Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, April 15, 2022

‘There’s joy in our work’

Varner’s service reaches far beyond classroom

The late American journalist Christopher Morley notably said, “There is only one success – to be able to spend your life in your own way.”

Dr. Edna Varner was only 15 when Morley died in 1957, but if they had crossed paths and Morley had surmised how she’d someday live her life, she might have inspired that quote.

Known locally as a skilled educator and a tireless volunteer, Varner, 72, has been able to live her life her way. As her peers married and raised families, she remained single and instead fostered thousands of children, first as a teacher, then as a principal and finally as an educator of teachers.

“I loved school and had always wanted to be a teacher,” she says. “In Jeremiah 33:3, God says, ‘Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.’ That’s what I loved about school. I loved the wonder of it. I loved learning things.”

In 2001, Varner’s love of literacy led her to become the director of leadership development for Cornerstone National Literacy Initiative. For 12 years, she traveled across the U.S. developing other educators.

Although Varner could craft a grand and stately motive for pursuing the job, she instead laughs and takes a reductive approach.

“I grew up in Chattanooga. I went to UTC. I hadn’t been anywhere. So I said, ‘I need to run away from home for a while.’”

Those who know Varner will laugh, too, knowing she has a tendency to downplay her contributions to her community and the multitude of people she’s encountered.

But Varner’s impact in Chattanooga and beyond is anything but inconsiderable. Her leadership roles on civic boards over the years include serving the Aim Center, ArtsBuild, Ballet Tennessee, Chattanooga 2.0, Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Chattanooga Housing Authority, Chattanooga Prep, Read 20, Siskin Children’s Institute, The Chattanooga State Foundation, The Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies, The UC Foundation, Thrive, UnifiEd, United Way of Chattanooga and WTCI.

Varner has received widespread recognition for these and other contributions. The African American Hall of Fame named her a Living Legend, for starters, while UTC honored her during one of its annual Dinner of Firsts with a toast (and a roast) for being the first member of her family to attend college. In 2006, the American Lung Association christened her a Chattanooga Woman of Distinction.

A short list of Varner’s accolades includes the Delta Woman of the Year Service Award, The Unbought & Unbossed Award from Girls Inc. of Chattanooga and The Kiwanis Club of Chattanooga’s Distinguished Service Award, which she received in February during a sold-out event held in her honor at The Westin.

While accepting the award, Varner asked those who had served with her in any volunteer capacity to lift their hands. She says a “sea of hands” rose in response.

“I said, ‘So, this is not about me, it’s about all of us,’” she says.

Varner is fond of naming those who inspired her to serve as it establishes a legacy of influence and redirects credit to others.

“My youngest sibling was a special education teacher at Siskin Children’s Institute. She loved the work she did,” Varner recalls. “After she died of cancer at the age of 47, I began volunteering for Siskin. I feel as though I’m doing it for her.”

Varner also says her years living in public housing as a child motivated her to serve on the board of the Chattanooga Housing Authority.

“We lived in public housing so my father could save enough money to buy our first home. So I serve on their board because I can offer the perspective of someone who’s actually experienced public housing.”

Having mentioned her father, Varner smiles and says she wouldn’t be able to measure the extent to which her parents nurtured a heart for service in her and her brothers and sisters.

Varner says her mother, Peggie Bullard, volunteered with various charitable organizations and received many awards for her work, while her father, Rev. Andrew Bullard was a Baptist preacher who made himself available to his parishioners around the clock.

“My siblings and I grew up with parents who were engaged in service. We thought that’s what people did.’”

Varner now keeps her eyes and ears open for opportunities to continue the legacy of influence her parents began. Her time at the podium during the Kiwanis event was one such occasion.

While she had the attention of the gathering, she encouraged them to say yes to service at a time when society at large is encouraging people to say no simply as a way of demonstrating control over their life.

“You can say no to some things, but don’t say no to the things you care about or that bring you joy,” she advises.

Varner also encouraged her listeners to do things that scare them as a way of boosting their confidence.

“When [former Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga President] Pete Cooper asked me to be board chair, I was scared to say yes because I had never chaired anything. I feared failure. But he said everyone who’s been a board chair had at one time never been a board chair.

“So, I did it, and I realized I wouldn’t be alone when I took on something like that. The next time someone asked me to chair a board, I felt confident enough to say yes. I’d become fearless.”

Varner says people often express hesitation when she suggests they volunteer their time to an organization because they have so little of it to give.

She usually insists the person merely has to schedule his or her time well and refers to the scheduling miracles she pulled off during her four-year stint as principal of The Howard School in Chattanooga.

“Each summer, I had to figure out what my teachers needed and then schedule it. It was like a giant puzzle. It would take me all summer but I was good at it. I figured I could apply the same skill to my life so I could serve on boards.”

Varner also urges people to find the element of service in their job or profession – no matter how menial it might seem.

“I pulled up to the drive-thru at a fast-food restaurant one time and the young man who took my order said, ‘How can I make your day?’ That cheered me up. He found a way to serve others at his job.”

Varner says her mother demonstrated this principle in her work, first as a crossing guard and later as chief of school patrol.

As an educator, Varner spent 30 years serving her community in various Hamilton County schools. From her first day of teaching English at Lookout Junior High in 1971 to the day she resigned as the head of Howard High to accept the position with Cornerstone, her job involved elevating and enhancing the lives of her students and teachers.

Varner left Cornerstone in 2013 (a difficult year in which her father, mother and one brother died) and later returned to her chosen profession when she became a senior adviser for leading and learning at the Public Education Foundation in Chattanooga.

Varner had represented PEF in 2007 and 2009 before the U.S. Senate Education Committee on changes to the No Child Left Behind Act and improving transitions from high school to college. So she offered to volunteer with the organization until PEF President Dr. Dan Challener found her a job.

Challener already had the work Varner is now doing in mind for her.

In her current role, Varner coaches new Project Inspire teachers, encouraging them to become leaders who change the ecosystems of their schools.

“I love it. Some of the participants are former students of mine, so I have no trouble sitting down and talking with them.”

While Varner is technically retired, she works part-time for PEF because she wants to continue to serve the profession to which she devoted her life.

“Teaching is hard and you’ll be miserable if all you do is prepare kids for a test. The work we do at PEF is helping teachers to be fulfilled. That’s a service; we get paid, but there’s joy in our work.

“Everybody has things they do well. And I figure if I do something well, then I’m meant to do it for others.”

The Chattanooga-born Varner hails from a large family. In addition to her seven siblings (five of whom are still alive), she counts her mother, three successive fathers and a slew of nephews and nieces among her relatives.

As the first member of her family to attend college, Varner earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and her doctorate degree at Carson-Newman University.

Varner’s only disappointment regarding her education is her never earning a degree at an historically Black college or university. (She cut short her bid to earn a doctorate at Tennessee State University to take the position at Howard.)

Varner has lived a life without many of the things most people pursue. When her friends and siblings married, purchased homes and had children, she chose to stay staunchly single.

She’s been in love, she says, but she cared more about her work and didn’t want anyone to stand in the way of her doing it.

As a result of being able to live her life her way, Varner has enjoyed a rich existence filled with unforgettable moments.

Many of these stemmed from her travels around the world, which she did not do for work or service but for her own enrichment.

“When I took geography, I learned about all the countries of the world. And I thought, ‘When I grow up, I’m going to do that. And I did. I stayed behind the Iron Curtain before the wall came down. I visited Italy, England, France, Norway and Northern Africa. I went to all the places I learned about in school.”

Even though Varner enjoys leafing through the many memories her travels abroad afforded her, she says serving others – professionally and as a volunteer – has been her greatest adventure.

“I wonder who I’m going to meet and what we’re going to do together. I look forward to learning new things and experiencing the joy that comes with doing something I care about.

“I’ve had the kind of life I was meant to have.”

Varner to speak at Habitat’s Women Build Breakfast

Edna Varner will serve as the keynote speaker at Habitat for Humanity of Greater Chattanooga’s Women Build Breakfast. The annual event is scheduled to take place Saturday, May 21 from 9-10:30 a.m. at the Chattanoogan Hotel.

The breakfast is a call to action to all women to stand in support of affordable housing in Chattanooga. To date, Habitat has built 28 Women Build homes in the city with the support of all-female volunteer groups.

Varner served 30 years in her dream job as a teacher and principal. In 2013, she joined the team at the Public Education Foundation to coach new teachers for Project Inspire Teacher Residency.

Varner has also worked with Habitat for many years.

Women Build Breakfast tickets are on sale on eventbrite.com.