Situated about midway down nature’s southeast arm, scattered like a crossword puzzle on either side of highway 117, the small town of Rose Hill, NC, has almost defied time. Oaks and pines branch protectively across side roads, and tangled forests of dogwoods, multi-colored camellias, and azaleas still enchant visitors with their lovely wildness.
Ducking down a sleepy side street, as the shadows of dawn are lazily chased away by an impatient sun; a new day washes over an 18th century garden and rests lightly on the 1913 gray and brick face of “Herring’s Hearth.” Here, in a world apart, tucked into the pocket of this small town, lived a gentleman who has opened the door to higher education for thousands.
William Dallas Herring and his twin sister, Susan, were born in this house in 1916. Two of six children born to Dallas Burke Herring and Lulu Southerland Herring. It was Dallas who named his home, Herring’s Hearth, because, as he recalls, it reminded him of the many wonderful hours he spent beside the fire with his family and friends, especially during the cold, bleak winter days of his childhood and youth.
On this cool morning, Dr. Herring and I shared a small table lamp that illuminate his features. He was a slender gentleman, with inquisitive eyes and a pensive smile. Once he was described as a “Country Squire” and it stuck. Herring had a calm reassurance about him, ready to meet the world in his dark suit, white shirt, bow tie and courtly manners. He seemed ever the same, and his 87 plus years, sat lightly.
Today, Herring’s Hearth is also home to the “McEachern Library of Local History.” It boasts well over 4,000 books, a multitude of historical files, 36,000 index cards, documenting genealogical references that stretch from Main to Texas extending deep into the valley of the Mississippi. It crosses the countries, from Scotland’s highlands to a haunting sweet lullaby in the green hills of Ireland and elsewhere.
When visitors step through this doorway, they find themselves in the heart of yesterday. In Herring’s Hearth, time has almost stood still, echoes of another era scamper through the halls. And for a moment, an hour or an afternoon, today pauses, and the past sits gently on their shoulder. History buffs from around the nation came to this place to find their roots, discover their heritage. Dr.Herring, ever the historian, ever the gentleman, walkd them slowly through the centuries, and guided them patiently in their search.
In 1938 William Dallas Herring received his bachelor’s degree, cum laude, from Davidson College. A philosophy of hard work and dedication had been instilled in him by his family at an early age. So, it was without hesitation that he returned home when his father became too ill to run the family business, the “Atlantic Coffin and Casket Co.” Later that same year he was elected president of the company, a position he continued to hold until his death.
When 1939 rolled around, Herring’s warm personable style and natural talent for leadership landed him the office of Rose Hill Mayor; at the tender age of 23 he was easily the youngest mayor in the nation, and would serve his small town successfully for 11 years.
The country was atremble with the rumble of events that would shape its history; small towns all over the nation were caught up in the winds of change. Herring deeply felt the needs of Rose Hill and its citizens. He pushed for the construction of a town hall and public works system; he organized a fire department; never again would he witness a building burning to the ground because of inadequate facilities. He would fight to see that town streets were paved and sidewalks built. “Whenever he told you anything you could depend upon it absolutely,” said one old friend.
Early in 1951 he served a term as chairman of the Duplin County Board of Education. Soon he had successfully encouraged consolidation of the county’s numerous small schools into seven high schools. Educational costs improved and the opportunities for children to receive a higher degree of learning in a more challenging atmosphere increased two-fold. Even then, Herring could see clearly the direction N.C. education needed to follow.
Within a few short years, (1955) Governor Hodges had appointed a highly successful, energetic Herring to the State Board of Education, by 1957 he would become chairman; a position he would hold until 1977.
These would prove to be turbulent years in North Carolina and the state faced a sensitive chapter in their history as they took steps to integrate their public schools. Herring would take marked steps toward this goal. In 1956 he had been appointed to the State Board of Higher Education, and from this loftier position he devoted his energies to expanding educational opportunities for all North Carolinians.
Herring continued to carve his mark in the equal educational field. Soon his contribution would come in the realm of adult education, or re-education as it was originally known. “How else will we be able to reach the young men and women who simply do not have the price of a residential college education?” Herring asked. He had yet to achieve this dream, and at times felt himself facing long odds. But, Herring was never short on determination, his familiar presence and workable knowledge kept lawmakers on their toes. And like a Mississippi boat gambler, he played the hands he was dealt, with some of the sharpest public minds in the country. While they flexed their political muscle, Herring deliberated, prepared for battle and played his next card.
In the meantime Governor Hodges was pursuing a vigorous campaign in the north to sell “ North Carolina”…and entice industries to come south in an effort to gain jobs for an industrial future in the state. Land and labor were cheap, however the lack of skilled workers posed a tremendous drawback. Hodges ask Herring to go to the drawing board and devise a workable program for industrial progress. “Industry,” Herring had emphasized, over and over “Cannot not develop without trained manpower. We cannot make the change to an industrial economy without this effort!”
By 1958 Herring had presented his second plan, and by 1959, finally, the first industrial training center had opened in Burlington. The state agreed to provide funding for equipment and buildings while federal programs covered the cost of administration and instruction. These industrial education centers would slowly evolve into the NC community colleges that opened their doors to anyone seeking a higher education. The die was cast.
Herring was not satisfied with providing vocational training only, contrary to what some Tar Heel educators might have originally thought: instead, he could see industrial education centers as stepping stones to higher education. “We may gradually introduce… basic academic courses…., following this, it will only be a step to introduce college-level academic programs of a junior college standard,” Herring explained. He was right, but his course of action would not prove to be without conflicts. What was at work, of course, was a natural collision of ambitious leaders competing for a popular vote in the political arena.
In 1963 the legislature passed the Community College Act and with the 1960 election of Governor Terry Sanford, who had campaigned vigorously for “quality education,” North Carolina was finally waking up to a new day in education. Sanford wholeheartedly shared his optimism and admired Herring’s work on the state board as well as his leadership in a statewide citizen’s committee known as the United Forces for Education (UFE). Sanford saw with clarity the future of Herring’s dream to expand educational opportunities beyond high school.
“Illiteracy exists in shameful proportions,” wrote Herring. “There are thousands who have the ability to read, to write and to cipher hidden within them, but they still cannot do it. The talent that lies buried in the untutored minds and hands of tens of thousands of North Carolinians could not be measured by the value of all the gold that has ever been dug from the earth.”
Sanford would say of Herring that he was “North Carolina’s greatest spokesman for education in the twentieth century.” Herring and Sanford developed a lifetime friendship based on their mutual concern for the educational future of North Carolina. Governor James B. Hunt would later describe him as an “educational giant.” His devoted friend and colleague, William C. Friday, President Emeritus, the University of North Carolina, described Herring as an “exemplary leader of his generation.” Herring would capture the reputation of a man who changed “academic history forever.” A man who was determined at all costs not to let our children live and die in ignorance.
By 1961 there were five public junior colleges emphasizing art and science, and seven industrial education centers focusing on technical and vocational education. Governor Sanford agreed with Herring that there was a need to coordinate the two systems. Their joint efforts succeeded and in 1963 the General Assembly established the North Carolina Community Colleges system.
Today Herring could boast, of being the father of the 58 campus community college system that successfully educated over 800,000 students last year alone. The voice of the New South was lifting and rising. And the crescendos of thousands of educationally deprived North Carolinians were no longer just whispers in the wilderness of ignorance.
During his outstanding career in education, and even well into his retirement, Herring would be awarded and remembered for his hard work and dedication to his state. He was North Carolina’s “Educational Man of the Year” as early as 1954, and he received the state’s highest award for citizenship in 1972. In 1980 he accepted the Hugh McEniry award from the North Carolina Association of Colleges and Universities for his outstanding services on behalf of higher education. In 1979, the Duplin County Board of Commissioners established May 6-12 as Dallas Herring Week.
The State Board of Community Colleges officially recognized Dr. Herring in 1983, in recognition of the NCCC system’s 20th anniversary; as an individual who made a significant contribution to the establishment and development of the NCCC colleges. In 1985 a scholarship was established in his name at James Sprunt Technical College, where he served on the board of trustees. JSCC has honored him with a building, a lecture series and a scholarship in his name. Also in his honor, a $200,000 Herring scholarship to Davidson College was donated by Dr. and Mrs. Barton Hayes, of Hudson Mills. Herring also had the distinction of being awarded four honorary doctorates.
On a warm summer night in July 2003 ; “An evening honoring Dr. Herring and Commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the North Carolina Community College System,” it was announced that the William Dallas Herring Leadership Development Institute had been established through a pledge of $250,000 from Herring’s friends in Duplin County…the Murphy family, the Johnson family and the Quinn family. Hundreds of friends turned out to remember and praise Herring for his foresight and determination.
NCCC System President, H. Martin Lancaster, who made the announcement, said that the Institute’s purpose is to select and train the “brightest stars” in the System to eventually become community college presidents. These “Fellows,” the first five W. Dallas Herring Fellows currently NCCC System vice presidents, will be enrolled in the William C. Friday Center at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill, to prepare them to serve as presidents of community colleges throughout the state.
Welcomed and acknowledged as the new “Fellows” were: Dr. Ralph G. Soney, Mitchell CC: Dr. Linda Thomas-Glover, Guilford Technical CC: Dr. Kay Albertson, Wayne CC: Dr. Sharon Morrisey, Asheville-Buncombe Technical CC: and Dr. Mark Kinlaw, Robeson CC.
The Institute will choose “Herring Fellows” as funds are available. Also attending the memorable evening was the former Governor Bob Scott, (NCCC System President, 69-72), who said of his friend Herring, “The one word to describe him is ‘vision’. And he had the extra gift of turning that vision into an actual program.”
There is really no way to actually close a written history of a man such as Dr. Herring, for his history by its nature is still being written every day of his life. What stands out is his record of successful achievements, both as an educator and as a human being. He shaped the future of education as surely as one would mold a piece of clay.
Herring treasured his memories, and he gently recalled an elderly black minister who could neither read nor write, grasping His hand firmly and thanking him for the opportunity to learn. “Now I can read the word of God,” he said, with a grand smile on his face, “and I learned at your college!”
Then there were the mill workers, who developed a technical skill at a local industrial education center, and were finally able to support their families with a decent wage, and stand a little taller when their own children received their diplomas. The multitudes of artists who contribute their talents to make our great state a place of beauty. And the thousands of nurses who grace the halls and emergency rooms of NC hospital. Graduates from community college nursing programs, that were once told, “they would never succeed.” Herring stood fast, stuck to his guns; and the nursing program not only succeeded, but graduated the highest scoring nurses in the nation.
So we can merely hope to highlight the reality of his yesterdays, at this moment at hand, in this time, in this place. The pages of his life continue to turn. He is still a painter, sketcher, historian and writer. So many stops and turns, so many decisions, so much living has passed during his 87 plus years of life, that I can merely touch the essence of his days. The faces that have brushed the pages of Herring’s life have added multitudes of rich stories, of beginnings and endings that continue to reach out over the years to inspire and offer the opportunity to learn and grow to generations yet to come.
Or as Dr. Herring said in 1960, “North Carolina has wrought well for the American democracy. It has indeed been a land where the weak grow strong and the strong grow great, because it has dedicated itself to the unalterable truth that education is the open door to freedom and prosperity. That door, that golden door, must never be closed.”
(Editor’s note: This story was written by Micki Cottle in 2004 for the State Magazine; before Dr. Herring’s death. And the dream still lives.)