To the Editor,
The editor of The Mount Airy News was incorrect in writing on Dec. 14 that the Surry County Board of Education had not set a precedent in naming the county system’s schools in honor of local residents.
In the mid-1970’s the board voted to name the school system’s first middle school in honor of its retiring superintendent, Joseph Samuel (Sam) Gentry Sr. Gentry Middle School on Highway 89 west of Mount Airy is now more than 40 years old.
Ironically, Mr. Gentry was superintendent of the Surry County Schools when Flat Rock Elementary School burned on Feb. 22, 1957; he and the board of education were directly responsible for the safety of the students and the teachers at Flat Rock. Obviously, they failed.
The News states that “it’s hard to imagine anyone in the history of Surry County Schools sacrificing more than Beasley did on that wintry day.” Conversely, it is hard to imagine a more profound failure by a school superintendent and a county board of education than to create an environment resulting in the deaths of a student and a teacher on school property.
Mr. Gentry was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and had been the principal at Mountain Park High School for a decade and at Dobson High School for a decade before being named superintendent of the Surry County Schools in 1955. He knew that the building at Flat Rock and other buildings like it were unsafe, yet he failed to take action before disaster struck. He failed to lead the spendthrift Surry County Board of Education and the Surry County Board of Commissioners in assessing and improving safety at the county’s schools, which would have prevented the deaths of Cora Beasley and Larry Adams and the permanent disfigurement of students who were severely burned.
Gentry Middle School should have never been named in “honor” of Sam Gentry, who was more responsible than any other individual for the worst disaster in the history of the Surry County Schools. If the Surry County Board of Education is going to rename a school, it should remove the name Sam Gentry and replace it with that of Cora Beasley. Heroes should be memorialized and honored; failed school superintendents and their boards who “learned from their mistakes” should not, especially when their mistakes were lethal.