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By Peter Vankevich
Old magazines or newspapers can be fascinating sources for the culture of prior times, and so are school yearbooks.
Such is the case with the 1972 to 1973 Ocracoke School Yearbook, a time of great cultural change.
But this is not your traditional school yearbook. It reflects the island’s times when there were few visitors and fewer publications on the school and the community.
This was only the second school yearbook; an earlier one was produced in in 1963.
How this yearbook was created was due to the efforts of two new island teachers.
In the spring of 1971, Ann and Michael Ehringhaus, married at that time, had just graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with English degrees. Their arrival on Ocracoke was a bit of a fluke.
After graduating, they met a fellow student who said she had heard there was a school on an island looking for two teachers, preferably married, since the location was so remote.
“My friend didn’t know the name of the island and Michael and I, both from Charlotte, had never visited the Outer Banks,” Ann said. “So, I did some research and determined it was Ocracoke.”
She called the school but no one picked up since it was closed for the summer. She then called the island gas station and got the name and phone number of the principal, Jack Tucker. He invited them to the island for an interview and they were hired.
On their first day, they were told that the teachers would have a total budget of $37.
“Michael asked if it would be divided evenly,” laughed Ann. Realizing the predicament, they contacted one of their favorite Chapel Hill professors, Sterling Heniss of the English Education Department. Through Heniss’s efforts the school soon received lots of resources including textbooks and educational filmstrips.
“Professor Heniss was wonderful for the school,” she said. “We also started local fundraisers including a theater production and lots of hot dog-style sales.”
They were so successful they raised enough money the first year for several high school students to take a field trip to Washington, D.C. including hiring a bus and driver, now a regular event these days.
“That was an amazing trip for the students,” Michael said. “For some, it was their first time on a four-lane highway.”
It was an exciting time for the school.
The new building opened in 1971, replacing the 1917 five-room structure. It had an innovative design with an open-style, large common room and four alcoves, described as “a school without walls.” Its opening attracted national attention from newspapers in Alabama, Michigan, Colorado and others with the headline “One-room School House is New Modern Education.”
“It was a bit chaotic,” said Dave Tolson, a sophomore at the time, “but we managed to focus on our class work.”
Kenny Balance wasn’t as charitable. “It was noisy and hard to concentrate,” he said. Tolson went on to serve on the Hyde County Board of Education, representing Ocracoke from 2002 to 2016, and is the the Ocracoke Sanitary District plant manager.
Coupled with the building design, the teaching philosophy was also open and trended to nontraditional learning.
In their second year the Ehringhauses came up with the idea of a yearbook.
“Back then, we were inspired by a publication called Foxfire,” they both said.
Begun in 1966, Foxfire is a quarterly magazine written and published by students at Rabun Gap-Nacoochee School in Georgia and contains student articles on local people about Appalachian culture.
“When we arrived, we knew we were in a special place,” said Michael noting the strong accent he had never heard before. “We wanted the students to do the interviewing and to celebrate the heritage and culture, and the students loved the project.”
The yearbook focused as much on the community as on the school, featuring profiles on islanders, recipes, the island’s history, folklore, superstitions and culture.
Perhaps with a bit of tongue-in-cheek, there are also 15 wine recipes called “Vintage d’Ocracoke.” At that time Ocracoke and Hyde County were dry, so many islanders made their own wine. Here is one example:
1 peck of figs,
5 lbs. sugar,
1 box raisins,
4 gallons water,
20 yeast cakes
Add an additional 2 lbs. of sugar about every 4th day. Average time is two weeks.
At bottom page of the wine recipes, this was added: CAUTION: Due to excessive sampling, we advise you to disregard the information above .
“We interviewed a lot of islanders and wrote about them,” said Alton Ballance, currently the Center Fellow at the North Carolina Center for Advanced Training (NCCAT), a former Ocracoke principal and teacher who served as Ocracoke’s county commissioner for eight years. For many, he said, “it was the first time they saw their names in print.”
Features are on Elisha Balance, Miss Sara Ellen (Mrs. Ben Gaskill), and decoy carvers Papa Howard O’Neal, Wilbur Gaskill and Willie Hennings.
Historical photos chronicle some of the famous hurricanes.
“The yearbook was a hit, not only for the students, but the whole community,” said Kenny Ballance, who was a senior that year and later went to serve 35 years as the Ocracoke district ranger for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
The two teachers saw the yearbook as an opportunity to provide real experience to what they were learning. Ann focused on journalism and writing.
“I taught them the fundamentals of lighting, F-stops and how to develop film,” Michael said. “Then I handed them my Nikon and told them to go out and get some pictures.”
“Michael converted a small utility closet with a sink into a dark room,” Tolson recalled.
Marlene Mathews, who was a senior that year and has been active in many community projects, most notably these days as one of the directors of the Ocracoke Occupancy Tax Board, had fond recollections on the school back then.
“Ann and Mike were young, energized and full of new ideas,” she said. “They introduced us to a whole new outside world. They taught us all how to play chess, Shakespeare, and Ann taught the girls how to sew caftans–hippy-style shirts,” she recalled. “We all wore torn jeans and flowery shirts.”
After these two years, higher education opportunities beckoned for the two young teachers and they moved on. Michael eventually got a Ph.D. and Ann a doctorate in ministry.
Ann moved back to Ocracoke in 1979 and runs Oscar’s House, a well-known bed and breakfast. She is an author, photographer, interfaith minister and massage therapist.
Michael is retired from a distinguished career as an education advisor specializing in improving under-achieving school districts across the country. Still photographing, he profiles the homeless and lives in Portland, Maine.
They look back fondly at their time at the school and especially the students.
“These were great kids who wanted to learn,” said Michael.
“Look who these students are today,” said Ann. “They have important jobs, are community leaders and serve on important local boards, and are good parents and friends to so many.”