Shirley Simmons and lots of student contributions
The Kindergarten of Miss Nina Tilley located behind her home on South Main Street is a fondly held memory of multiple residents who grew up in our town between the 1940’s and 1960’s. Several of our Questers /Docents and others have asked that the museums research and record some history of that “institution.”
The Tilley Kindergarten came before public kindergarten in North Carolina and was the brainchild and labor of love of Nina Tilley. The small one room building, erected on Main Street still exists as a rented building behind what was the home of Nina and Joel Tilley. All the students remember “Mr. Joel” being around the kindergarten, keeping things in order.
Our research found that Nina Stallings Brickhouse was born in Tyrell County NC. to James Gilbert and Hattie Della Swain Brickhouse on May 11, 1903. She appears to have been the seventh of nine children born to that farm family. Patty Fleming remembers that she always said she was from Bath, N. C. Census forms record that the family lived on the “sound side” of highway 90 in that area, usually mentioning Columbia, NC as the address.
Nina was a product of the schools of Tyrell County and a graduate of Appalachian State Normal School, Class of 1925. Normal Schools prepared teachers and Nina became a public school teacher upon graduation. How she came to this area of the state is not clear; however, Emily Tilley remembers that Nina had one sister who married a Dupree and lived in Angier, another lived somewhere near and a brother lived in Raleigh. Anyway, whether she first taught elsewhere or not, in 1930 Nina was boarding in Fuquay Springs with Jesse and Eva Jones and employed as a teacher of first grade in the Coats School. The Tilley family all associate her with Coats School. Even after her marriage she was listed as a substitute teacher.
No one was sure when , but she met Joel Carleton Tilley. Emily remembered the boarding house run by the Joneses. Patty married one of Joel’s best friends, Coleman Fleming. Coleman’s mother was Della Tilley Fleming, sister of Joel. So in the small town of Fuquay Springs, a romance blossomed even though the details have been lost.
Joel was one of the 18 children born to Analphus Lee Tilley, Sr. and Nettie Veasey Tilley. Four girls and ten boys lived to adulthood in Fuquay Springs. Joel served, as did a number of his brothers, in World War I. Born in Granville County, a farm boy, he enlisted in the United States Army from Fuquay Springs on September 6, 1918 and was discharged on January 24, 1919. At some point after returning from service, he became employed in the tobacco business and was variously listed in the federal census as a Broker and a Printman Manager and eventually as a Tobacconist.
Joel won the hand of Nina when he was 45 and she was 33 years of age. They were married November 25, 1936 in the Raleigh home of Dr. L. E. M. Freeman. The account of the marriage in the News and Observer states that Joel was in the tobacco business and she a member of the Coats School faculty.
Emily remembers that Uncle Joel and Aunt Nina lived next door to her family on S. Main Street. Her father, Ernest Tilley helped Joel build the building on the vacant lot across the street to serve as Aunt Nina’s kindergarten.
Kitty Lane Johnson Holleman was one of the first kindergarteners in Fuquay Springs. She recalled that she entered in January, 1945 for that half year, then continued the following September for the first full year of Miss Nina’s Kindergarten.
Among those with early memories and pictures was Kaye Howard Cloniger. She recalls that George Bullock, Curtis Holleman and Martha Hunt were all in that first full year. David Holleman says he entered in the fall of 1945. He says “it was different from staying at home.” Mr. Chester drove him each day. He remembers that Maynard Keith, Jr. was in his class and that Faye Tilley also attended that year. He commented on the difference in statue of Nina and Joel, on Mr. Joel’s carpentry skills, and the building itself. Maybe his mother told him he was Little Boy Blue in the commencement but he is not sure.
Kay, who conspired with others to send us pictures, identifies this 1947-48 photograph as taken on Martha Hunt’s birthday. She says Fred Lee Hunt got invited as Martha’s younger brother and is labeled in the photo. Fred Lee located the photos for Kaye among those of his father.
Everyone recalls that each year there was a final commencement program complete with costumes. Emily says there was always the May Pole Dance held on the vacant lot in front of the building and later in the yard. In the 1947-48 May Pole, she identifies Martha Hunt as third (in dress) and Reginald Shaw in front of her in the sailor suit.
Kaye listed classmates during her year as Wesley Cotten, Fred Hunt, Jimmy Williams and Reginald Shaw.
Emily, a retired teacher, principal and assistant superintendent herself, remembers that Miss Nina’s kindergarten was held to strict discipline. She was loved but brooked no nonsense about learning. Miss Nina knew what was needed to be ready for first grade and insisted on progress. Seated in chairs at tables, she taught them numbers, the alphabet, printing, drawing, and reading. She remembers going over as a child and seeing just how things were conducted.
Among the students identified in the Class of 1952 were Sally Cozart, Jennifer Ashworth, Helen Berry, Robert Revels, and John Edwards.
Evidence is that Miss Nina had a gracious heart for children in the neighborhood, as Gerry Rogers recalls. While he was officially in kindergarten in 1953-54, he visited for two or three years earlier. One year a student became sick and could not perform his role in the commencement. Miss Nina simply contacted Mrs. Rogers and Gerry (who knew all the lines from his visits) was installed into the role for that year. Gerry remembers his classmates, Wray Stephens, Judy Stephens, Tommy Broadwell, Karl Busick, Bill Carson, and Freddie Norris.
Karl Busick identifies Aunt Nina as tall and statuesque but Uncle Joel as very small of statue. He remembers that Joel was missing fingers on one hand. All of the students called her “Miss Nina” as is good Southern etiquette. Mary Lou Spence Hartman and Gail Amos Woolard could still picture her red nail polish, remember the aromas of the small school house, and recall the record player used for music.
Among the several people who thought the Tilley house came later with the kindergarten building there prior, Karl was correct according to Emily. Again, Joel built the house of her dreams for Nina in front of the kindergarten some time after 1954. Emily believes Nina designed her specific dream house. Emily also recalls Nina was an immaculate housekeeper. The two remained friends for life as well as “relatives.”
Karl listed classmates of 1954 including Gerry Rogers, Peggy Bell, Martha Person Reid, Van Rollins, and Emily McCauley. A member of the Tilley clan, Karl located this picture of Miss Nina among his family photos. Patty Fleming remembered that her son, Jim, was in kindergarten that fall when Hurricane Hazel came through Fuquay Springs.
The single class room with a front coat closet was the description of all students. There was a small bathroom in the back and a number of steps outside in back. Inside the coat room, everyone deposited their garments and their lunch boxes.
Every class graduated with a theme chosen by Miss Nina. Kim Senter Johnson, who graduated in the Class of 1960 was decked out as a flower with a costume of red crepe paper sewn to fit her. She remembers her big brother, Milton, in 1958, was Little Boy Blue. So perhaps the programs ideas were repeated over the years.
While a number of students actually lived near the kindergarten, most parents dropped off and picked up children every day. Gail Amos Woolard said her mother participated in a car pool to provide transportation from Varina. First detailed in an interview with Jewell Ballentine Stephens, the students involved were Gail Amos, Billy Stephens, Joe Tilley, David Carson, and Elizabeth Spence. Their mothers took a weekly turn via Ennis, Clifton, Wade and Vance Streets to Main. Gail thinks Miss Jewell worked out the details because her mother was very concerned that the kindergarten was “miles” away from her home. She laughed in recalling the exact route, every turn by each house, culminating with five small wired children all in the back seat, no seat belts or anything.
Her Class of 1959 included: Ed Blanchard, Faye Ashworth, David Carson, Robin Chappell, Melick Elliott, Martha McLeod, Billy Stephens, Joe Tilley, Randall Washington, Brenda Wells, Elizabeth Spence, Milton Senter and perhaps others according to Gail’s memory.
Gail also recalled that Mrs. Tilley gave each student a nickel for being good that week. To receive a nickel was a great incentive for her positive responses. After school on Friday, the nickels were promptly spent by the students at the Luther Tilley Store just doors away.
An Independent commencement article by Miss Nina reported the theme was “Miss Kindergarten of 1967.” That entire program was listed with Master of Ceremonies, Bob Weuster and Mistress of Ceremonies, Angela Matthews. Three judges were Marty Barbee, Josh Williford, and Steven Burch. Escorts for the contestants were Ellis Powell, Jr, Tim Pearce, Russ Snipes, and Allen Thomas. Finally the entire list of contestants for Miss Kindergarten: Virginia Rowland, Debra Nix, Becky Powell, Amy Senter, Sarah Stephenson, Betty Lynn Walters, Mary Robin Ransdell, Christy Morton, Rebecca Houck, Jeanette Currin, Kathy Morgan, Robin Fish, Kim Collier, Lydia Mewborn, Anna Ellis, Renee Averette, Martha Jane Roundy, Rhonda Griffis, Julia Adams, and Denise Morgan. The total of 29 members was more than many remembered, the usual answer to how many were in your class has been about 20-25.
The final year of Miss Nina’s Kindergarten appears to have been 1967-68. An August 24, 1967 announcement by Mrs. Tilley in the Independent declared that kindergarten would open on September 5 between the hours of 9:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m. No one had quite remembered the exact time, although many remembered carrying lunch. Kim Senter Johnson even recalled that when she broke so many glass thermos bottles, her milk was taken in a glass jar and put into Mrs. Tilley’s refrigerator until lunch.
Mrs. Tilley’s obituary says she retired in 1967 but she personally wrote an account for the Independent of May 23, 1968. The closing exercise of Miss Tilley’s Kindergarten was scheduled for May 30, 1968 at 5:00 p.m. “Back Through The Years” would be the theme with a child to represent each class. She invited the public as always and especially “every child that attended my kindergarten.” The next issue of June 6, 1968 carried a photograph by Heulon Dean of 29 children. They were not identified.
Several persons remembered that Mrs. Peggy Gray took over the kindergarten following Miss Nina’s retirement. In an interview, Peggy confirmed that she rented the building for two years. She continued a policy begun by Miss Nina by accepting five applications from Angier each year. She recalled the kindergarten furnished the large crayons and some supplies for each child . After those two years, the building needed some repairs and Mrs. Gray went to teach at Wake Chapel School closing the institution forever.
Emily Tilley believes that Aunt Nina retired to care for Uncle Joel who was in declining health. Mr. Joel Tilley’s obituary in the News & Observer February 1, 1973 says that he was survived by Mrs. Tilley, three sisters, Miss Lida Tilley, Mrs. E. O. Fleming, and Mrs. Katie Adcock and two brothers, Luther L. and A. Lee Tilley, Jr. His funeral was held at Fuquay-Varina Baptist Church with burial in Wake Chapel Cemetery.
Emily recalled that Miss Nina lived on at the house for several years. She visited her often as did others of the Tilley Clan. In 1989, Miss Nina moved first to Arizona and then to Cooperas Cove, Texas. She made her home with her niece and husband, Charles and Laura Jane Thomas Councilman in Texas until her death in 1997.
Miss Nina’s April 26, 1997 obituary revealed that her funeral was conducted at Fuquay-Varina Baptist Church and she was buried beside Joel at Wake Chapel. The family requested that students of Mrs. Tilley’s kindergarten serve as honorary pallbearers. She was survived by many nieces and nephews of the Brickhouse generations and an extended Tilley Family but she and Joel had no children.
What information is still eluding our search? To date not even Mrs. Gray can recall the cost of attending kindergarten with Mrs. Tilley. Several students have suggested that the museums might record students in various classes if readers would like to submit names as they remember. The following came from a scrapbook page of Sandra Stephens Johnson.
An extended research of the Independent may find that many years there are accounts of the graduation exercises and themes. According to the Questers motto, “It is fun to search and a joy to find.” We hope all the former kindergarteners enjoy remembering Miss Nina.
SOURCES: Federal Census Records, Obituary Nina Tilley, N & O April 26, 1997, Obituary Joel Tilley, N & O, Feb 2, 1973, Marriage Tilley-Brickhouse, N & O, & State of NC. County of Wake, Register of Deeds, Nov 25, 1936. Interviews: Curtis and Kitty Lane Holleman, July 3, 2021; Peggy Gray, July 3, 2021; Karl Busick, July 6, 2021; Gerry Rogers, July 7, 2021; Patty Fleming, July 8, 2021; Emily Tilley, July 8, & July 13, 2021; David Holland, July 14, 2021. Independent, May 11, 1967, August 24, 1967, May 23, 1968, June 6, 1968 Emails: Gail Amos Woolard, Kim Senter Johnson, Kaye Howard Cloniger. Kathy Tilley Shaffer and others through them.
Pictures courtesy of Fred Hunt, Gail Amos, Karl Busick and Sandra Johnson.