The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Ned Carlton, a dedicated educator who helped usher the county’s school systems into a more modern era, will be inducted into the 2021 class of honorees.
Ned Farris Carlton was born in Vienna, Illinois, in 1906. Along with his brothers, he grew up on his family’s Johnson County farm, until a move to Coulterville changed his life and his future career. In Randolph County, his father began working at a Coulterville bank, but he also occasionally taught in local schools. Ned was inspired by his father’s educational work, and after enrolling at SINU in Carbondale, he decided to major in education himself.
Ned’s first teaching job was back home in Coulterville. There, he met a fellow teacher named Marguerite Wilson, whom he would marry in 1930. Dedicated to education and family, the couple raised two children as Ned took on several successive teaching positions in the county. He spent several years teaching on Kaskaskia Island, and in 1933, took on a new position in the Steeleville district, where he worked as both a teacher and a coach. In 1938, he decided to run for the county’s top educational job: Randolph County Superintendent of Schools. He won the election and began work as county superintendent in August 1939. He would ultimately run for the office, and win, six consecutive times.
The county schools that Ned were tasked with leading looked very different from the educational system that exists in Randolph County today. One-room schoolhouses still dotted the countryside, and the county contained more than 100 individual school districts. Some schools still taught children primarily in French and German, and in some cases, a school was only attended by three or four pupils. “When I started,” Ned later reflected, “I couldn’t even find half of the county schools.” Ned knew that these small schools wouldn’t be able to provide the children of Randolph County with the best educational experience, and during his tenure as county superintendent, he worked toward the goal of consolidating the tiny districts into larger schools with more students and more resources. His friendly manner, and his ability to remember the names of almost everyone he met, helped him earn the respect of the people of the county, even as they sometimes resisted the big changes he wanted to implement. Over the course of his tenure in office, small country schools were transformed into larger unit districts, with four-year high schools, consistent curricula, and wider-ranging opportunities for students.
Challenges at the county superintendent’s offices were met equally by challenges in Ned’s personal life. The early death of his wife, who was also an assistant in his office, was a major blow. He also suffered from heart problems from a young age, which caused him some set-backs but also compelled him to get involved with fundraising and volunteerism. He was very involved in heart-related fundraising work in Randolph County, serving as treasurer of the county’s Heart Fund Drive, and he became a founding member of the Randolph County Heart Unit. He also volunteered with numerous additional organizations, including the Boy Scouts, the Optimist Club, and the Randolph County Tourist and Recreation Association. Social to the core, Ned also joined the Masons, the Shriners, and the Elks Club. He was also a committed volunteer with the Randolph County Red Cross.
As county superintendent, Ned focused on both the current education of the area’s students and their future prospects, setting up Career Day programs and emphasizing the need for vocational education. He retired from the office in 1963, after almost a quarter century at the helm at Randolph County’s schools. An avid hunter and fisher, he spent his retirement years continuing to run his boat sales and service shop, Carlton Boat & Motor, near the Mississippi in Chester. He was even able to aid in water rescues on the river. But he couldn’t leave education behind completely: he also worked as a substitute teacher and served as director of Randolph County Head Start.
Affable and friendly, yet driven and committed, Ned managed to nudge Randolph County’s educational system into the future. One of his colleagues, Hazel Montroy, remembered him noting, “Never take one’s self too seriously. Be adaptable.” He lived that adage faithfully until the end of his life. After suffering from increasing problems with his heart in the last months of his life, Ned died in Chester on July 16, 1972, at the age of 66. He was remembered for his kindness, his curiosity, and his never-ending love of learning. “Everyone who met Ned Carlton knew that they had lost a friend when he passed on,” recalled one of these friends, Chuck Trent. “As long as the Mississippi rolls past Chester,” he added, “Ned Carlton will live. That’s about all you can say about Ned Carlton. He lived for others, and others have lived better because of him.”