Having grown up in a low-income farming family in rural Amherst County in the 1940s, Glenwood Burley’s earliest educational memories are attending a school that sat where the county’s main government and school administration offices now are located.
The 76-year-old retired Richmond police officer recalls the trucks that delivered coal to heat the building, how sliding down the second-story fire escape brought severe punishment and how an auditorium and basketball court divided the high school from grades seven and below. While the recollections are dear, for 58 years he has regretted missing out on one act in particular — walking with fellow classmates to receive his high school diploma.
Friday, he fulfilled that longtime goal by proudly walking with Amherst County High School’s graduating class to receive an honorary diploma.
“This has been a lifetime void fulfilled,” Burley said in an interview prior to the ceremony. “This high school diploma has always been a void in my life. One of the regrets is I abandoned my class.”
Burley submitted a request for an honorary diploma to the Amherst County School Board earlier this year and met board requirements and Virginia state code to receive it, according to school officials. As he was handed his diploma Friday, thousands in Liberty University’s Vines Center stood to applaud and Amherst County School Board Chairman Mike Henderson walked over to embrace Burley.
Raised in Burley Hollow, an area about seven miles west of the town of Amherst off U.S. 60, Burley said his family members put more emphasis and expectations on toiling on the land and a farming lifestyle than education. Four days into his senior year at the start of the 1960s at Amherst County High School, which opened several years prior, he decided to quit.
“It was a decision of haste — immature,” Burley said. “I always had that as a spot of emptiness and incompleteness.”
He described his father as a hardworking farmer and his family as a poor but self-sustaining clan that lived off the land.
“You were expected to stay on the farm, raise livestock and never leave Burley Hollow in my case,” Burley said.
He eventually left Amherst and joined the military on his 18th birthday. After basic training, he was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division Military Police in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where his company commander encouraged him to get his GED. The commander arranged for him to work day shifts and receive his GED through the military. Burley received his GED and later served a 24-year career in the Richmond Police Department.
While he has lived in Richmond since 1964, Burley has never forgotten his deep roots in Amherst and has stayed connected.
He recently gave $10,000 in scholarships to a handful of ACHS graduates in honor of two men who had a major influence on his life as a child and teenager, the late Haney “Bobby” Mottley and the late Harold Higgins. Mottley was an Amherst town police chief and Higgins was a vocational teacher in Amherst.
“What better way to give back than recognize somebody who made you who you are?” Burley said of the scholarships. “It’s been humbling.”
He said he considers education a gateway to stability. He especially enjoyed rubbing shoulders with students on a recent visit to ACHS during the school day and sitting in on classes. Some of the school is how he remembered it as a teen while much of it has changed.
“There’s many more students than there were 60 years ago,” he said of observing students rush between classes. “The hallways haven’t widened any.”
When he decided to drop out, he said the educational environment was much different from today as there were no follow-ups from educators asking him why he was quitting and telling him it was a mistake. His parents didn’t communicate that point to him either.
He fondly remembers the foundation of his childhood in Amherst hitchhiking from Burley Hollow to the Amherst traffic circle at age 10 and never having a concern for his personal safety. While selling produce in town with his father as a child, he recalls encounters with Mottley, describing him as a towering, personable police officer who initiated conversations.
It left a lasting influence.
Burley was pleased to return to Amherst and have Mottley see him in uniform.
“I wanted him to see how proud I was of being a policeman,” Burley said. “I was a policeman because of him.”
He recalls the excellence Higgins instilled in shop class, teaching welding and carpentry skills and compensating for a hand he lost because of polio.
“Mr. Higgins was a perfectionist,” Burley said of the lessons in his class. “You built that hog trough with the same perfection as you built a walnut coffee table for your mother and father’s living room. That’s the caliber of how he taught.”
He said Amherst County Public Schools administrators have been kind to him and he’s enjoyed connecting with the students and faculty.
“Mr. Burley’s story is an inspiring one. One of dedication and persistence,” Superintendent Rob Arnold said. “We are very proud to call Glenwood Burley a graduate of Amherst County High School and believe he will serve as an inspiration to our current students.”
He said the division is extremely grateful for Burley’s generosity in funding the scholarships.
“I’m in the winter months of life,” Burley said of securing the diploma. “I will enjoy this every minute. It’s just a priceless opportunity, to not only graduate but to have the opportunity to give back.”
Dorrie Self, Burley’s daughter and a Lynchburg resident, came to support his achievement Friday night.
“My entire life he has talked about having regrets about quitting high school. It’s always kind of haunted him so this is a proud moment for him,” Self said. “It just means a lot to him. It shows you can accomplish anything if you set your mind to it. It’s never too late. I’m so proud of him.”