As Haywood County schools transition from retiring Superintendent Bill Nolte, to local teacher-turned administrator, Trevor Putnam, we take a look back at our first school superintendent, a farmer, preacher and teacher who did not set foot outside North Carolina until he was in his mid-40s, and whose lifelong regret was that he never obtained a college degree.
Richard Sentelle inspired many of his students to strive for higher education, however, and was considered by many to be Haywood County’s greatest educator. He was tireless, teaching as well as performing administrative duties, traveling by horseback to visit each school, setting up sessions to further educate teachers, conducting college entrance examinations himself at a time when many of them included a person-to-person interview.
When he wasn’t serving as an educator, Sentelle served as a Baptist minister, pastoring churches throughout Haywood County. And in his “spare time,” Sentelle and his wife farmed, raising much of the food needed to feed their family of nine children.
Somehow, despite all of his responsibilities, Sentelle created time to continually pursue his own passion for learning. Each summer he would enroll in the Lake Junaluska Summer School, conducted by Duke University. He kept diaries much of his life, and at the age of 87, in one of his last entries, he wrote, “I want to learn more.”
Scanty start at schooling
Richard Alva Sentelle was a native of Henderson County, born Dec. 23, 1846, growing up on the head waters of Willow Creek, southeast of what is now the Etowah community. In a partial autobiography, Sentelle wrote that his early schooling took place in a windowless log cabin with no blackboards, no desks, and, in his early years, only a dirt floor. Students sat on benches made by splitting a log, adding four legs and turning it flat-side up.
“Blackboards and chalk were unknown to us, but I got a love for books then that has been with me until now – and my books are yet my best friends,” Sentelle would write later in life.
Haywood County Historian W. Clark Medford would later write that Sentelle’s family estimated he had no more than four terms of school before the Civil War.
Civil War erupted when Sentelle was 14 and halted his education. His father enrolled in the Union Army, and Sentelle, the oldest child in the family, spent his time trying to maintain the family farm. He would later tell his children of working in the field all day, then helping his mother with carding and spinning wool well into the night.
While Richard’s father survived the war, he was killed on the way home – accounts blamed his death on robbers – and Richard found himself head of the household at the age of 19. In 1865 and 1866, he visited relatives in Haywood County and found work, sometimes borrowing money on his labor in order to feed his mother and siblings.
A suit of clothes, change of life
At that time, he would later write, Sentelle had no aim for additional education. It was his wardrobe and a widow’s kindness that would change his life and the course of Haywood County education.
“In search for work, I went to Mrs. Adeline Holland, a widow in Henson Cove,” Sentelle wrote. The widow had no work at the time, but offered to make Sentelle a suit of clothes, which he could repay with labor later in the fall, when it was time to harvest corn and sow winter wheat.
“She offered to board me and let me go to school to J.M. Mease, who was teaching in Henson Cove,” Sentelle recorded. “I had no notion of ever going to school any more, but in order to get the clothes, I took the offer.”
Sentelle followed up his return to school with tutoring under the Rev. D.B. Nelson. Sentelle decided to pattern his life after Nelson’s.
In 1867, Sentelle married Addie Blalock, who had grown up on the East Fork of the Pigeon River. In those early years Addie, who had more schooling than her husband, would often help him with lessons as he struggled to catch up. Their early years were a continual struggle.
As Sentelle wrote, “She owned a cow and a bed, and I had nothing.” Sentelle first thought he would farm full-time, but soon agreed to teach a subscription school on Little East Fork.
For the next 14 years, Sentelle alternated between teaching paid subscription schools and teaching in the free public schools. By the late 1870s, Sentelle also felt a call to preach. He would teach school five days a week, then preach Saturdays and Sundays, sometimes traveling by foot to preach at churches 15 miles apart on the same weekend.
Sentelle was teaching school at Bethel in 1882 when he was elected Haywood County’s first superintendent of schools. His responsibilities included the examining of teachers to ensure they were qualified, inspecting schools, and obtaining supplies. He also held training sessions to help teachers hone their skills and keep up to date on knowledge.
Few warm welcomes
Sentelle’s was not a popular job, nor was it a full-time position. He continued to teach school for most of the 32 years he served as superintendent. At that time, each school had local supervisors or committees, who resented the idea of an “outside man” inspecting their school and giving direction.
At times, tensions were so great that Sentelle would back off school visits and inspections. At other times, he would have to quickly find a substitute for his own school in order to take off and address trouble at a school elsewhere.
As much as he loved education, Sentelle also loved his service as a minister. In 1893, he decided to leave education to devote himself to full-time ministry. In December of that same year, perhaps because he was not committed to teaching, Sentelle traveled to Tennessee. He was 45 years old, and, according to his autobiography, it was the first time he had set foot outside his home state.
A move up – to horsebackBy September of the next year, Sentelle was teaching again, this time at Rock Springs. Nine years later, he would return to the job of superintendent. It was slightly easier by this time – instead of walking across the county to visit schools, Sentelle was able to travel by horseback.
In his second tenure as superintendent, Sentelle would encounter a problem that would plague almost every school supervisor who would follow — the paperwork and office challenges were ever increasing, and continually cutting into the time he could spend in the schools. In 1920, at the age of 63, Sentelle wrote that the office work was “confining.”
“Still in my office doing my work,” he added. “There is now one person’s work in this office — what am I to do on the outside?”
On July 22, 1921, Sentelle again set aside the role of superintendent, but continued to teach, this time at the Haywood Institute in Clyde, a Baptist high school. Upon his retirement as superintendent, Sentelle received, among other tributes, one from one of the country’s leading fish specialists, Dr. E.W. Gudger, who wrote from the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
“I can almost hear Prof. Sentelle’s encouraging words as he tried to make me realize that nouns and adjectives were entirely different words…,” wrote Gudger, a Haywood County native, who described his former teacher as “a man who for 45 years has completely given his life to the educational interests of Haywood County.”
In 1926, the year he turned 80, Sentelle started teaching at Bethel High School. At age 82, he began taking courses at Duke University’s summer school at Lake Junaluska, a practice he continued each summer until his death.
His grueling work schedule may have allowed Sentelle to age well. On his birthday in 1931, he wrote, “Today I am 85 years old. I am in good health – can walk 10 miles or more a day.”
In April 1937, Charity and Children, the magazine of the Baptist Children’s homes, paid tribute to Sentelle, upon his and Addie’s 65th anniversary:
“For more than half a century, he has been the leader in the educational and religious life of the county. He is a teacher-preacher. He has taught in many of the schools of the county and has been pastor of most of the churches. He has served as superintendent of schools of the county for many years and now at the age of 87, he and Mrs. Sentelle live on their farm near Waynesville, both hale and hearty.
“Many men and woman, now prominent, received their first inspiration while they sat at the feet of this good and great man. He has been a true friend of the Orphanage since its beginning.”
Sentelle died May 12, 1934, at age 87, and was buried at Green Hill cemetery in Waynesville.
Four years later, school teachers and former students raised money to have his portrait painted by an Asheville artist. That portrait was hung in the Haywood County Courthouse.
The principal speaker for Sentelle’s funeral was Dr. R.L. Moore, president of Mars Hill College — a fitting tribute for a man who never received his own college degree, yet inspired many. At that funeral, separate speakers paid tribute to Sentelle as an educator, a citizen, a Baptist minister, and a man who influenced other Christian denominations.
In addition to Medford’s biography and Sentelle’s partial autobiography, sources for this story include “R.A. Sentelle Laid foundation for Modern School system in County” by W. Clark Medford, Dec. 2, 1937 edition of the Waynesville Mountaineer; Gudger’s tribute, published in the April 28, 1921 edition of the Waynesville Courier; Charity and Children tribute, reprinted in the April 21, 1932 edition of the Waynesville Mountaineer; and a series of articles on, and excerpts from, Sentelle’s diary published by W. Clark Medford in The Mountaineer from December 1957 through February 1958 and numerous small articles on Sentelle in The Mountaineer and its newspaper predecessors, dating back to 1913.