Local Author Patti Wilson Byars

Local author Patti Wilson Byars uses her success to help future teachersPatti Wilson ByarsHer Coming-of-Age Tale Lends a Hand to Student Teachers

By Travis Timmons

In 1999, Patti Wilson Byars published “Separate Fountains,” a novel “for all ages” set in the small town of Jonesboro, Ga. – now an Atlanta suburb – during the 1940s and ’50s. With its mesmerizing portrayal of racial segregation and life in the rural South, the novel often has been compared to “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“The book is a love story and a family story, but because of its social issues, it’s a story about the whole South,” Byars said.

Based on her childhood experiences, the novel takes us down red dirt roads, where we meet oddities such as the Goat Man. We also visit Jonesboro’s “Colored Town” – and overhear Ku Klux Klan conspiracies in the local drugstore. Precocious youngster Katie Jane Taylor is our narrator, a fictionalized version of Byars herself. Originally begun as a memoir, Byars took her brother’s advice and fictionalized the book to protect the identity of those still living who are mentioned in the book. Byars claims the book was inspired by stories her family would share with each other.

While “Separate Fountains” has received local and national press, few readers may know that Byars donates a percentage of the novel’s proceeds to the Separate Fountains Endowed Scholarship fund, set up in Florida State University’s childhood education program in the College of Education.

Byars, who oversees student teachers as an adjunct instructor at FSU, set up the scholarship to help single-parent student teachers, or student teachers from single-parent families. The scholarship covers the cost of tuition for senior student teachers in FSU’s College of Education during their semester-long teaching assignments in Leon County. So far, six students have received the scholarship, including three current Leon County teachers.

Byars set up the scholarship to meet a need she saw in the College of Education.

“In 1999, I had a fifth-grade teacher who carried a 40-hour work week along with her teaching assignments,” says Byars. “I saw her lose 15 pounds. She said there were no scholarships, so that’s when I went to the college and set up a scholarship.” 

The scholarship also reflects Byars’ own personal experience as a teacher and a single-parent mother, since she was widowed at age 38 with two young children. Today, both children have completed college. With her own mother also a widow, Byars knows what it’s like to scrape by as a single parent.

“Been there, done that,” she said. Her goal is help others facing similar circumstances.

At first, the scholarship was open to any student teacher, but now preference is given to teachers working in Leon County. Byars said this is her way of investing in the local community where she has put down roots.

“I moved here in 1999, the same year I published the book,” she said.

There is a little-known Tallahassee connection in Byars’ novel. She used obituaries from the Tallahassee Democrat for the book’s fictionalized names.

“There were such beautiful Southern names. If you ever need good Southern names, check the obituaries!” Byars joked.

Byars has been both a primary school teacher and university instructor. She has lectured widely, including in Ohio State University’s The President and Provost’s Diversity Lecture Series, and has presented her novel in many conferences and classrooms across the country. She said that promoting the book “is a full-time job.”

You can support Byars’ scholarship by purchasing the book locally, or you can contribute to the fund online by contacting Andrew Watkins, coordinator of scholarship development at FSU’s College of Education, at (850) 644-0565 or watkins@coe.fsu.edu.

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