Dedicated to bettering the lives and futures of the children of Randolph County and committed to instilling a love for learning in all local residents, Ned Carlton helped to usher the county’s educational system into a more modern era.
Ned Farris Carlton was born on July 8, 1906, in Vienna, Illinois. He was the fourth and youngest son of Joseph and Mary Carlton, who had both been born and raised in Johnson County. Ned’s father ran a farm near Grantsburg during the early years of Ned’s life. By 1920, though, the family’s situation had changed significantly. Joseph and Mary moved with their three surviving sons, Joseph Dale, Lewis, and Ned, to Coulterville, where Joseph found work as a cashier in a local bank. While thirteen-year-old Ned was still in school, his older brothers were already working as brakemen on the railroad.
Joseph Carlton also occasionally taught classes at a local school, and Ned decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. After graduating from high school, he attended Southern Illinois Normal University in Carbondale, where he studied to become a teacher and played the trumpet in the university band. Soon, he found his first teaching job in a very familiar place. He began his classroom career in 1927, teaching fifth graders in Coulterville while still continuing to work toward earning his bachelor’s degree. He eventually completed the degree, and he did some graduate and continuing education work at both SIU and Washington University in St. Louis.
In 1928, Ned was hired to work in the school district on Kaskaskia Island. He stayed at the rural school for several years, teaching the eighth grade and even serving as principal at one point during his tenure there. While in Kaskaskia, Ned also took a major step forward in his personal life. On October 9, 1930, Ned married Marguerite Wilson in Cape Girardeau. The couple shared a passion for education; Marguerite also taught at Coulterville before their marriage. By 1933, the young couple had moved to yet another part of the county when Ned accepted a teaching job in Steeleville. There, they expanded their family. A daughter, Mary Ann, was born in September 1934, followed two years later by a son, Ned Jr., who was born on his father’s 30th birthday. Ned Sr. remained with the Steeleville district, serving as a social studies and business teacher as well as a coach, until 1938, when he aimed his sights on the top of the county’s educational system.
That year, Ned decided to run for the county’s top educational job: Randolph County Superintendent of Schools. He won the election and took office in August 1939 at the age of 33. 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.” He quickly made it his mission to learn the entire educational territory of the county, including the names of individual students. His ability to remember the names of the people he met on a daily basis was one of his most remarked-upon quirks—as well as a tool that helped him to gain the confidence of the local people, something that would be a necessary part of the changes to come.
Ned knew that the county’s numerous tiny local schools weren’t providing the children of the area with the best education possible. As access to transportation options like automobiles grew more widespread, there was less need to have schools within walking or riding distance of children’s homes. Consolidating these small schools, Ned knew, would make it possible for the students of the county to have better access to a wider range of educational opportunities. Ned was a firm believer that small schools could not educate students as well as larger schools could. And, based on the comments he was hearing from parents, many of them agreed with him. He noted that several “farmers said their children weren’t getting the education the city kids were getting.” Small, now long-shuttered county districts—with names like Marlin, Pleasant Hill, Greenland, Oak Grove, Logan, and Munford—simply weren’t going to be able to educate students as effectively in a swiftly-changing world.
By 1949, Ned had become convinced that Randolph County would be best served by consolidating all of the local schools into a single district. That measure, though, failed at the ballot box. In response, Ned changed course. He focused his attention on trying to combine smaller districts into larger unit districts. When Chester took up the issue of transforming their school system into a unit district, Ned outlined the benefits of the change in the paper, explaining that the creation of a unit district would “stabilize the boundaries of the district, to protect [it] from being decreased in size by adjoining districts annexing portions of the present high school area.” Additionally, the unit district, which would be operated by “a single seven-member board of education” handling “all school business from kindergarten through high school,” would also be able to “standardize the curriculum in the area.” He noted that “leading school officials and organizations throughout the state” were in favor of the creation of these unit districts.
While Ned was able to clearly outline the benefits that would come from consolidation and standardization, getting local members of the community to accept changes in the way their children were educated was another matter entirely. Passions flared easily when the subject of school changes arose, especially when the drawing of a new boundary would move a child from one school to another, or when redistricting would result in the closing of a beloved local school building. Each major change also had to be approved by the voters, leading to a series of petitions, challenges, and court cases during Ned’s tenure as county superintendent. Newspapers often reported that Ned was still dedicated to championing for change, making presentations to local PTA meetings on the subject of school consolidation. When Sparta residents petitioned to have their schools converted to a unit district in 1958, tensions ran particularly high. During hearings at the courthouse in Chester over the matter, opposition became “extremely contentious.” The Southern Illinoisan reported that “Two men—whose names were not reported—scuffled briefly after an exchange of name-calling in front of the courthouse.” It would take four years, and numerous petitions, court hearings, appeals, and elections, before the change to the Sparta district would finally be approved.
The tensions over these important but emotionally-fraught changes weren’t good for Ned’s health. He suffered from heart problems throughout his life. In 1944, when he was only 38, he was ordered to rest at home in Chester for a week after suffering from chest pains after over-exerting himself on a hunting trip. He would later spend time in area hospitals, including a week’s stay in Barnes in St. Louis in 1950, for tests and evaluations related to his heart. Rather than slowing him down, Ned’s health issues only made him want to work harder for his community. 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 was also involved in volunteer work 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.
Over the course of his career with the county schools, Ned ran for—and won—the office of county superintendent a total of six times. In one of those general election contests, in 1954, he ran unopposed; in all of the other elections he defeated an opponent. Those who ran against him for the office included T. Lessley Wilson, then principal at Sparta Elementary School, and Harold Maasberg, Steeleville’s elementary school principal. Ned felt strongly about maintaining collegiality in these races, and he counted the men who ran against him as friends. He would later say that “every man who ran against me was a better schoolman than I.” He was at least partly downplaying his own achievements. During Ned’s quarter century at the helm of Randolph County’s schools, consolidation was his signature achievement, but he also steered the county’s students toward advancements in other areas, including the introduction of phonetic reading instruction for elementary school children and the establishment of testing programs to track the individual progress of students as a way to encourage them to stay in school. He also strongly encouraged the development of extracurricular programs, especially athletics, to help maintain students’ interest in school.
In October 1955, Ned’s family suffered a significant personal tragedy. While returning home to Chester from a training session for teachers in Pinckneyville, his wife, Marguerite, was killed in a car accident. The crash also severely injured another teacher, Helen Wittenborn, who had been driving. Marguerite, who shared her husband’s commitment to education, had been working as an assistant in Ned’s office. She was only 49 when she died, and she left behind not only her husband but two college-aged children: Mary Ann, who was studying education at Nashville’s Peabody College, and Ned Jr., who was training in the Air Force. Eventually both of Ned’s children would marry and start families of their own, providing him with grandchildren. And, after some time, he was able to find love again, too, marrying Fern Fleming in Chester in the summer of 1957.
Through his grief, Ned continued to focus on his work. His years of experience as county superintendent had transformed him into one of the most important educational assets to the area. “A book couldn’t fill the details of what Ned Carlton did for education in Randolph County,” one friend remembered. He helped launch a Career Day program in Randolph County, bringing together high school students from Chester, Coulterville, Ruma, Red Bud, Sparta, and Steeleville with professionals working in a range of careers. He hoped that the program would allow the students to have personal discussions with people working in careers the students were considering, and he planned to keep data on how beneficial those discussions were to the students’ later career placements. He was hopeful about the possibility of expanding the junior college system into Randolph County as well. And he was also keenly attuned to the needs of students who weren’t interested in traditional college paths after graduation, advocating strongly for the development of strong vocational education and training programs for the young people of the county.
Ned’s peers took note of his accomplishment. In 1956, he was elected president of the southwestern division of the Illinois Education Association, becoming the first person from Randolph County to hold the post. He was also honored in June 1963 for his valuable service to education in Southern Illinois by the Educational Council of 100. As he approached his 25th year as county superintendent, Ned decided that it was time to retire. He announced that he would not seek another term in office, and his assistant, Vince Birchler, would successfully run to take over the superintendent position. As he reflected on his years as a teacher and administrator in Randolph County, he expressed pride in his achievements, but still hoped that the county would continue to make strides toward developing an education system to benefit all area children. “The people may not be ready for it yet,” he told the Southern Illinoisan in 1963, “but I think there will come a time when Randolph County will have just one or two high schools.” He hoped that further consolidation of the county’s resources and talents would yield even better results for the area’s children.
As for his own post-retirement plans, he was hesitant to say that he could step completely into a life of leisure. “You can’t sit behind a desk for 24 years and then abandon it for a rocking chair and shade tree,” he quipped. He certainly wasn’t able to leave education behind completely. He filled in as a substitute teacher when needed in Randolph County’s schools, and he also served as director for the area’s new Head Start program, which aimed to provide support and resources to children in the years before kindergarten. He continued to serve his community as a volunteer as well. He was the very first “Gray Man” to join the Randolph County Red Cross’s “Gray Ladies” volunteer program, logging more than 50 hours of volunteer service at county nursing homes in 1965. After he was widowed once more in 1968, Ned married a fellow Gray Ladies volunteer, longtime Chester kindergarten teacher Rachel Stoever, who would remain with him for the rest of his life.
With his career days behind him, Ned was also able to devote more time to the outdoors pursuits that he loved. He had long been an avid hunter and fisher, as well as an active member of the Chester Sportsmen’s Club and Chester Boat Club. He had even opened his own boat sales and service shop, Carlton Boat & Motor, near the Mississippi in Chester. So valued was his knowledge of the town’s riverfront that he was appointed to a development committee in the 1950s to help solve various structural water issues in low areas along the river in Chester. His outdoor skills came in handy one day in November 1956, when he rescued a fellow duck hunter, Bill Gentsch of Chester, who had been thrown from his boat into the Mississippi near Menard. It wouldn’t be the only time that he was witness to trouble on the river. In the summer of 1971, he was the first person on the scene when a car carrying a woman and nine little girls plunged into the Mississippi near his boat shop. He was able to help save the woman and two of the girls, but sadly, the rest of the children perished in the accident. In moments of both tragedy and prosperity, Ned had become a very familiar scene on the riverfront by the end of his life. He especially delighted in the fact that passing riverboat captains recognized him, and would toot their whistles as they passed his shop as a way of saying hello.
Affable and friendly, yet driven and committed, Ned managed to nudge Randolph County’s educational system into the future, making lasting friends and earning the respect of those who knew him along the way. 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, pastor and radio personality (and former teacher) 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.”
Ned Carlton was inducted into The Randolph Society in 2021.