A tragedy that shook the community six decades ago — and the people lost on that day — were recalled in a ceremony Thursday.
“Sixty years ago, Flat Rock Elementary School experienced something that no school should ever have to experience — a fire.”
So began Dr. Travis Reeves, Surry County Schools superintendent, at the ceremony that honored two people who died in that fire on Feb. 22, 1957.
Granite plaques were unveiled at Thursday’s event to memorialize third-grade teacher Cora Beasley and third-grade student Larry Adams.
The plaques will be placed at Flat Rock Elementary, joining portraits of Beasley and Adams as well as news reports contemporary with the fire.
The main school structure was renamed the Cora F. Beasley Building at the ceremony. Lettering on the front of the building spells out the new name, soon to be joined by the newly unveiled plaque on the front of the building. One of the third-grade classrooms will be named in memory of Adams, and his plaque will be placed there.
Beasley’s plaque has a portrait of her on the top and an engraved photo of her conducting a singing group below. It reads “Flat Rock Elementary School | The Cora F. Beasley Building | In memory of and gratitude for her service, commitment, and sacrifice to Flat Rock Elementary School | A teacher affects eternity; she can never tell where her influence stops. | This building is dedicated February 22, 2018, in memory of Mrs. Beasley, a teacher, who through heroic efforts of saving others in the 1957 Flat Rock Elementary fire lost her life.”
The plaque in memory of Larry Adams is engraved with his portrait and reads, “This classroom is dedicated in memory of Larry Adams who lost his young life in the Flat Rock Elementary School fire on February 22, 1957. Many of our greatest joys in life are related to our learning. May all students who enter through these doors experience that joy. | Dedicated February 22, 2018”
The gym was filled with Flat Rock’s current students and staff and many guests, including local officials, former students and faculty and family of Cora Beasley. Larry Adams’ younger sister was not able to attend.
Rebecca Pendleton, Cora Beasley’s daughter, started her remarks by saying she usually spoke to a smaller audience, her husband. She then said, “I knew this woman 29 years. She taught me to be nice, to not be ugly, and to be appreciative.” Pendleton then thanked Clark Owens, Jim Roberts, Dr. Reeves and Clark Goings, saying, “They were a great help in getting this together. They didn’t give up.”
“The story of Mrs. Beasley is an example of personal heroism,” said Reeves. “She loved to teach, she loved her students, and she loved her school. She is a true hero because she was unselfish in her efforts to save others.”
Reeves spoke simply, seeming to address his remarks directly to the students sitting up front on the floor of the gym as he continued his story.
“When the fire started, Mrs. Beasley was in her classroom with her students. Her first and her only thought was for the safety of her students. That’s what teachers do — they care for their students first; they see it as their personal responsibility. That’s what your teachers do here at Flat Rock every day — they take care of you. They love you and want you to be safe, and that’s what Mrs. Beasley wanted for her students.
“So Mrs. Beasley quickly began to help her students out of the building. When the last child was out would be the time Mrs. Beasley would think of herself. In saving her students, however, she suffered severe burns — burns so bad that she couldn’t survive.
“I am sure if we could talk to Mrs. Beasley today that she would say that there was nothing extraordinary about her efforts to save her children. I bet she would say it was all part of her duty as a teacher, and that she wouldn’t consider herself a hero. But, we know she was a hero.”
Reeves also characterized third-grade student Larry Adams as a hero. He said, “According to a February 1957 Mount Airy News paper, it is understood that Larry Adams was one of the first students to discover the terrible fire, and he warned other students, which resulted in a great blessing, the blessing being that because of his warning so many of his fellow classmates escaped the building … even though he, himself, was unable to escape.
“But because of that, because Larry warned others, people will always be grateful to Larry Adams, for his heroism and sacrifice. He helped save others just as Mrs. Beasley did.”
Adams’ sister, Sharon Greenwood, could not be present but conveyed a message. “I was four years old when he passed away. I don’t remember my brother very much, but I remember my parents. This would make them very happy.”