Koontz Awards speaker: ‘We knew change had to come’
SALISBURY — When Linda Kelly was among the first group of African-American teenagers who voluntarily chose to integrate the all-white Boyden High School, she said she didn’t really give it a second thought.
It had to happen.
“We knew change had to come,” she said Thursday night, “and we had to be the instruments of that change.”
Kelly served as guest speaker at the Elizabeth Duncan Koontz Humanitarian Awards Banquet, sponsored by the Salisbury-Rowan Human Relations Council.
Receiving the 2013 awards were Kelly; Dr. Albert Aymer, president emeritus of Hood Theological Seminary; Wilson Cherry, a special projects coordinator with Rowan Vocational Opportunities; Dr. Mary Frances Edens, retired educator and principal of Overton Elementary School; and the Hurley family, former owners of the Salisbury Post and longtime community philanthropists.
Kelly summed up the feelings of the other recipients when she said, “Winning an award named after Elizabeth Duncan Koontz is a great honor.”
A Salisbury native and graduate of Livingstone College, the late Koontz became a well known educator and the first African-American president of the National Education Association. President Nixon later named her director of the Women’s Bureau in the Department of Labor, and she was a 1970 delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
Kelly, who was born on East Horah Street where today’s Salisbury Civic Center is, said she grew up in a time when “segregation was with us all the time.”
She noticed it when the paved streets and sidewalks ended at the start of her neighborhood. She realized it when the rules changed and she could no longer play with the white playmates she had as a youngster.
She saw it on Sundays when her family piled into the car and rode past the big handsome homes of Salisbury but did not stop. She experienced the segregated drugstore counters, store bathrooms and doctors’ waiting rooms.
But Kelly persevered and graduated as valedictorian at Boyden High before full integration took effect. Kelly went on to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, then the University of Connecticut School of Law, before serving as commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Public Utility Control.
Today, Kelly presides over the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, one of the nation’s largest community foundations. It has a budget of $700 million, and its emphasis is on education and workforce development.
Kelly said her parents were always involved in the community, and that become part of her DNA. She has learned, with time, that change takes a collaborative effort when community issues have to be tackled.
As for education, she said public education is a right, but the emphasis has to be on a high-quality public education.
It was an especially proud moment Thursday night, Kelly said, to be sitting at the same banquet table with Salisbury High School’s first African-American principal, Dr. Avis Williams.
It tells her, Kelly said, that Salisbury is relying on all the talents available to it, not just some. And when that happens, Kelly added, the whole community is enriched.
The presenters of the Humanitarian Awards took more time than the honorees. Here’s a capsule of some of the things said about each award winner.
Wilson Cherry — Cherry was the last president of the student body at Price High School before the Price and Boyden High students combined at what is today’s Salisbury High.
At Boyden, Cherry became vice president of the student council, even though the year before he had been president of a statewide student task force helping schools prepare for full integration.
In recent years, Cherry has accumulated numerous state awards for his service to people with disabilities, and presenter and longtime friend David Post described him as United Way’s “go-to person,” especially when it comes to visiting companies and asking them to participate in the annual fund drive.
“He’ll walk miles, and he’ll ask you to walk with him for those less fortunate,” Post said.
Cherry credited his parents, Ruth and Jake, for giving him honesty, integrity and a work ethic. His mother passed away earlier this year, just shy of her 98th birthday.
She used to require her young son Wilson to learn a new word each day and read a Bible verse daily.
Mary Frances Edens — Edens was an educator for 31 years before retiring in 2005 as principal of Overton Elementary School.
Presenter Maggie Blackwell, mayor pro tem of Salisbury, said Edens asked three things of her faculty and staff: Be on time, do your job and love the children.
Edens made it a point to walk into each classroom daily. “Every single person felt important at Overton,” Blackwell said.
Edens successfully blended students so socioeconomic differences were not in evidence, and she tried to make diversity the school’s biggest asset, Blackwell said.
Of the several educators Blackwell interviewed for her comments, the word “fair” kept emerging, she said. She was fair to her students and fair to the staff.
Edens also was an innovator, doing things such as playing classical music in the hallways and reading stories with moral lessons over the loudspeaker once a week.
In retirement, Edens hasn’t stopped. She is chairman of the Salisbury-Rowan Human Relations Council and president of the Rufty-Holmes Senior Center.
“To have my name on a plaque with her name (Koontz’s) is a magnificent honor,” Edens said.
Dr. Albert Aymer — Aymer came to Salisbury 19 years ago to serve as dean of Hood Theological Seminary. He retired last week as president.
Over the years, Aymer gained two key accreditations for the seminary, made it independent of Livingstone College, built a strong faculty and curriculum, dramatically increased enrollment, started a doctoral program and moved the campus to the former Days Inn motel site along Interstate 85.
Now, in the Western North Carolina Methodist Conference, there are more graduates from Hood than from the divinity schools at Duke and Emory universities combined, presenter Dr. Robert Lewis said.
In addition, Aymer had a hand in creating perhaps the most diverse seminary in the United States, with 15 to 16 denominations represented at times.
Lewis called it one of the greatest success stories Salisbury has ever known. “He doesn’t see color,” Lewis said. “He sees human beings created in the image of God.”
Aymer said by God’s grace and with the support of the community and its generosity, magnificence, love, kindness and embrace, Hood has become what it is today.
The Hurley family — Elizabeth Cook, editor of the Post, served as presenter for the Hurley family, which owned the newspaper from 1912 to 1997.
Cook said James Franklin Hurley Sr., the first publisher in the family, established principles on which his descendants followed through.
They included putting money back into the newspaper and investing heavily in modern equipment; becoming involved in the community; devoting editorial space to causes aimed at improving Salisbury and Rowan County; and running a solid business where employees could rely on a regular paycheck and long-term security.
But the Hurleys’ impact went beyond the newspaper, Cook said. Signs of the family’s generosity are all over Rowan County in places such as Elizabeth Holmes Hurley Park, the J.F. Hurley Family YMCA, the Gordon Hurley Soccer Complex, the Buck Hurley Youth Center, the Rufty-Holmes Senior Center, Haden’s Carousel, the Hurley Foundation and the Hurley-Trammell Foundation.
“The Bible says to whom much is given, much is required,” Cook said. “In the case of the Hurley family, a family that worked hard and earned much, giving back to the community seems to come as naturally as breathing. Their humanitarian contributions go far beyond anything anyone would have required or expected.”
Gordon Hurley accepted the Koontz Award for the family.