Hannah Adams, 18, said she was at a volleyball tournament in Virginia when she walked into the school and noticed the school had a huge Hall of Fame recognizing former graduates who have made contributions to society.
So Adams and her teammate Walli Driggers came up with an idea to have a Hall of Fame for their school.
Cleveland High will graduate its fourth graduating class this year, and that became a problem for inducting people into the Hall of Fame. They decided they would combine the history of the past Cleveland School, which was closed down in the late 60s after desegregation, with their school.
The purpose was to connect the old and the new school and reach out to the community, Adams said.
It took about a year to get it off the ground, but Tuesday night they celebrated their first ceremony, honoring Bruce Coats, Bob Etheridge, Margaret Maron and Shelby Stephenson.
“This is above and beyond what I expected,” Adams said. “I was really able to learn a lot about the inductees.”
Cleveland School first opened its doors in 1926. It was a K-12 school located on Cleveland School Road. Its first graduating class graduated in 1931. The building is still there.
Each year, Cleveland High School will induct up to five people into the Hall of Fame, Melissa Pearce, a co-advisor for the student council said.
Community members nominate people they believe are deserving of the Hall of Fame. Nominees have to have been graduated from the school for five years. Then a committee, made up of students, chamber members, and school board members, looks at eligibility and merit to determine who will be inducted.
Coats, a graduate of Cleveland High School in 1947, was a baseball player and coach. He started a youth baseball program in the Cleveland community and became a teacher, teaching each of the three other inductees.
For 12 years, he coached baseball, girl’s basketball, and boy’s basketball. He won six conference championship titles and was the state runner-up in 1966.
He went on to coach for 15 years at South Johnston High School and continued his success, finishing with 329 career wins. He was inducted into the North Carolina Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2012.
“This is great,” Coats said. “I’ve spent all of my life teaching and playing baseball and I’ve often wondered how far a baseball would go. Tonight I know. It went out of the ball park. It was a home run.”
Bob Etheridge graduated in 1959 and played baseball under Coats. He married his wife after college and joined the Army. He later served on the Harnett County Board of Commissioners and took a leading role in consolidating the county’s small high schools.
He was elected to the N.C. House of Representatives in 1978 and was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
In 1988, Etheridge was elected State Superintendent of public instruction and eight years later was elected to Congress from North Carolina’s second district.
Along the way Etheridge has worked with and met many presidents, including Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama. A picture of Etheridge standing with Clinton and Al Gore sits in the Hall of Fame display at the front of the school.
Etheridge is currently the state executive director of the USDA Farm Service Agency of North Carolina.
A country boy, as he describes, Etheridge credits Cleveland School for his success.
“I really had teachers who cared, who really believed you could improve your quality of life,” he said. “They sort of instilled in me that education is the ticket to opportunity and I’ve never forgotten that throughout my whole public life. And I think that is still true today.”
Margaret Maron is a mystery writer. She graduated from Cleveland School in 1956. She married and moved to New York to pursue her love for writing. She created short stories and poems before writing mystery novels.
She moved back to North Carolina after some time to raise her family.
Maron has been the recipient of North Carolina’s Award for Literature, The Grand Masters Award, the Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Agatha Award, as well as many other accolades.
Maron told the story of a man she met over a cup a coffee. She said they talked about books and literature. She marveled at his knowledge. She found out the man dropped out of school in eighth grade to help his family on the farm. But he attained his knowledge inside the public library.
She encouraged the students to follow their dreams, even if it didn’t mean going to college.
“You can get an education anywhere,” she said. “You guys are lucky to have this school. Cleveland School was in the middle of nowhere.”
Shelby Stephenson, a musician and poet, also graduated from Cleveland School in 1956. He was not able to make the ceremony Tuesday night.
Stephenson currently serves as the North Carolina poet laureate.
He travels coast to coast discussing writing poetry. He received the North Carolina Award in Literature in 2001 for his many contributions to the state. He has also earned the Bellday Poetry Prize, the Oscar Arnold Young Award, the Zoe Kincaid-Brockman Award, the Bright Hill Press Chapbook Prize and the Playwright’s Fund of North Carolina Chapbook Prize.
He was also an English professor at UNC Pembroke.