Bethel teacher reflects on 32-year career

Ruth Shipman, 95, donates yearbooks to school
By Julianne Kuykendall | Mar 16, 2017
Photo by: Julianne Kuykendall LOVED TEACHER — Ruth Shipman, 95, a retired Haywood County teacher, donated her personal yearbook collection to the Bethel Middle School library. Pictured in front, she holds the first Bethel High School yearbook published in 1948. Bill Holbrook, left, and Kendra Plemmons, BMS librarian, are both helping Shipman with the historic yearbook collection.

As 95-year-old retired Haywood County teacher Ruth Shipman looks forward to another mountain spring, she often thinks back to spring day in the late 1940s, when her students played a spirited softball game she never forgot.

That day, she single-handedly walked with 45 seventh-grade students from Bethel High School (now Bethel Middle School) across the mountain to Pigeon Street School (now Pigeon Community Multicultural Development Center), an African-American school.

“My husband told me I had lost my mind taking all those kids over that mountain, but they behaved really well because they were glad to be out of the classroom, and I told them if they behaved we would get to do something else one day,” said Shipman.

While herding 45 students over the mountain would seem like an enormous task to many, it was just a normal day for Shipman, who says she has always had teaching in her blood.

“When I was little, I would stand up on a tree stump in the yard and pretend like I was the teacher to my little brothers,” she said.


Teaching career

She turned that playful pastime into an official career. After graduating from Clyde High School in 1938, she earned an associate degree from Mars Hill Junior College in 1940 and a bachelor’s degree in education from Carson-Newman College in 1942.

In 1943, during the height of World War II, she began teaching seventh-graders at Bethel High School at age 21, earning $77 a month. At that time, boys and girls were in separate classrooms and male teachers primarily taught the boys’ classes.

Male teachers, however, were scarce during World War II, so Shipman often taught one class of 54 boys and then walked across the hall and taught another large class of girls.

Shipman taught school in Haywood County for a total of 32 years, primarily from 1943-74 at Bethel High School, Clyde High School and Waynesville Junior High School, just taking off 1950-52 to care for her father-in-law, Mark Shipman.

Then, she filled in as an interim teacher after her retirement.

“My teaching philosophy was that if I was going to teach, I wanted to be an example to the students and put Christian ideas in front of them,” she said.

Shipman began each day with the Pledge of Allegiance and a Bible devotional and led the class in singing church hymns while playing her own personal piano.

In 1970, at age 49, she completed her master’s degree in education from the University of North Carolina at Western.

Outside the classroom, Shipman went the extra mile to support her students in extracurricular activities, from coordinating the annual May Pole dance to coaching the Bethel High School boys’ basketball team in the 1940s.

As Shipman sorted through her school memories during the interview, she sifted through decades of newspaper clippings featuring her students — their weddings, births of their children, accomplishments and obituaries — proof that, even though she wasn’t able to have biological children, she considers all her students as her own children.

“I’ve always liked keeping up with my students and I’m proud of whatever they do,” she said. “I absolutely loved teaching and there were many times that I would have taught if they didn’t pay me a penny and I wish I could do it again.”


Special donation

To remember all of her students, Shipman has donated all of her personal Bethel High School and Bethel Junior High School annuals to the Bethel Middle School library.

Her donations include the first Bethel High School annual, which was started in 1948 by teacher Josephine Curto who came to Bethel from Mills River and edited by Mickey Farmer.

Her yearbook collection runs from 1948-66, minus the years she wasn’t teaching. She has also donated her Bethel Junior High School yearbooks, years 1967-71.

“We are so excited about Mrs. Shipman’s donations and we are going to add them to our Bethel history display,” said Kendra Plemmons, Bethel Middle School librarian. “We are a small school and the kids like to hear about the community, look up their grandparents and learn about the history.”

For more information about the collection, call Plemmons at 646-3442 or Bill Holbrook at 648-5307. Holbrook can also pick up annuals from residents who need them picked up.

Specific yearbooks needed are Bethel High School annuals from 1950-52 and Bethel Junior High School annuals from 1972-79, although all annuals, even duplicate copies, would be appreciated. The public is also welcome to look over the yearbook collection.

“I’m honored to donate my annuals to remember all my students, because I learned more from my students than I ever taught them,” Shipman said.

To contact Shipman, call 648-3518.