The narrow entrance of College Street Elementary School likely wasn’t built with the idea that dozens of grown adults would pack themselves into the lobby. On a balmy Saturday afternoon, close to 50 College Street alumni and others stood shoulder to shoulder inside their old school to pay tribute to one of its finest leaders — a custodian named Sallie.
A portrait of Sallie L. Hardison was officially unveiled during at the school Saturday, the culmination of a two-year effort by former College Street students, who organized the event with the assistance of Clinton City Schools administration and the CCS Board of Education.
“This is just so unreal,” said Queenie Hardison. Sallie’s youngest and only living child, Queenie made the trip from Fort Washington, Md., for Saturday’s dedication. “I never would have thought a little black girl running around in pigtails would be here today and her mother being honored. It’s just overwhelming. I don’t want to wake up.”
It was former student Renee Butler Edge who posted something about College Street School in March 2014 on the “You know you grew up in Clinton, NC if…” Facebook page, sparking a days-long conversation about the school and memories of Sallie Hardison, who worked as a custodian there from 1949-78.
Edge and fellow College Street alum Ronnie Alderman talked about honoring Sallie in a tangible way for months after that, and were later able to track down Queenie. Edge sent her an email sharing their hope to honor Sallie.
Queenie was blown away by talk of the gesture. She could barely contain her emotions as she spoke to the packed school about her mother’s dedication and the children who loved her.
“I can’t begin to tell you how overwhelmed I’ve been for the last year and a half or two years,” said Queenie. “I knew how much my mother cared about everyone at College Street School. She was my hero. My father died when I was 8 years old and my mother worked hard. My mother walked from McKoy Street where we lived to come here every day.”
Her good friend, longtime College Street principal Gussie Parker, would give her a ride in her later years, but Hardison was at the school “rain, sleet or snow,” her daughter recalled. Hardison passed away from congestive heart failure on April 27, 1984, at the age of 68.
Now she and Parker are side by side, their two smiling faces greeting visitors to College Street School.
Parker’s portrait was unearthed from storage as Hardison’s was being commissioned and the perfect spot for it scouted. The portrait had been wrapped and placed in a closet when the walls were painted years ago and never returned to its place. Originally presented by the College Street School PTA on May 5, 1964, the portrait now hangs restored.
“She loved Mrs. Parker and Mrs. Parker loved her,” said Queenie, who said it was fitting their portraits would hang together in the school where they worked together for some three decades. “You couldn’t get two people who cared as much about each other as these two did.”
“We got Miss Gussie back where she belongs and we’re getting ready to get Sallie where she belongs,” said Edge, just before asking Queenie and Alderman to help lift the black drape covering Hardison’s portrait. The crowd applauded as Sallie’s familiar face was displayed.
“It looks gorgeous,” said Queenie, who wiped tears from her eyes as she looked at her mother’s picture. “Oh my God. That’s my mama.”
Alderman lauded Clinton City Schools Superintendent Dr. Stuart Blount, City Schools staff and Carlton Hubbard Photography, who gave a discount on the portrait and framing because Hubbard loved the story of Sallie and her students so much.
He called Hardison “a true lady in every sense of the word.”
“She loved us all without measure. There was no difference made between any of us, period,” Alderman remarked. “If you needed a scolding, Sallie could do it so that you felt loved at the same time. Sallie had a knack for spotting the child who may not have been receiving the love or attention needed at home. Sallie made sure that child got extra love at school.”
After the portrait was unveiled, Sallie smiled down as several of her students recalled Hardison and life at College Street School, the garden plots, the bus rides, the spankings and the special soup and peanut-butter laced cinnamon buns cooked up at the school.
They spoke lovingly of Sallie’s smile, accented by her gold tooth, and the old denim hat she was known to wear. They recalled how she cleaned up messes, counseled children and walked them to their home or their parents’ places of work when they got too sick to be at school. She made the children feel like they were her own, smiling and waving as they arrived and when they departed each day.
“The first thing I think of when I think of this school is Sallie,” said Ricky Moore, who also offered fond memories of Edmond Fields, a fellow custodian at College Street School. “I know this day is about Sallie, but Edmond was very special too. There was never a kinder and gentler man.”
Fields would let children replace paper towel rolls in the restrooms and fill up the soap box, Moore noted. He polished the floors nearly every day and, during the winter, would let some of the students help him take lumps of coal from outside to put in the furnace. He didn’t give the hugs Sallie did, but loved the kids all the same, the former students said.
Patty Cherry was on the school board when Hardison was still a custodian at College Street. She thanked everyone involved in honoring Hardison.
“Very few people would recognize and honor a custodian,” Cherry said. “Sallie earned her degree in loving children right here at College Street School and we all loved Sallie. We knew that Sallie loved children and she proved it. And when I look around at everybody here, I’m thinking about how much love there is in this room, and all across Sampson County, because everybody knew Sallie and Edmond Fields. Those were the two who walked up and down these hallways, kept the school clean and loved the children.”
Queenie echoed that gratitude, saying her mother would have loved seeing all her children and knowing, if she did not already, that the love she had for them was reciprocated several times over.
“If she was here, she would be so happy and everybody would have so many hugs,” said Queenie, her voice shaking. “Those hugs you got, they were real. My mother was just such a good person and I’m glad someone else knew that besides me. I’m just happy. I will never be able to thank you all enough.”
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