The Daily Southerner — When discussing the history of education in Edgecombe County, one considers the early academies of the 19th century through the public schools of the 20th century. The many schools from the first academy in 1813 to the present 15 public schools have employed hundreds of teachers. Many are loved or hated by their students, but one set a high standard for all who followed him. Frank Smith Wilkinson, often referred to as “Old Man Frank” was an icon among Edgecombe educators.
Born in 1833 in the Lower Fishing Creek township of Edgecombe County, Frank was the youngest of 11 children. He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1857 and taught school for one year before coming home to Edgecombe County to take a position at the Tarboro Male Academy. Old Man Frank began a career in education that spanned five decades.
Shortly after moving to Tarboro, Frank met and married Annie Stronach. The couple had five children that would live to adulthood. Frank and his family were active members of Calvary Church.
Frank joined the faculty of the Tarboro Male Academy in 1858. He taught all levels of young boys ranging in age from 10 to 16 from around the region until late November in 1885 when the school was destroyed by fire.
The fire didn’t stop Frank. He just moved the boys to his home on the corner of Wilson St. and St. Patrick St. He built an addition to his home and taught the boys there. According to an article by former student Dr. Spencer Bass, Frank had his school furniture made by a local carpenter. He had a homemade desk and a favorite thick yardstick.
He was known as a strict disciplinarian who would not spare the rod to spoil a child. Not only did many young men experience his “stout switch,” they respected him and mastered not only the subjects he taught but also the values he lived by. According to a biographical sketch by Dorothy Wilkinson, Frank “was a man of moral and gentlemanly deportment, stern in manner and exacting absolute obedience from his pupils.”