Help swells for former nun seeking to grow Claiborne County institute

From the Knoxville News Sentinel, a positive story about a growing community center in a former coal town in East Tennessee: 


by Georgiana Vines

EAGAN, Tenn. — The Clearfork Community Institute is finally becoming the community centerpiece that Marie Cirillo has dreamed about for decades.

Thanks to recording artist Malcolm Holcombe, the federal Office of Surface Mining field office in Knoxville, college students, and friends and businesses in Knoxville and Nashville, the institute in Claiborne County is getting Internet service in all rooms to connect with the world. It has desks, copiers and printers for an office. And it's about to get books for a new library.

More money has come in than usual, which has helped provide college scholarships to low-income students from across the U.S. who in turn do volunteer work at the Institute.

"This year has been the most energizing of any," said Cirillo, the former Glenmary Catholic nun who has devoted her life since 1967 to working in Campbell and Claiborne counties to encourage people to help themselves as coal companies, which used to provide employment, have left.

A celebration of everyone's efforts will be held noon-5 p.m. April 22, Earth Day. During a 1 p.m. program, 100 books will 

be donated to the library by the Southwestern Co. of Nashville, whose president, Daniel Moore, became familiar with Cirillo and CCI through Jane and Jeff Dyer of Nashville. Jeff Dyer, formerly of Knoxville, is retired chairman of the former First American Bank.


Cirillo, 82, who helped Caroline Kennedy in the 1970s with a photo project here when the late president's daughter was a teenager, was the focus of a News Sentinel story in March 2010. That was an impetus for some of the benefits the community has received, she said.

Jack and Marlene O'Hanlon and Linda Billman and Charles Manneschmidt of Knoxville, for example, drove from Knoxville to help plant flowers and spruce up the community center for Earth Day activities that year. Cirillo had known O'Hanlon and Billman as fellow board members for WDVX, a Knoxville radio station that she helped form.

The same four recently had a house concert at the O'Hanlons' downtown home featuring Holcombe, a North Carolina-born musician who performs on WDVX and elsewhere in the area, that was free with donations accepted for CCI.

"We've gone up there and seen what needs to be completed in small ways. (I thought) let's see what we can do to get some things completed," Jack O'Hanlon said.

"She's given so much to get WDVX established that this is what we could do to help her out," Billman said.

A little more than $3,200 was raised.

The money initially was to be raised to complete the hooking up of Internet in the last of four large classrooms at CCI, formerly a public school abandoned in 1953 when the Blue Diamond Coal Mine closed. The school was acquired through a community land trust for a multiuse facility.

But now organizers will try to expand Internet access to area residents, not just the institute, after a previous provider canceled service, said Carol Judy, CCI outreach director.


A recent visit to Clearfork underscored changes made in the last two years.

Photographs of residents living and working in the area in the 1960s and '70s by former Tennessean newspaper

 photographer Jack Corn have been hung in the hallway of the main floor. One of children that was made in 1964 was used by President Lyndon Johnson to promote the war on poverty, Cirillo said.

Another photo shows Caroline Kennedy's aunt, Ethel Kennedy, who came in 1972 when a pallet factory was dedicated. The Kennedy family was introduced to the area when funds from the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Fund were provided for a college student to work there in the 1970s.

College students helped to hang the photos, stored for years on the second floor, known as Bonner Hall. The hall is named for the late Corella Allen Bonner, an Eagan native. She and her late husband, Bertram, established the Bonner Foundation at Princeton, N.J., which provides money to college scholarships.

The foundation donated $25,000 to CCI this past year after previously giving $15,000 per year for many years, Cirillo said.

The hall frequently is used by college students for sleeping, as was the case in late March when students from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., were there for a week. The students helped do research on the Internet project and tended to garden beds in preparation for the Earth Day celebration.

Andrea Lindsey, one of the students, is a 21-year-old junior environmental policy major from Seattle.

"I heard about CCI from friends who did a service trip to Knoxville last spring, and chose Eagan over other communities we could have visited because I was interested in being in a rural area and working with a grassroots organization," she said in an email. "I really enjoyed getting to know different community members and seeing where and how people lived; riding ATVs to see an old strip mine site was a particularly memorable experience."


Tom Haywood, property manager for the Knoxville field office of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, is among those who have contributed office equipment to the institute.

"We donate our obsolete equipment to nonprofits and schools. We've made several donations to Clearfork before — desktop computers and printers that were serviceable," he said.

He and Jim LaRue, a service technician for NovaCopy, which has been in Knoxville for just a few months, recently took some equipment for displaying videos and photographs to CCI.

Haywood said he talked with LaRue about giving the Institute a break on maintenance costs, and LaRue returned to Knoxville and discussed it with his boss, Benny Malicoat.

Malicoat said his business typically donates equipment to nonprofit organizations with the understanding the organizations will pay for repair costs. When he learned about CCI and its needs, he decided that NovaCopy would donate a refurbished copier that does scanning, faxing and printing, and the organization doesn't have to pay out-of-pocket repairs. The only thing CCI will have to pay for is the paper used, he said.

Moore, the Southwestern publishing executive, said he plans to bring children's books, educational books and study guides as well as and computer software games April 22.

Jeff and Jane Dyer will be there, too. Jane Dyer said her husband was one of 10 children growing up in Cookeville, when it was rural, "and just became interested in Marie and her projects."

Cirillo has become quite philosophical about the changes she has helped make in Eagan.

"During my 43 years' residency in the Clearfork Valley, with its highway of abandoned coal camps and memories lost to all but a few, a new generation began to build another life for themselves. In their efforts, some lasting friendships were developed among a similar network of movers and shakers in the Knoxville area," she said.

Cirillo will get Carson-Newman College's Appalachian Center Award for Educational Service to Appalachia at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the center in Jefferson City.