The Daily Southerner, Tarboro, NC

May 9, 2011

Old Man Frank Wilkinson – a legendary educator

Monika Fleming

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.”

He taught classical subjects of rhetoric, history, science, mathematics, and also instructed the boys in both Latin and Greek. According to one of his students, the Right Reverend Joseph B Cheshire, Bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina, Wilkinson “ was devoted to the profession of teaching, laboring faithfully to interest his pupils and giving them the best of himself.”

Wilkinson’s students were well prepared for college and many went on to become physicians, attorneys, judges, state politicians, and founders of successful businesses. Frank was so well admired as an outstanding teacher that the “University would admit any student certified by him without requiring an entrance examination.

One successful student of Wilkinson was David B. Perry. In a letter he recalled that after leaving the Tarboro Academy, he then went to Horner’s Academy in Oxford and then on to Chapel Hill. Mr. Perry admitted, “when I first enrolled, I a green country boy,” was hazed by the young men from town. Perry wrote “to his patience, conscientiousness and thoroughness I am indebted for what I know. I began to realize his thoroughness when I left him… I got along with an astonishingly small amount of mental effort” at both the Oxford Academy and Chapel Hill.

Once Frank opened the school in his home, he added courses in business and an assistant teacher. In the 1890s Wilkinson became the superintendent of public instruction for Edgecombe County schools, a position he held until the turn of the century. At the same time, his son William became superintendent in Nash County. After Frank retired in 1910, he went to live with his son in Rocky Mount. Even then he couldn’t give up teaching so he had special tutoring sessions on Main Street in Rocky Mount.

In the summer of 1932, students held a reunion of many of Frank’s students. Over 200 invitations were sent out and 110 former students turned out at the fairgrounds to tell stories and share “reminiscences of years past and gone.” Almost two dozen who couldn’t come telegraphed regrets or sent letters which were shared with the group. Old Frank’s students enjoyed a meal of barbecue and Brusnwick stew.

The program was organized by Dr. J.M. Baker and Dr. E.V. Zoeller both having attended the Tarboro Male Academy shortly after the Civil War. While majority of the men were Tarboro residents, they came from all over North Carolina from Raleigh and Hamlet, Rocky Mount and Plymouth, Scotland Neck and Fountain, and at least two from Norfolk, Va. Of the latter were Charles Doughty and David Pender, Pender being the founder of D & P Grocers which expanded to become the Colonial Store grocery chain.

All the men signed in with the dates of attendance at the Tarboro Academy on an old desk that had been at the school. The names of all 110 alumni were published in the Southerner. The oldest alumni at the reunion were N.B. Killibrew and J.L. Horne of Rocky Mount, and Dr. J.M. Baker of Tarboro who were taught by Old Frank in the 1860s. The youngest were G. F. Dupree of Rocky Mount, W. C. Hargrove, E.V. Harris, Robert Knight and Lee Ruffin, all of Tarboro who completed school in 1910.

Other names included Philips, Lloyd, Bridgers, Wiggins, Powell, Worsley, Edmondson, Battle, Dobb, Wimberly, Grimes, Dupree, Fountain, Bryan, Jenkins, Clark, Howell, Carlisle, Farrar, Harrell, Foxhall, Mayo, and Ward – all names recognized in the county today.

Over the years, many had contributed to a memorial fund to some way honor their old teacher. At the time of the 1932 reunion, the funds totaled almost $500 and plans were raise enough funds to put a bronze tablet in the court house. It is not known what happened to the fund as the plaque is not at the courthouse today.

Another former student who fondly recalled his years under Frank was Gaston Lichtenstein who went on to become a historian in Richmond and wrote occasional columns for the Southerner. He wrote an monograph “Recollections of my Teacher” in 1953 where he gave a detailed account of Frank’s teaching. Lichtenstein often wrote about Wilkinson’s interest in town and county history, and libraries.

In his essay on Tarboro Academies, Harry Jones wrote of Old Man Frank, “His students were bound to him with bonds of affection, and an approving word was eagerly sought.” H.B. Shaw addressed the 1932 reunion group by stating that “Mr. Wilkinson gave to his students the very vest educational opportunites as he was an efficient and competent teacher, one of the best ever seen.”

Frank Wilkinson died in Nov. 1919 leaving behind a legacy of shaping hundreds of young minds in Edgecombe county and guiding them to become worthy citizens of our area.

Monika Fleming, the Historic Preservation Program director at Edgecombe Community College, is an Edgecombe County historian. Look for her reports each month on the Community page.


Caption – Frank and his wife acquired this home on the corner of Wilson and St. Patrick St. in the 1870s and Frank lived there until his wife died in 1901. The house was built by George Lipscombe in 1858. After the Tarboro Academy burned, Old Man Frank, added a wing to this house and continued teaching.