Leak Street’s modest mentor

William R. Toler | Daily Journal J.C. Watkins addresses an audience during an October Moral Monday rally in Rockingham.

ROCKINGHAM — James Clyde Watkins will be honored this week for his lifetime of service to the community through education, leadership and mentoring.

The Leak Street Alumni Inc.’s board of directors will honor Watkins at 5 p.m. Friday at the Leak Street Education and Cultural Center.

Watkins has worked steadfastly as an educator throughout his adult life. According to a biographical article by Glenn Sumpter — then editor of the Daily Journal — Watkins grew up “on a tenant farm in the Beaver Dam community” and attended the Lincoln School and Leak Street School as a child.

He was salutatorian in his graduating class and went on to earn his degree from Shaw University in Raleigh, but he returned to Leak Street as a teacher in 1943. It was there that he met his wife, who came to teach at the same school in 1944 — Ruth Terry. The couple married in 1946.

In 1955, Watkins became principal of his school. A “lifelong learner,” he has left a positive impression on many students over the years.

By 1970, Watkins was elected to the Rockingham City Council where he served until 1990 after being elected to the Richmond County Board of Commissioners. He served there until 2008.

Beulah Wall Crenshaw, one of the first students Watkins taught, said he is deserving of this recognition despite the fact that he never sought attention for himself.

“I think he’s a wonderful man who puts everyone else above himself,” Crenshaw said. “He is one who is interested in the children in Richmond County and feels that the more we adults do for them, the more they will become better citizens. I was in his eighth-grade class and he was interested not just in teaching us subjects, but also in the idea that a child should be able to go as far in education as they possibly could.

“Just to finish your grade wasn’t good enough. You had to apply yourself and go on to college. He has really worked with everyone and even when they finished college, he tried to help them find jobs. He always said students should make sure people know what they can do, and then follow through with it. He is a wonderful person.”

Estella Ingram Levey, now living in Baltimore, Maryland, said Watkins’ influence during her early years drove her to pursue a career in medicine.

“First of all, he was my principal,” Levey said. “Mr. Watkins was the entire administration of the school — he was also the assistant principal, a teacher, the school counselor. He did all that by himself. I didn’t view him as just a principal. I viewed him as a fatherly figure and so did the other students.

“Any time one needed Mr. Watkins, he was always there. He still provides guidance. When I come to Rockingham, I don’t feel I’ve been to Rockingham unless I have seen Mr. Watkins. I’m a retired doctor. I taught at John Hopkins School of Medicine and its school of nursing. All of my folks were successful and came through the old Leak Street High School.”

Levey said that if one of their teachers had to be out to attend a funeral or other event, Watkins appointed one of them to teach the class, instilling qualities of leadership in students. She said he was also generous with compliments when students did something well.

“Mr. Watkins had very high expectations for all of the students,” Levey said. “He had skills and characteristics that were very beneficial for his students and his staff.”

Thomas D. Hager of Leak Street Alumni, one of the members present in 2013 when the property officially came into the organization’s ownership, provided a brief biographical summary of J.C. and Ruth Watkins’ involvement with the center since its inception.

“From its founding to the present, Mr. and Mrs. Watkins have been strong advocates for the Leak Street Center’s mission and programs,” Hager said. “Some years ago, this advocacy lead them to establish the Leak Street Alumni, Inc. Endowment Fund to assure that the center’s mission remains viable and that its programs support the community well into the future.”

Community members may mail expressions of congratulations or donations to the Leak Street Alumni Inc. Endowment Fund in honor of J.C. and Ruth Watkins at P.O. Box 2252, Rockingham, NC 28380.

Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin.