Death of Beloved Educator and Leader Jesse Poulson Leaves Hole in Heart of Community

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Jesse Poulson. Image courtesy of the family and Cooper and Humbles Funeral Home.

By Carol Vaughn —

Jesse Poulson, a beloved Accomack County educator, passed away Monday at age 77.

Poulson, who grew up in the Onancock area, was a 1959 graduate of Mary N. Smith High School, which at the time was Accomack County’s high school for Black students.

After graduating from Norfolk State University with a degree in business education, he came back to teach at Smith in 1963, starting as school librarian and later teaching business courses.

Poulson remained at Smith until 1970, when the school ceased to be a segregated high school; it later was used as a middle school.

Poulson went on to teach hundreds more students at Onancock High School and Nandua High School before retiring in 2000.

“He was a professional. He had one of those classes that the children just loved. … Kids looked forward to his class,” said David Sabatino, who worked in the same department as Poulson at Nandua High School.

“Jesse worked 37 years for Accomack County and he was a man of his word. … If he would say something to you, he would deliver,” said Chris Holland, Accomack County Public Schools superintendent.

“He was a kind man, he was a gentleman, he was a great educator, and Accomack County Schools is sorry for his loss. He was a great role model for us,” Holland said.

In a 2012 interview conducted as part of an Old Dominion University oral history project, Poulson recalled the period when Eastern Shore schools were beginning to be desegregated.

“I remember that the county adopted a policy known as ‘freedom of choice,’ whereby if the young people chose to go to one of the White schools, they could enroll. From my community where I lived, I remember there was one young man who went to the ‘White’ school, as we called it, Onancock High School, and he remained there to be the first Black kid to graduate from that school,” he said, adding, “I think he did all right; there was no physical violence toward him, but he suffered many taunts and the ridicule and name-calling and so forth.”

There also were a few elementary-age Black students who attended the school, which at the time included grades 1 to 12.

“As the years progressed and I went to teach at Onancock High School, some of those same young people who had known each other back there in first and second and third grade were in my class, so you fast forward … to here it is 1972 or 1973 and they are sitting in my typing class and they are able to laugh at some of the foolish things that they did, now that they got to know this Black kid — not just as a Black child, but as a person, as a cheerleader, as a member of the yearbook staff, and so forth.

“So, getting to know each other played a very important part in their relationship,” Poulson recalled.

Poulson also was a leader in the Bayside community and Metropolitan United Methodist Church there — including serving as lead musician at the church for years.

Additionally, he mentored Methodist youth as an adult representative to the statewide church youth organization, according to Alex Joyner, Eastern Shore UMC district superintendent.

Joyner was acquainted with Poulson from Joyner’s youth through that organization, long before Joyner moved to the Eastern Shore.

“He was mentoring youth here on the Shore and around the conference from at least back in the 1970s, so there are whole generations of youth who grew up knowing who Jesse Poulson is,” Joyner said.

“He had such a great open spirit that he was able to weather conflict in such a gracious way and to be a leader, and very respected, because of that,” Joyner said, adding, “I’m going to miss him. He was a true saint.”

Poulson also is remembered for his summer work in migrant farmworker camps on the Eastern Shore.

Willie Mae Thomas, 57, of Palatka, Fla., was a child living in those camps during the summers and said Poulson had a positive influence on her life.

Thomas, who earned a master’s degree in transformational leadership and has served more than 26 years in the military, is a master sergeant in the U. S. Army Reserves. She credits Poulson and other adult mentors in the federally funded summer education program for migrant children in Accomack County in large part for her success.

Thomas was acquainted with Poulson from age 7 on, as her family traveled seasonally to the Eastern Shore to harvest potatoes.

Poulson drove a bus to the migrant camps once a week, greeting a crowd of 50 to 60 children and bringing them books and other goodies.

“We would always see a movie and we would always get an ice cream sandwich,” she said.
When the bus came into sight down the long road leading to the camp, the children would jump up and down in anticipation.

“The love that Jesse showed us…” Thomas said, her voice trailing off, noting Poulson quickly would find the migrant workers at whichever camp they happened to be that particular summer.

The seasonal ritual continued until Thomas reached age 17 or so.

“He had the most admirable attitude; he loved all of us,” she said, recalling in particular Poulson’s kindness toward the children.

“Jesse has a legacy with the people of Florida,” she said. Thomas drove to Virginia to visit Poulson about 1½ years ago and spoke on the telephone with him a few months ago.

“He has left something that will always be remembered with me; he will always be dear to my heart,” she said.

Later in life, Poulson kept up his ties to Mary N. Smith School and was serving as president of the Mary N. Smith Alumni Association in 2015, when it was awarded a $40,000 grant from the Eastern Shore of Virginia Community Foundation.

The grant, along with thousands of dollars raised by alumni and other community members, helped get the first phase of renovations underway at the former school, now called the Mary N. Smith Center for Cultural Enrichment.

Accomack County turned over the property to the alumni group in 2011, after it had not been in use as a school since 2004.

Looking to the future, the alumni envision a completely renewed facility that will continue to honor Smith’s legacy of educating community youth — a legacy in which Poulson shares in the hearts of his many former students and other young people who looked up to him.

Listen to a 2012 oral history interview with Jesse Poulson at https://dc.lib.odu.edu/digital/collection/dove/id/137