Months of time spent in a grassroots effort resulted in a compromise on renaming a local school.
Last summer a Pilot Mountain man approached the Surry County Board of Education about having Flat Rock Elementary renamed in memory of a teacher who died trying to save lives.
The school board didn’t take any action at that time.
Then in the fall, Jim Roberts approached local government boards about the name change. The three municipalities gave their support, but the county Board of Commissioners declined to make a formal move for or against the idea, stating that it should be the school board’s decision to designate names.
This month marks 61 years since a fire destroyed Flat Rock Elementary, injuring several people and resulting in the deaths of two people: student Larry Adams and third-grade teacher Cora Beasley.
Roberts said he wanted to see the school named for the teacher, but in a compromise this month, the school board voted to name the main school structure the Cora F. Beasley Building, while a classroom will be named for Adams.
Even though he was at Mount Airy Junior High and not Flat Rock, Roberts explained to the county commissioners that the tragedy was significant to him because Beasley’s daughter, Nancy, was a classmate of his and Mayor David Rowe.
He said they were in class that day in February 1957 when they heard the commotion created by the blaze. They looked out a window and saw smoke rising in the sky in the distance.
The schoolhouse in 1957 was made of wood and treated with oils that preserved the wood, but also made it more flammable. When the building caught fire, it took only 20 minutes for the entire school to burn down.
Teachers like Beasley rushed children to windows and helped lower them outside. For classrooms on the second floor, the teachers had to drop the children down to the older kids waiting to catch them on the ground.
Beasley got her children to safety, except for Adams who was clinging to his desk. Adams reportedly had a history of seizures, and it is unsure whether he froze in fear or was having a seizure that made him latch onto his desk. Beasley could have saved herself, but she stayed at his side, trying to get him free until the flames reached him. He died in the fire, and she died from her burns days later at the hospital.
Frank Hensley Jr., one of six children who were severely injured in the fire, wrote to The News to say he didn’t agree with naming the whole school in memory of his teacher, even though “she was an amazing woman who to this day is my heroine.”
“It was the people of Flat Rock who kept the faith and faithfully prayed for six little kids who would have otherwise perished. It was the people of Flat Rock who enveloped the Flat Rock Six when we left the hospital after months of treatment and returned to the ‘normal’ world. We were frightened to even go outdoors, but the people of Flat Rock protected us, nurtured us and helped us to achieve some form of normalcy.”
Pictures of Adams and Beasley hang at Flat Rock to commemorate their lives.
Roberts told the county commissioners that as far as he knows Beasley is the only Surry County teacher known to have sacrificed her life for the sake of her school children.
“She deserves more than a picture in a hallway,” he said.
Naming an entire school after a person isn’t unheard of in Surry County. Mount Airy City Schools has B.H. Tharrington Primary and J.J. Jones Intermediate. The county schools district has J. Sam Gentry Middle.
Dr. Travis Reeves, school superintendent, said that he spoke to the families of the two victims as well as the staff at Flat Rock Elementary.
To the people in the community, the name of the school is a soure of pride, he said. He recommended the name change for the main building, and the school board unanimously approved.
This was an idea that Hensley suggested back in December and supported after the announcement.
Etched granite memorials are also planned for the school at an estimated cost of about $2,800.