Education in rural schools prepared Whisnant well

Apr. 05, 2014 @ 12:14 PM

James Miller Whisnant walked into his first class at North Carolina State University nervous and concerned. He wondered how he would stack up against students from cities like Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh. Born and raised in a rural, country setting between Whitnel and Baton, Whisnant thought that maybe his education at Hudson High School wouldn’t stack up at N.C. State. He couldn’t have been more wrong.

“You would expect coming from a place like Hudson High School, you would not be as prepared as these kids like Raleigh, Greensboro and Charlotte,” Whisnant said.

However, Whisnant excelled in courses where other students did not, and he feels fortunate that he went to Hudson High, which he calls a “truly wonderful high school.”

During the 1950s, Whisnant watched his friends struggle with

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the decision of getting jobs versus continuing their education. His father worked in one of the furniture factories and wanted something more for his children.

“He stressed to us the importance of education so we can do whatever we wanted to do instead of working in the furniture factory,” Whisnant said.

While Whisnant chose college as his father hoped, many of his friends chose making money, even if it meant working in a factory and giving up a wider range of career choices.

“A number of the kids I graduated from high school with, who were actually good students, chose, rather than to go to college, to work for the furniture factories. I wouldn’t say they had to; it was just a choice they made,” Whisnant said.

Whisnant said he owes it all to his chemistry and physics teacher at Hudson High, Joe Oliver.

“When I got down to N.C. State, two of the courses some people feared were chemistry and physics. When I took those courses, I found out that I was just as prepared as those students from bigger schools because I had a really good teacher, … Mr. Joe Oliver,” Whisnant said.

Oliver passed away about a year ago, Whisnant said, but his legacy lives on through Whisnant’s daughter, Nicole Hurst, who received her doctorate in toxicology from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

“She is Oliver’s ‘grand-student’ because the interest of science he sparked in me, she’s continued that,” Whisnant said.

After graduating from N.C. State, Whisnant went to work for John Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab in Maryland. This June, he will have worked there for 49 years. He has worked with satellites, guided missiles protecting naval ships, and high-energy lasers, a “long-range hope” to “put a laser on a ship and shoot down a missile instead of having a ship full of guided missiles,” Whisnant said. Most of Whisnant’s work is classified, which he said can be frustrating because “you can’t publish in a scientific journal.”

When his day job is over, Whisnant teaches mathematics and computer science at John Hopkins.

“Even when I’m teaching a course I’ve taught before, I’m always learning something new,” Whisnant said.

James Miller Whisnant will be inducted into the Caldwell County Schools Hall of Honor at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 10, at the J.E. Broyhill Civic Center, along with Dr. Leonard Homer Bolick, Dr. Lyndon C. Kirby, Magruder Hill Tuttle Jr. and John Christian Bernhardt.