White ends 38-year career
By Jean Gordon
Daily Courier Staff Writer
June 23, 2005
CLIFFSIDE — Phillip White never intended to be a school teacher and certainly not a principal, but when it happened 36 years ago at Cliffside School he discovered a calling accompanied by a passion for children he never outgrew.
White leaves his principal-ship June 30 after being at Cliffside 38 years—two years as a teacher—and sets out for retirement and traveling.
Before cleaning out his office, he talked about his career and how this Forest City native quickly became a Cliffside loyalist.
“It’s in the genes” he said.
When White graduated from Cool Springs High School in 1961 he told himself that was the last school he would ever attend.
He got a job at Florence Mill in his hometown and later went to Laurel Mill in Rutherfordton. His take home pay for one week was $37.14. That was $1 per hour with taxes and withholdings taken out.
“I’d never seen money piled that high,” he recalled.
A couple of years later White began to hear whisperings that a recession might result in some mills having to close.
“I’d see some of my high school buddies who had gone on to school . . .And when they started talking about lay-offs at the mills, I’d look at my friends and think, ‘I’m as smart as they are. I can go to college’,” he said.
“I was one of those who never wanted to go to college, but I knew I could do that,” he continued. He entered Gardner-Webb College that year, “three days after fall classes had started,” he said. “It was meant to be. I was led to this. I was supposed to be there,” he said.
After Gardner-Webb, he talked with his former high school friend Mike Williams a student at Carson-Newman in Jefferson City, TN. Williams told White there were bass fishing lakes on both sides of the campus.
“I went to Carson-Newman and had never seen the campus,” White continued.
After he received his Bachelor’s degree in Carson-Newman he taught school at Cliffside two years and then federal government started putting more money in education and a fellowship was established at the University of Tennessee. He was one of 20 people, out of 368, who was accepted for the program.
White met his future wife Alpha while at Gardner-Webb and they were later married on August 12, 1967 at Cliffside Baptist Church with all the school students attending. The couple later had a son and daughter.
When the Whites first went to Cliffside they lived five houses from the school and later moved in a house, five houses on the other side of the school where they live now.
“I walked to school plenty of times but just as soon as you walked and you didn’t have a car, you’d have to take a student home,” White said.
White leaves a legacy at Cliffside as being one who loved music and incorporated that in the curriculum and he was one who wanted the students to take advantage of their talents.
He has always enjoyed singing and was in the Gardner-Webb and Carson-Newman touring choirs.
“I was not a music major and couldn’t read music. I don’t known an ‘A’ flat from a blowout but I’m a terrific singer,” White said.
He began the Cliffside School Chorus his first year at the school and believed from that time on the chorus had the opportunity to be the ambassadors for the school. They traveled along the southeast and had a great time.
Among those in his chorus was Scott Haynes, his present choir director at Florence Baptist Church.
Seeing Haynes is one of the pay-backs of having the chorus. “Being involved. That’s the secret of being and enjoying school and being successful in it. Get in it and be involved in something, chorus, band or whatever. Don’t just attend and that’s it. There’ a place for you and go for it. It may be the woodworking shop,” White said.
He was often teased about school chorus, his love for music and singing. “My buddies would accuse me and the talk would be ‘You can’t teach at Cliffside unless you sing or play a musical instrument’ . . .But I’d remind them that we practiced twice a week, 30 minutes a day.”
Cliffside School always had the support of the community and also had a wonderful relationship with Cone Mills. “The mill built the school and when we had the adopt-a-school program, we said we weren’t adopted, we were blood. The Cone Mills people loved the school just as much as anybody in the community,” he said.
White also started the traditional May Day festival 30 years ago when Maggie Lauterer was an Artist-in-Residence at the school. She suggested an outdoor festival around the flag pole for May Day and also suggested the Cliffside students who were in a gymnastics program through Gardner-Webb could be the focus of the show. The first theme was “Circus.”
From that day forward, the May festival was a highlight of the school and the community. More than 1,000 people gathered for the event last month that was a tribute to White. Looking back on his long career, White said he was always himself. “Don’t try to be anything you’re not. Don’t try to be what someone else wants you to be,” White said.
White learned early on that you can’t solve everybody’s problems and he realized that every student has abilities and talents.
The students who had such great potential and chose not to develop the potential were White’s greatest disappointments as an educator/administrator.
“Some people just didn’t have the inner drive. I don’t know why.
White said he was fortunate to have followed so many outstanding educational leaders at Cliffside. “When I walk the halls or sit in my office, I think, ‘Clyde Erwin was right here in this seat. J. J. Tarlton was right here. Am I living up to what standards they set for me’?” White said.
Erwin later became the State Superintendent of Public Schools and Tarlton, who was an interim, was the superintendent of the Rutherford County Schools.
White never dreamed of having the position he had at Cliffside but he took it very seriously. “It is a respected position and I always felt you gained that respect. It didn’t come automatically. I was always so ‘protective’ and I focused on not bringing a bad name on the school, whether it be me or the teachers. I tried to employ people who would continue on with that tradition,” White said.
Not many Rutherford County Schools have the record that Cliffside had with its principals.
White was preceded by principal H.C. Beatty and together the two principals had 70 years as principal.
“The present Cliffside School, with the cornerstone that was laid in 1922 had only six principals. . .three was in one year,” he said.
White said he will miss his hugs from the students most of all. “I couldn’t go down the hall and not get a hug,” he said.
White said he tried to live the school motto, “For the Kids” doing what he could to enhance the students’ lives and education with extra curriculum activities — chorus, fifth grade school trips to Washington, D.C., May Day and chorus trips.
“We were building memories,” he quietly said.
Story reprinted with permission from The Daily Courier, Forest City, N.C.