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The Measure of a One's Life
The measure of one's life is in his or her deeds. The life of Whittier Crocket Witherspoon has been remarkable in its scope of accomplishment and influence. He's been an educator, a school principal and teacher and a political leader who's met with presidents and the political elite of our country.
In 1987 Gov. Jim Hunt awarded him the Order of the Long Leaf Pine (North Carolina's highest civilian award) for a lifetime of service, and his house is a treasure trove of awards, mementos and photographs.
Yet, for all the awards, all the accolades, Witherspoon seems most proud of the lives he has touched and the children who have gone on to successful careers and lives.
"I am pleased to note that I have kids who have received their doctorates, and masters, and are nurses and teachers," he says. "A number are ministers. Many in this community."
He came to the Albemarle area in 1955 as the principal of what was then the Sawyers Creek School, the school for blacks in a segregated Camden County school system.
The U.S. Supreme Court had just ordered the desegregation of schools, and over the next 13 years, as the nation struggled with issues of racial hatred and division, the Marion Anderson School, as it was renamed in 1957, remained an island of calm in the storm.
Although they were turbulent times, Witherspoon did not feel complex answers were needed.
"I told (students) that when they stepped on that bus, they were mine," he says. "I told them they should love one another. I treated everybody the same. My school was run on love. L-O-V-E."
It is a philosophy that comes from the pulpit of his father, a Methodist minister who traveled "all over," in the words of Witherspoon. "I have looked up most of all to my father, and I have tried to follow in his footsteps," he says. "He attempted to train us (Witherspoon and his three brothers), and looking back over the years, I see that he did very well."
The lessons he learned were based on love and respect: to respect oneself, love others and love and respect this country.
Witherspoon served in the U.S. Army in the South Pacific during World War II, island hopping across forgotten atolls and nameless islands.
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"When I went to war, I went there to help people, proud to be from a free country," he said.
It is a pride and a belief in this country that has driven Witherspoon beyond the halls of academia, and propelled him into the political spotlight.
His voice was a call for calm and reason during the racial upheavals of the 1960s. And many years later in 1992 he again emerged as leader in the community as a co-founder of the Hope Group, a gathering of the business, political and educational leaders of Pasquotank County. "We started this with a simple philosophy," he recalls. "Why can't we all be together?"
He began his elected political career in 1975, serving as the chairman of the Pasquotank Board of Elections, and in 1986, at age 67, he was elected to the Board of Commissioners. In 1992 he became the chairman of the commissioners, a position he held until 1994. He still sits on the county board, and plans to run again in the upcoming elections.
"There are so many things. You can't just sit down and not do anything," he says. "I am going to run for county commissioner at this coming election."
"The commissioners face challenges," Witherspoon says. "Gov. Easley has taken money away from the county. There are a lot of things that have been deleted."
He is most concerned about education and the state of the area's schools.
"Do you know the schools are just about to fall down in most of our places," he says. "Educating our children must be our priority. The greatest legacy we can leave for our children is a good education."
The legacy that W.C. Witherspoon will leave is one of esteem for the individual and an encyclopedic memory of poetry. "I can only recite poetry for an hour and 45 minutes," he says, and many of the poems he recites teach lessons about respect for those around us.
"I went out to meet a friend, and no friend was there. I went out to be a friend, and friends were everywhere," is one of the poems he points to as a favorite.
Witherspoon has spent a lifetime in public service, first as an educator then as a political leader. He has confronted difficult issues and troubled times with a faith learned from his father and tested by time.
"As a man thinketh, so is he," he quotes. He goes on to add. "I have been very lucky in this, particularly."