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Clyde A. Erwin – Educator Extraordinaire
by Don Bailey

We will doubtless never again see the like of Clyde A. Erwin. And if by chance a man like him should appear in the Ole North State, he would not find work in education. According to eye-witness testimony, Erwin did not spare the rod when he disciplined students, and he never held an earned degree from any college or university. But let no one doubt, he was an educator of the highest caliber and he did great and lasting service to education in North Carolina.

Clyde Atkinson Erwin

Clyde Erwin early in his tenure as
State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Photo courtesy of the NC State Archives.

Clyde Atkinson Erwin was born in Atlanta, Georgia on February 8, 1897, the son of Sylvanus and Mamie (Putnam) Erwin. His parents were however both North Carolina natives. And education was in his blood. His father alternated between teaching and newspaper work and his paternal grandfather, Ira Erwin, was for 30 years one of Cleveland County’s best loved teachers. It was said that during the days before and just after the Civil War, Ira Erwin somehow managed to “keep alive the torch of learning.”

In 1909 Sylvanus Erwin died after a prolonged illness, leaving his widow and three children with only $67. Though Clyde had to help support the family, he was determined to get an education. Working in summers to earn money for the family, and save enough to buy books for the school term, he attended grammar schools in Charlotte and Waco and graduated from Piedmont High School, in Lawndale, in 1914. After his graduation he was able to obtain a teaching position in a rural two-teacher school. In the 1914-15 school term he earned $187.50, and saved almost every penny. In 1915 and 1916 he attended the University of North Carolina, but he was needed at home and was forced to leave the University and forego the degree he wanted so much.

In 1916 Clyde Erwin took a position as principal of the Gault School in Jonesboro, SC. The next year he moved to Waco where he was principal from 1917 to 1919. And in 1919 he was hired as Superintendent of Cliffside Schools. The move to this small mill village on the Second Broad River might not have appeared to Erwin a giant move up, but so it turned out to be.

R. R. Haynes claimed he built Cliffside to be the ideal textile community; and he valued education. Likewise, following his death, Haynes’ family – his son Charles in particular – was determined that children in Cliffside would receive a first class education. In 1919 the push toward that goal gained momentum with the hiring or Erwin. And in 1920 a new Cliffside school building was begun that would cost a quarter million dollars – not a cent of which was public funds – to be dedicated in 1922. When it was completed this was the finest school building in Rutherford County. It was up to Erwin to see that the education taking place in that school was of the same quality as the building. And he did just that.

Cliffside School as Clyde Erwin knew it.

Cliffside School as Clyde Erwin knew it.
This photo, from a post card, dates to sometime
between 1922 and 1929.

Clyde Erwin began and developed the high school program at Cliffside. And he did it with such dedication, determination, and skill that people moved from neighboring communities into Cliffside just so their children could attend the Cliffside School. In 1919 there were 260 students in the elementary school at Cliffside; by 1925 there were over 700. In 1919 there were 3 high school students; in 1925 there were 110. In 1919 there were 11 teachers in the Cliffside School. In 1925 the Cliffside school system had 21 teachers and was fully accredited by the state board of education. People recognized Erwin’s ability and they saw in him a champion of education.

In 1925 Prof. W. Ross Hill, Rutherford County Superintendent of Public Instruction, resigned and Clyde Erwin was elected to fill that position. And now Erwin began to hit his stride! Between 1925 and 1931 he raised the educational efficiency ranking of Rutherford County from 85th to 42nd. In that same period he reduced the net building indebtedness of the county by 10% even though seven new building were erected. He saw to it that the more than 100 school buses in Rutherford County were operated at lower cost than that of 96 other counties. In 1931 Rutherford County led all counties in the state in the number of high schools belonging to the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. By 1932 Clyde Erwin was president of the North Carolina Teachers’ Association.

And all the while he advocated for more and stronger education. Erwin pushed for the nine month school term when many thought a six month term too expensive. He pushed for a 12 year school program long before such programs were adopted. The Charlotte Observer in 1934 said, “Public education in the state at this time calls for a flaming champion who will not be afraid to take his fight into the open and right up into the faces of the people, and confidently stand his ground against all those hesitant, if not hostile, forces that would relegate public education to a place of casual and secondary importance in the function of government in North Carolina.” The Observer said Clyde Erwin was such a champion.

On October 24, 1934 Governor Ehringhaus appointed Clyde Erwin to fill the position of State Superintendent of Public Instruction left vacant by the death of Dr. Arch T. Allan. On May 28, 1935 Catawba College awarded Clyde Erwin the honorary degree Doctor of Pedagogy. Dr. Erwin was sometime faculty member and Chair of the Board of Trustees of East Carolina University. He was re-elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction several times and served in that capacity until 1952. On his watch the state textbook rental plan was established, free textbooks were provided for grades 1 through 7, and the twelfth grade was added. In addition the state supported school term was extended to nine months, the compulsory school attendance age was extended from 14 to 16, and the first state bond funds for public school construction were made available.

Clyde A. Erwin died of a heart attack July 19, 1952 in Raleigh at age 55. He was the longest serving member of the Council of State, composed of elected state officers, who serve as an advisory council to the governor. Among his many, many honors was his chairmanship of the US delegation to the 13th International Conference on Public Education in Geneva in 1940. In an age that often seems to value certification more than accomplishment, it is refreshing to remember a time when certification was less important – and remember a man who with minimal certification achieved maximal accomplishment.