ROCKINGHAM — A 1.4 acre property on Love Lane, owned by the estate of the late Dr. John and Hilda Langley, will carry on their passion for the arts and community service with its donation to the City of Rockingham which will protect the site from future development.
The Langley’s grew up in Rockingham and built their home — adjacent to the donated property and backed up to Hitchcock Creek — in the mid-1960s. They later bought the surrounding land and cultivated a garden and makeshift park — complete with swings and hammocks, statues and birdhouses — which now punctuates their street.
Daughter Beth Langley said her father was very environmentally conscious and worked with City Manager Monty Crump to make sure that the land was taken care of. Crump said that with the acquisition of this land, the city is able to extend the buffer between the surrounding neighborhood and the Hitchcock Creek Greenway property.
“He wanted it to stay an open space. This was a way for me and my sisters to honor his legacy,” Beth Langley said, noting the donation is a tribute to both her parents’ lives.
Hilda Langley passed in September 2015, John Langley in August 2017.
John Langley served in World War II and later became a teacher, rising up the ranks to become principal of Rockingham Junior High School where he started a fine arts festival that would soon attract artists from Broadway, the radio waves and more modest craftspeople, like potters and blacksmiths, to a community unaccustomed to that sort of thing.
Mrs. Langley was the office manager for her family’s business, Economy Auto Supply, and was an active member of Pee Dee United Methodist Church where she served as treasurer, taught Sunday school and played piano for church services. She also started the Samaritan’s Purse shoebox ministry at the church, which contributes items to needy children around the world.
In his memoir titled “I Am What I Am!” John Langley details the rise of his famous festival. When he became principal, he held a comprehensive study of the school’s curriculum with teachers from every grade level. Though there were other deficiencies, they determined that the arts program was the most sorely lacking. At the time, the school only had a part-time band teacher who came twice a week for an hour each day and a visual arts teacher who only taught for an hour every other week.
“That was the entire arts program at Rockingham Junior High, which added up to absolutely nothing as well as being a source of embarrassment,” he wrote.
It went on to be an annual two-week dive where students would work on projects alongside professional artists, and be treated to performances by the likes of Loonis McGlohon, a member of the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame who collaborated with Judy Garland; Mabel Mercer, an English cabaret and jazz singer who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983; and Doc Watson, the famous singer-songwriter and North Carolina native. The lineup also included Top 40 pop bands.
“It went from a really simple thing to a nationally recognized arts program,” Beth Langley said. “The thought was really that when you bring art into education you just expand children’s horizons. His passion was making sure that all children are challenged to be the best they can be.”
Jim Butler, principal at Richmond Senior High School and a former teacher under John. Langley, said the children were exposed to things they may never have seen otherwise, but the festival was anything but a vacation. “It was an undertaking” in terms of the logistics and workload, Butler said.
A neighbor of the Langley’s who asked to remain anonymous said that the fine arts festival likely contributed to their daughter’s interest — and now career — in dance and the symphony. The neighbor also noted how “beautiful” the flowers in their park are when they bloom.
Following the decision to accept the donation at the City Council meeting on Tuesday, Mayor Steve Morris called the Langleys “fine citizens” and noted that John Langley influenced thousands of children who went through the junior high, including his own, as well as Mayor Pro Tem John Hutchinson.
“John and Hilda wanted to bring out the best in their community, its citizens, and their own children,” Hutchinson said. “(T)hey worked extremely hard to make it happen.”
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674 or [email protected]