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MUSEUM MUSINGS: Former movie star takes on role as teacher

Written by David Holsted, published in the Harrison Daily Times on October 29, 2020

There were things that, as a teacher, Percy Knighton could not abide.

Students who wasted time. Students who chewed gum in class. Students who talked or whispered in class.

“Students who would rather dig a ditch 100 feet long and 10 feet deep in freezing weather than THINK or STUDY – both are hard work.”

When it came to digging ditches in cold weather, Knighton probably knew what he was thinking about. There was a good chance that he had done it at some point in his life.

Born in 1898 in Virginia, Knighton had worked at many jobs. He was a veteran of both world wars. He had been a day laborer, a gang foreman, a reporter, an investigator, a door-to-door peddler and a public relations man. He had written and sold many features to national magazines, and had written for both the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette.

In the fall of 1957, Knighton added another occupation to his life’s resume. He was hired as a social science teacher at Harrison High School.

It’s sometimes said that to be a good teacher, one has to be a good entertainer. Knighton had experience in that area. He was a former movie actor, writer and director during the silent-film era and the early talkies. He was never a major star, but he had bit roles in about 50 films, including Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Volga Boatman” and MGM’s “Ben Hur.” In 1934, he appeared in “We Live Again” starring Frederic March. He also had roles in the very popular “Mickey McGuire” comedy series that starred Mickey Rooney. Knighton later directed several comedies and worked for Educational Pictures.

In 1952, Knighton earned a degree from Arkansas State Teachers College.

“My experience in life and my background will greatly assist me in helping my students and better prepare them for their future lives,” Knighton said in a Daily Times story on Aug. 27, 1957.

The Daily Times also seemed excited about the new teacher. In its Times Topics column, the newspaper said, “It looks like we have gained a newspaper contributor on the high school teaching staff in the person of Mr. Percy Knighton.”

Knighton did, indeed, contribute an occasional column that dealt with issues affecting students and teachers.

On Oct. 28, 1957, he discussed the question “Are Our Teenagers Really Bad?”

“Personally, I believe our teenagers are remarkable to have withstood the phases of life through which they have lived,” he wrote.

In listing some of the influences on teens of the day, Knighton was particularly critical of his old profession.

“The motion pictures today leave little to any sort of imagination,” he said, “and TV shows frequently become too realistic.”

Knighton was very optimistic about the younger generation.

“In my humble opinion,” he said, “this is – and will be – the most wonderful generation to make future history and government for their children to come.”

“Do teachers lose their tempers?” Knighton asked in another column. Despite the gum chewing, time wasting and classroom talking, there were moments that made teaching worth it all.

“When students pass the desk and say ‘Gosh, it seems like we have been in class only 10 minutes,'” Knighton wrote. “Such a statement is the big pay-off.”

Knighton called Harrison “one of the finest and ‘bestest’ towns on the grand old map of the USA.”

Knighton’s tenure at Harrison was brief. In January 1958, he resigned and was replaced by James Penney of Hot Springs.

Knighton died at the age of 73 in 1971. He was buried at Little Rock National Cemetery.