At a long-legged 5 feet 8 inches, Velma “Leone” Hyde Hughes Ray ’41 had a pretty decent stride. Good thing – she covered a lot of ground in her 77 years: loyal sister, favorite aunt, farm wife, school teacher, basketball player.
Most of all, she was a devoted mother, said Mickey Charles Hughes, Ray’s only child, who is paying homage to his mother with an historic $5 million pledge for scholarships in her name to Western Carolina University, as part of the “Lead the Way” campaign. The goal, initiated by late Chancellor David O. Belcher, is to raise $60 million for student scholarships and programmatic support.
Graduating with a degree in education, Ray worked for 40 years as an elementary school teacher in Western North Carolina and Tennessee. Born in 1919 on a farm in Graham County, she was eager to go college. “She wanted to be a nurse,” Hughes said. “But the nearest nursing school was in Knoxville (Tenn.) and her father told her she couldn’t go that far unchaperoned, but she could go to Western because she had an older brother there. She said later that it was a lucky break because she found out that nursing was messy and she would have had to deal with sick people and poop.”
Ray, who died in 1996, was the oldest of four daughters and the only one to go to college. She also had four brothers, one of whom was Arnold Hyde ’38, who served multiple terms on the WCU Board of Trustees.
Ray specialized in grammar, which she sometimes practiced on family members, said her niece, Gail Hyde Leadingham ’66 MAEd ’67. “She was my favorite aunt. She encouraged me to go in to teaching,” said Leadingham, 74, of Stone Mountain, Georgia. “She also said that I was going to have to watch my English. I was shocked because I thought I did very well in that area. What she was talking about were the Old English words that were spoken in small isolated mountain towns, such as fetch, tote, yonder, you’ens, etc.”
At WCU, Ray helped finance her college tuition by working at the college’s Moore Dormitory dining hall and the Joyce Kilmer Restaurant in Robbinsville. After college, Ray married V.C. Hughes. While he fought in World War II, Ray lived with her parents and taught school in Robbinsville. During one particular election cycle, while V.C. was still away, she announced to her father, a “die-hard Democrat,” that she was going to vote Republican in support of her Republican husband, said Ray’s nephew Jerry Hyde ’65. Her father, who was on the Graham County School Board, issued an ultimatum. “He said, ‘you do that and I’ll get you fired’,” Jerry Hyde recalled. “Know what she said? ‘Fire away.’ She wasn’t going to take that threat from him. She was a bit of a rebel.”
Once V.C. returned from the war, the couple moved to a farm near Maryville, Tennessee. She spent the next 36 years teaching elementary school, briefly at Lanier Elementary School before transferring to Sam Houston Elementary School in Maryville. “They needed an extra teacher for the first grade,” said Hughes, 69. “The first of the baby boom generation was starting school and they had to add an extra class to accommodate the influx. She stayed with the same group and progressed with them through each grade – ending at the sixth grade.”
Ray – who, after a divorce from Hughes married Bill Ray – preferred teaching third grade, said her son, who originally endowed the Leone Hyde Ray Endowed Scholarship Fund in 1998, using the proceeds from the sale of his mother’s 1973 Buick to launch the fund. His recent pledge to increase the gift to $5 million makes it the largest donation designated specifically for scholarship support in WCU’s history. Once Hughes’ estate is settled, WCU will rename its School of Teaching and Learning as the Hyde Hughes School of Teaching and Learning.
Anna Crisp ’17, a beneficiary of Ray’s scholarship who will teach math at Kituwah Academy in Cherokee this fall, said she was honored to have received financial help from a woman who was so dedicated to education. “I felt very blessed by that scholarship,” said Crisp. “Education was always very important to me and I went into education because of my teachers. To hear about how education was important to her, that was very significant.”