Heart of gold

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 24, 2013

NORTH KANNAPOLIS — Rosella “Aunt Rose” Caldwell automatically sets aside about $800 a month for her causes — and there are plenty.

When school is in session, the 94-year-old Caldwell sends $25 to $50 of “spending change” to college students who attend her church, Sandy Ridge AME Zion in Landis. Most times, there are 12 to 16 students she is mailing money to monthly.

“That’s religiously,” confirms sister-in-law Margaret Caldwell, one of Aunt Rose’s foot soldiers, “because we go to the bank and see the money.”

Aunt Rose also writes checks and puts them into handwritten cards for shut-ins and church members who have been sick. She’ll pay for groceries and make sure they are delivered to needy families.

Caldwell once adopted a family for 20 years, buying it groceries almost every week. On Tuesdays for 25 years, Aunt Rose cooked at her late mother’s house in Landis and dished out 25 dinners of fried chicken, sweet potato pie, cornbread and pinto beans to whomever would stop by.

“She truly is leaving a lasting legacy to mankind,” friend Marian Harris says.

But don’t think Rosella Caldwell is a soft touch.

When she was teaching at A.L. Brown High School, the principal and assistant principal called Caldwell in one day for a meeting. They wanted to know how she disciplined her students.

Other teachers were constantly sending kids to the office for punishment, they said, but not Caldwell.

“I said, ‘I give them my bad eye,’” she recalls, demonstrating how she would turn her head and give an unruly student the look, just a look.

“Most of the time, that was enough.”


Aunt Rose taught high school science and math for 40 years, mostly in the days of segregation. Her former students often visit and worship with her at Sandy Ridge AME Zion, where 40 years ago she became the first woman trustee.

She still serves as a trustee and often is called on to write the church resolutions for members who have died.

Since she stopped driving, Aunt Rose depends on helpers such as Harris, Margaret Caldwell, godson Franklin Caldwell and cousin Louise Brown.

They pick up cards for her almost daily at Dollar General, or carry out errands, such as delivering fruit juices and water to Sandy Ridge’s pastor, Dr. Anthony Freeman.

He considers Caldwell his second mother.


Ask Aunt Rose to describe herself, and she acknowledges a giving nature inherited from her mother. But she lays claim to another title.

“I’ve always been a money-raiser,” she says.

Caldwell led the effort to raise $23,000 for the church’s first van.

In other capital campaigns for the 147-year-old church, she made sport of putting her fund-raising team against the one led by the Rev. J.A. Quick, Sandy Ridge’s former pastor.

Aunt Rose beat him every time, and she can’t help chuckling when she relives those victories.

On July 5, Sandy Ridge AME Zion’s disciple ministry plans a huge celebration for Aunt Rose as a way to raise money for the church’s new Family Life Center.

The celebration comes on the heels of Aunt Rose’s 95th birthday July 1, and the disciple ministry plans to announce that a room in the Family Life Center will be named in her honor.

(The special dinner will be held at the Family Life Center of First Reform Church in Landis.)

A big turnout is expected because, as Margaret Caldwell says, Aunt Rose “can get up a crowd.”


Rosella Caldwell says people call her Aunt Rose “because I’m an old woman.” But don’t be fooled. Her memory — and wit — are sharp.

She remembers, for example, the solo she sang at Sandy Ridge at age 4 — “Since Jesus Came into My Heart.”

Her father was a brick and plaster contractor, and her mother stayed home with Rose and her three brothers and sister. The family lived at the edge of Landis, with the children attending Sandy Ridge School.

Because there was no high school for African-Americans in Landis at the time, Rose finished her secondary education at Price High School in Salisbury.

Her brother James, who Rose called “T,” would pile seven other kids into his two-door Chevrolet and drive them to Price High and back home in the afternoon.

Rose said three kids were in front and five in back. Three would sit on the back seat while the other two, including Rose, sat on stools.

Rose excelled in school and was third academically in her 1935 graduating class behind Dr. Isaac Miller and Dr. Elizabeth Duncan Koontz, a national trailblazer for African-American women in education.

Rose went on to attend Livingstone College in Salisbury as a day student. Again, she relied on “T,” who was a year older and also attending Livingstone, to drive them back and forth.

After “T” graduated, Rose received rides to Livingstone from friend Max Gibson, who dropped her off on his way to teaching school in Granite Quarry.


When she interviewed for her first teaching job at Johnsonville High School in Pineview, the principal asked whether Rose could teach first- and second-year French classes.

Though it was hardly her speciality, Rose liked French and agreed to take on that responsibility, along with teaching geometry, biology, general science and music.

“I was worn out by the end of the school year,” she says.

Meanwhile, Rose walked a mile to school and back every day. The place she was staying in had no running water or electricity. The water came out of bucket dipped into the home’s shallow well.

When it rained, the new teacher would arrive at school with newspapers wrapped around her legs because she couldn’t afford boots.

Rose remembers her pay in those early days was $87 a month — and how big a deal it was to reach $100 a month. “We thought we were rich,” she says.

She would teach three years at Johnsonville High, 19 years at Peabody High in Troy, six years at R.A. Clement School in Cleveland and 12 years at A.L. Brown High in Kannapolis.

In 1960, she earned a master’s degree in education from N.C. A&T University. She retired in 1980.


One condition of Caldwell’s employment at Peabody High was that she serve as the girls basketball coach. Rose knew nothing about the sport, but she agreed.

Before a road game, Rose would cook supper for the team in the school cafeteria. The players claimed she made the best meat loaf. The away games could be long trips, because Peabody was the only black high school in Montgomery County.

After returning to the school and making sure all her players were home safely, Rose might not get into bed until 2 a.m.

“You know,” she says, “I worked for my living.”

The early days of integration at A.L. Brown were not always comfortable for African-American teachers. Rose says a white female student told her she had better be careful how Rose spoke to her.

“I said, ‘Listen here, honey, you better be careful how you talk to me,’” Rose recalls.

Then came the bad eye, no doubt.


Harris says the students who visit Aunt Rose today at church or at home often tell her she was the best teacher they ever had.

“When you left her class,” Margaret Caldwell adds, “the dumbest one in there knew something.”

During her days of teaching at R.A. Clement, Rose car-pooled with some other teachers who lived in the southern end of the county.

One day their car had a flat tire on the way to school. “As soon as we did it, some men stopped and changed it for us,” Caldwell says. “They were white men and we were black women, but they changed that tire for us.”

Rose did have a scare in a car accident one day, back when she was in college. Her brother Matthew was driving Rose, a cousin and a friend, Wilma Phillips, to the Capitol Theatre in Salisbury to see the Clark Gable movie, “Too Hot to Handle.”

Another vehicle failed to see Matthew’s car at an intersection in Landis and plowed into them. Her brother had a concussion, and Rose and Wilma were hurt, sent to Rowan Memorial Hospital for treatment.

Rose can never forget what Wilma told her later, when they were leaving the hospital.

“Rose,” she said, “you look like the devil before sunrise.”

It still makes everybody in the room laugh.

The chuckling continues when Rose recounts the days of segregation when she and other African-Americans had to sit in the balcony at the Capitol Theatre.

“Sometimes, we would throw things down on the white folks,” she confides.


Before Aunt Rose began her practice of handing out spending change to college students, she used to award her own college scholarships. Her godson Franklin Caldwell received the first one for $2,000.

“I love to do whatever I can,” Caldwell says. “I love that kind of stuff.”

Though she never married, Aunt Rose says she has plenty of children — all her former students, the college kids she helps today and an army of nieces, nephews and cousins.

Her sister in Maryland plans to travel south July 13-14 for a fish fry that will celebrate Rose’s birthday.

And besides the July 5 celebration in Landis, another gathering is planned closer to her birthday at the Golden Corral in Concord.

One thing is certain: You can expect a crowd for Aunt Rose.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@salisburypost.com.