ROCKINGHAM — It’s impossible for one room to contain two lives — especially the lives of people as distinguished as James Clyde and Ruth Perry Watkins. But the bright yellow conference room at the old Leak Street School attempts to.
Displaying newspaper clippings, plaques and personal memorabilia, the room at the Leak Street Education and Cultural Center will be dedicated at 3 p.m. Saturday to the couple and the history they have made.
“It’s been almost a complete life now,” J.C. Watkins said in a recent interview in the room. “This is where I started and where I ended up.”
And in between, it’s where J.C. and Ruth Watkins have molded hundreds of lives.
Watkins is “a good man,” said Nancy Stacey, a former student and now a teacher who owns a hair salon. “He helps everybody that he can, (and) for being a 95-year-old man, he (still) does all he can…to reach out, to help kids.
“He worships that Leak Street School. He really does.”
The child of tenant farmers and the great-grandson of a slave, J.C. Watkins grew up with nine siblings in the Richmond County countryside. He attended “coloreds-only” school through grade seven and then had to make a decision.
At less than 100 pounds, he was too scrawny to work in the sawmill, as others his age did. So he stayed in school — partly because he was too small to be a reliable worker and party because “they realized I had some kind of a talent” for education.
Through high school and, eventually, classes at Shaw University, Watkins earned honors and recognition. Upon college graduation in 1943, he returned to Leak Street. (He had failed an Army physical because he had fallen arches and could not go to war.)
And there, in 1944, he met Ruth Perry, fresh from college in New Jersey. She taught French and U.S. history in the room next to his, and the two would chat in the hall during passing period.
Soon, “one little thing led to another” and the two began dating. This Aug. 10, they will have been married 71 years.
When they first married, Ruth lost her job and J.C. stayed. Ruth worked at a dry cleaner’s, until a principal from Moore County pulled up in front of her house to recruit her to teach there.
Eventually, both Watkinses earned their masters degrees. He became a principal and hired her back to Richmond County. She became a celebrated French teacher — she was N.C. Teacher of the Year in 1978 — who organized student trips to Paris in the summer and represented the United States abroad.
Both worked to guide their schools through integration, when it came.
When they encountered problems outside the schools, J.C. Watkins ran for Rockingham City Council and then, the Richmond County Board of Commissioners. They attended two presidential inaugurations, invited by Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. And now, he’s back at Leak Street, offering tutoring and meals to students who need them.
“All those kinds of experiences we received …,” Watkins said, his voice trailing. He’s had to list all the awards and mementos he and Ruth once packed in banana boxes or displayed in their family room. There are too many to display in the conference room.
“About six months or a year ago, we said — you don’t like to talk about it, but — we’re 95 years old. We’re not going to be here much longer,” Watkins said. It was time to find a place for the trophies and paraphernalia.
“If somebody had told me (I’d) have these kind of experiences, if I’d known how to curse, I would’ve,” he said with a smile. “Never in my life could you have told me this would happen (to) this little country boy.”
Watkins will attend the ribbon-cutting and ceremonies surrounding the naming of the conference room at the Leak Street Education and Cultural Center, 1004 Leak St., Rockingham. Ruth Watkins will be there if her health allows.
The Rev. Dian Harris of Mount Zion United Church of Christ will make remarks.
And visitors will be able to mingle in the midst of history.
Reach Christine S. Carroll at 910-817-2673.