Virgie West May went away to East Carolina Teachers College in 1929 at age 18. She graduated two years later when it was somewhat rare for rural residents to seek a college education, especially women.
Virgie was born in Columbia, NC, on Oct. 22, 1911. As an only child, it was quite a sacrifice for her parents to let her go to college in Greenville in Pitt County. The journey in those days required a ferry and was so far that she could only come home once a year, during the holidays. An old invoice found decades later indicated that her father sold some timber in the Dismal Swamp to pay for her college education.
Virgie’s first job in 1931 was teaching at the Red Oak Farm School in Red Oak, NC. She boarded at the school along with some other teachers and students and taught there for 30 years. There she met Dock Tripp May from Red Oak, and they wed in 1935.
Although she took some time off to raise a family, she never used a sick day in three decades of teaching at the school. So the state gave her an extra two years toward her retirement when she finally left her post. She said she would have retired two years earlier if she had known about the two-year credit.
Virgie taught fifth, sixth and eighth grades over her long career, citing the fifth grade as her very favorite because the students were “old enough to know what was going on,” according to her son Michael May. He marveled at his mother’s ability to diagram a sentence, calling the detailed labeling of all the parts of speech a “lost art.”
Many lives were touched over such an extended career. “All the students I’ve ever met said they really loved her,” May said with pride in his voice. “She was a very dedicated teacher, and I remember her staying up late at night grading her students’ papers.”
May recalled a talented faculty and administration at Red Oak. “All of the early elementary teachers who taught with my mother, such as Mrs. Sutton, Mrs. Regis, Mrs. Ellen, Mrs. Coley, Mrs. Green and Mrs. Edwards, were dedicated teachers who gave everyone a solid elementary education,” he said, noting strong leadership from the principal, Mr. Joseph Martin as well.
Several years before her death in 1998, Virgie realized that it was time to go into an assisted living facility. She was not able to renew her driver’s license and asked May to come help her pack up her home in Red Oak.
It was an emotional task for both mother and son. “We’d each come across different things that brought up different memories, and she’d tear up, and then I’d tear up,” May said. When sorting through an old cedar chest, he found some papers rolled up in the corner and pulled out her original diploma from East Carolina Teachers College. “I had never seen her diploma as it had never been framed or displayed in our home,” May said. “She didn’t want to upstage my father, who didn’t go to college.”
May renovated and kept his mother’s childhood home in Tyrrell County as “a get-away” that he and his wife continue to enjoy. It’s out in the country, and it’s pretty and peaceful, he said. And he’s framed his mother’s diploma where it hangs prominently, just below her photo, in her bedroom in the old home where she grew up.
Red Oak was a much-loved institution, with a scholarship in place that gives preference to students with ties to the former school. Administration was becoming somewhat burdensome, and the alumni group wanted to ensure that the integrity of the scholarship would continue long after their involvement. The group also wanted to provide contributors with the ability to make bequests and planned gifts to the fund. The alumni group came to realize that they needed to associate with a community foundation to help with the regulatory and fund-management tasks, and they looked to the North Carolina Community Foundation.
The fund’s balance was at $15,000, so didn’t initially meet the minimum for a scholarship with NCCF. May and his wife Phyllis stepped in with a $10,000 gift to the fund, which qualified the scholarship for administration with NCCF. The gift was made to memorialize his mother and her long and successful teaching career at the school. The scholarship is now affiliated with the Futrell-Mauldin Community Foundation, an NCCF affiliate that serves the Greater Rocky Mount area. (May and his wife have two other funds that are also now associated with the Futrell-Mauldin Community Foundation and NCCF.)
The Red Oak Alumni Scholarship benefits high school graduates wishing to pursue their education at an institution of higher learning, including a college, university or community college. Special consideration is given to students who had an association with the former Red Oak School, such as family members who were employed or taught at the former Nash County school. Students must “show evidence of academic promise, involvement and leadership in extra-curricular school, community or church activities and demonstration of high moral character and good citizenship.”
Visit this page for information on making a gift to the Red Oak School Scholarship or click on the GIVE NOW icon on any NCCF website page. Those with questions or seeking further information can email Kelly Lee, NCCF regional associate, or call her at 252-245-1794; or email Beth Boney Jenkins, NCCF vice president of development, or call her at 919-256-6932.