This article was first published in The Charlotte Ledger.
You know a high school principal is special when a former student quotes Shakespeare to express how much she meant to so many.
“Though she be but little, she is fierce.”
“Barbara Ledford was a tiny little woman with a huge spirit,” says Jennifer Shapiro, 48, who was Jennifer Scheffsky when she attended West Charlotte High School, where she learned about The Bard of Avon. “You knew she was the heart and soul of that place.”
Mrs. Ledford, who measured 5 feet nothing, ruled West Charlotte High with tough love from 1989 until she retired in 1994. Her sister, Kitty Bartley, tells of the time a former student was spotted on campus with a gun. The young suspect peered around a building, spotted his former principal and said, “Hey Miss Ledford, remember me?” Her response as she disarmed a dangerous situation? “Yes, I remember you. What are you doing at my school with a gun?”
Mrs. Ledford — we’ll call her that because, hey, she was The Principal — died of cancer Dec. 30 at age 81.
She graduated from North Mecklenburg High School, then Wake Forest University, then went to work molding kids. She was an assistant principal at East Mecklenburg High School. She was named N.C. Principal of the Year in 1989 when she led then-Northeast Junior High School. But it was at West Charlotte High that she made her mark. Opened in 1938 as the city’s second high school for African Americans, it has long been the pride of the Black community. The Lion mascot and the school colors, maroon and gold, still resonate for generations of alumni.
Under Mrs. Ledford’s leadership, and aided by busing, she helped make it a New South model of racial harmony. It didn’t matter whether they came from Beatties Ford Road or Queens Road West. Students shared common ground at what they proudly called “Dub-C.” In a 1991 profile, The Wall Street Journal described West Charlotte High as “a warm picture of integrated Young America.”
Much of the credit went to Mama Lion, as she was known.
Bartley says her sister could see deeper than most into the heart and soul of young people and pull out the best in them. She’d be out of the house by 6 a.m., roam the halls and classrooms until 5 p.m., come home to eat, shower and change clothes, then return to school for a ballgame or band concert. You can’t be an inspiration unless you’re a positive presence, Mrs. Ledford believed.
Her husband, Buster Ledford, taught biology and coached football at Independence High School. When Independence and West Charlotte squared off in football, he’d ask his wife why she didn’t root for his team. He already knew the answer.
Retired social studies teacher Gary Weart remembers passing Mrs. Ledford in the hallway and saying, “Good morning, Boss.” She’d whirl around and say, “I am not your boss, I am your cheerleader.” Weart, 72, says he’ll never forget the sight of Mrs. Ledford dressing down basketball star Thad Bonapart one day for some infraction. He was a foot and a half taller than her. It didn’t matter. She cut him down to size. “Yes, ma’am, yes ma’am,” he responded meekly. Students, especially the ones with something to fear, knew Mrs. Ledford was coming by the clicking of her heels.
When West Charlotte High student Alex Freeman Orange was shot to death in 1989 trying to break up a fight at an off-campus party, Weart and a group of students founded SAVE (Students Against Violence Everywhere). Weart remembers what Mrs. Ledford told him. Whatever you need, ask.
“She had a way of winning people over, capturing your heart,” Weart said. “I loved Barbara. She was my hero.”
Terese Ewing (Terese Mack back then) dreamed of becoming a journalist — until she was sent to the office at West Charlotte High. “For nonsense of course,” Ewing recalls, mischievously adding, “I was perfect.” Mrs. Ledford sensed a spark in this student. That’s all it took for her to become a lifelong inspiration to Terese, convincing her that if you want to change the world, become an educator.
Terese, 48, graduated from West Charlotte High, then Wake Forest University (Mrs. Ledford’s alma mater), and since then has spent 27 years and counting as a high school social studies teacher and counselor, mostly in Pitt County, N.C.
A life, one of many, shaped by Mama Lion.
Ken Garfield is a freelance writer/editor who specializes in obituaries. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.