By Carl Warren, Jr.
On a beautiful day in May, 1940, there was excitement in a small rural Sampson County community! The Governor of North Carolina was coming to give the commencement address.
It was a serious time both nationally and internationally. The Great Depression was still causing hardships. Hitler was on a rampage in Europe. It seemed that we were about to be involved helping our allies in this ever-growing war which began in 1939.
During this time, the United States was selling all scrap metal to Japan, not realizing what it was being used to make. On December 7, 1941, we were attacked at Pearl Harbor. This doubled our overseas responsibilities.
Needless to say, Sampson County residents along with all other areas of the US were struggling at home and abroad. There were shortages of many items. Homes, farms and businesses were either going bankrupt or trying to keep from going bankrupt. The economy was weak and banking was yet to be fully restored.
In this day of prosperity, it is hard to believe that rural Sampson County did not have electricity in 1940. Some areas were beginning to get on line but the majority were not being served. With our focus on war, there were shortages and rationing on shoes, gasoline, sugar and more. Every man was needed in the military; every woman was needed in the factories. Car production ceased in years 1944 and 1945. Instead, war materials had to be manufactured.
At home, we were trying to live as normally as possible. At Westbrook High School there were about fifteen seniors scheduled to graduate very soon. To plan the graduation, a committee was formed. The question was asked, “How can we make this the greatest graduation ever?” Someone replied, “Invite the Governor.” It was an idea worth pursuing. The worst he could say would be “I am already booked.”
Being strong-willed, a letter was issued inviting the Governor to give the commencement address at Westbrook High School. A reply from his office was soon received accepting the invitation. Can you imagine the joy, the excitement, the very idea of a Governor coming to a small rural school on NC #102 surrounded by pine trees?
Reality eventually settled in, all available help was drafted. This had to be a history-making event. Everything must be cleaned, polished, mowed, and decorated. Decisions had to be made for the stage, who would sit where, how many flower arrangements, planning and printing the programs and so on.
This had to be an all-inclusive, total community event. Therefore, invitations must get out quickly to all people regardless of age, size, color, politics, gender or religion.
Duties assigned, everyone went to work to meet the deadline. It was decided to end the ceremony with “dinner-on-the grounds” making this celebration to remember with a “banquet” of food.
The school building sat between pine woods on the left and a playground and agriculture building on the right. Under the pines, and wire-fence table was installed. Nature was providing the fragrance and flowers of currently blooming honeysuckle. The final moment arrived—it was Graduation Day! A shiny, chauffeur driven cabriolet limousine rolled up to the front door of the little country school named Westbrook. Standing in place to welcome the Governor was Principal J.L. Deans and other officials.
What a regal moment, it was almost unreal. The chauffeur opened the door, out stepped a handsomely dressed gentleman. He was wearing striped morning trousers, a black frock-tail coat, high collared shirt, ascot, Pince-nez glasses and graying hair.
The Honorable Clyde R. Hoey, Governor of North Carolina was genuinely gracious as he mingled with the large crowd. After the welcoming, he was escorted to the stage to proceed with the program. Once on stage, he recognized the special guests, the committee, and the graduates. The school’s auditorium was filled to standing room only. Everyone wanted to be included in this history-making event.
At the conclusion of the program, the crowd went to the lunch in the cool pine shade. Here, they found a sumptuous table laden with a wide variety of delicious food complete with tubs of cold homemade lemonade.
The committee had received their wish, namely, “the greatest graduation every” had been realized at Westbrook High School—1940.