William Whitaker Sr. and Larry Bell Sr. were beside each other in Greensboro as they marched into their graduation ceremony. After achieving a major milestone of earning a college degree, the two were ready to start the next chapter of their lives as alumni of North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.
But before that moment, the longtime local educators became close friends.
“We remained friends throughout our college years and even today,” Whitaker said about the bond, which was sparked by education and music.
It all began in the late-1950s, when the social studies majors became friends as freshmen while singing with the choir. At the time, students were not allowed to perform unless they took a sight-reading course.
“We had to take that class at 7 o’ clock in the morning,” Bell said with a chuckle at the music lessons.
After the first early session, the next was their English class. It sparked friendships for many years.
“We probably stayed friends the entire four years,” he said of the students in the class. “You never forget those people. You’re frightened, scared freshmen going to class for the first time.”
With their musical talents, Bell, Whitaker and fellow choir member, Dorothy Tatum, broke a trend during their freshman year after being picked for the ensemble’s touring choir, which toured 15 states a year.
“Usually, freshmen didn’t make the choir,” Bell said. “It was usually upperclassmen.”
Although they were buddies in Greensboro, the educators had no idea their friendship would continue in eastern North Carolina. Bell applied for an educator vacancy at Sampson High School, but he was not picked for the job.
“One day I was at home and the phone rang and it was Mr. Whitaker,” Bell said. “He said, ‘Larry I’m in Clinton, come and find me.’”
Bell later found out that Whitaker was picked for the Sampson High job, which resulted in Bell taking a job at Hargrove.
“He was a very outgoing person,” Bell said. “Evidently, he won out over me getting that job.”
But for Bell, it was probably the best thing that happened when it came to working at Hargrove and teaching different subject areas. It led to forming relationships in the county and other leadership roles such as coaching basketball, a sport he never played.
“It was one of the best organizations you can think of and that’s what made people win,” Bell said while talking about his coaching years. “That’s what makes people win, being part of a team.”
The former educators were influenced to become teachers from people who educated them in their younger years.
“I was guided in that direction,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker has lived in the areas since 1961 following his college graduation. After teaching at Sampson High, he was transferred to Clinton High School in 1969 when area schools became integrated. He taught social studies there before he became the assistant principal — the first black assistant principal at Clinton High School. A yearbook was dedicated to him in 1972. Whitaker later served as principal in several schools throughout Clinton, his last stop being principal at L.C. Kerr School.
“I had good experiences in all the schools,” Whitaker said. “I enjoyed it very much and I enjoyed teaching.”
Bell began his education career at Hargrove, which educated high school students at one point. It was one of several segregated buildings that educated black students and Bell was one of them. In between college semesters, he would assist his father, who worked as a custodian in the building.
“I’ve been in every position,” Bell said. “From custodian to superintendent of schools.”
Before local education was integrated in the late-1960s, Bell was selected to teach physical education in a summer program, which was a trial run in predominately white schools. He later became the first black principal of Halls-Piney Grove Middle School in the Hobbton District. Bell said one of the goals of his position was to give white students experience with a black principal or educators during the integration process.
“It was really good for me because the people in the Hobbton District treated me really well,” Bell said.
Other endeavors included becoming principal of Union Elementary School and, later, the elementary school supervisor of schools in the county, as well as assistant superintendent and superintendent of the county schools. During his tenure, he dealt with issues such as racial tensions and students leaving the district.
After more than three decades in education, Bell would retire as superintendent of Sampson County Schools in 1996, a year after his wife Macie passed away on Valentine’s Day. They met by becoming educators and the death took away his incentive to be in the education field. Whitaker’s wife Elmer passed away several years ago too. Following retirement, Bell had a desire to do other things. He worked for a engineering company as an education consultant. He later got involved with politics by becoming a representative, currently in his eighth term representing District 21 in the N.C. House.
“I feel that I had a significant impact on education, even as a legislator,” Bell said about serving on several legislative committee dealing with issues such as teachers salaries. “I feel that I haven’t gotten away from it. I’m still advocating for students.”
In addition to being close friends, Bell and Whitaker also share brotherhood through Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity. The education advocates have shared many experiences, successes and joys which extended to their family members.
Bell introduced Whitaker to his wife. Their wives worked together in the local education system. It all began with a double date.
“We ended up marrying those two ladies,” said Bell, who was the best man at Whitaker’s wedding. “We were very close and our wives were good friends.”
Whitaker and Elmer had two children together, William Whitaker Jr., a professor at South Carolina State University, and Melody Whitaker of Gastonia. Bell had one son, Larry Bell Jr., a media professional. Their children grew up together and their sons, Billy Whitaker II and Larry Bell Jr., followed in their father’s footsteps by attending NC A&T and became roommates.
Reach Chase Jordan at 910-249-4617. Follow us on Twitter at @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.