than most. Like Christa McAuliffe, Suffolk teacher Sonny Dixon had applied to NASA seeking to become the first teacher in space. “You know going in there is a risk,” Dixon said. “Part of the challenge is looking at the odds and looking at the benefits.” The Elephant’s Fork Elementary School teacher said the reason she applied was for the “sense of adventure,” and the opportunity to share the experience with her students. 

Suffolk has a rich history and, in 1986, thanks to Diane Story’s third grade class, Suffolk got something it never had before — a folk tale. Peter Peanut, Big Joe the hog, Momma Bear and a forest full of chorus students came to life on the Elephant’s Fork Elementary School stage. “My, my, it’s almost time for the Peanut Fest and I can’t find my children anywhere,” muses “Momma” Diane Story as the play begins. This turns out to be a setting for the tale itself, which Story’s third grade wrote. “Long ago and not so far away in the Dismal Swamp…’” Her narrative fades abruptly as Peter Peanut makes his appearance, a few feet short of his famous 7-foot, 5-inch height, and wearing a coal black beard. Ben Sylvia plays the oversized peanut fanner raised by a mother bear in the swamp, where a Suffolk couple finds and adopts him. Peter is such a faithful farmer that even pretty girls cannot distract him. “Please, Peter please,” they sing. “Won’t you dance with us just tonight?” “I can’t. I’ve got to plant peanuts,” is his steadfast reply. 

Even the School Board chairman got in the act, inadvertently. Big Joe, the “over-sized prized Suffolk Hog,” bears his name. “They wanted to name him after Mr. (Joe) Barlow because he’s our peanut farmer,” Story says. Big Joe’s claim to fame is his ability to make furrows “just the right depth and length for planting peanuts” simply by snorting. Peter Peanut’s tale has been officially recognized as Suffolk’s Folk Tale. 

1986 ended with more discussions on safety and education. Members of the Family Life Curriculum committee heard arguments for and against family life education. Dr. Edward D. Harris, director of the Suffolk Health Department, told an audience of 15 committee members that sex education is the only way to combat teen pregnancy and the spread of STDs. The committee was appointed by the School Board to decide whether family life education courses should be introduced into Suffolk public schools.