Celeste Henkel (1884-1935)
March is Women's History Month, and just like Black History Month, there are so many hidden stories right here in our own backyard of people who have made a difference in their communities. Each week in March, the Local History Department will feature a blog focusing on a woman or women in Iredell County who contributed greatly to our history. This article highlights just one of those women: Helen Celeste Henkel.
County residents know of the elementary school in the curve on Old Mountain Road which is named after her but many do not know the woman behind the name. Helen Celeste Henkel was born in Catawba County, died in Baltimore, Maryland, and is buried in Raleigh where she lived the last few years of her life, but Iredell County holds perhaps the biggest part of her legacy. Although Celeste came from a long line of men who made their name as traveling Lutheran preachers, it was the livestock business that brought her family to Iredell County. By 1899 Statesville had become the center of operations for her father and uncle and by 1902 the family had relocated here. Celeste’s list of formal education includes Salem College and Columbia University. She was hired by Iredell County in 1915 as its first home demonstration agent as well as a part-time assistant superintendent. In these roles she helped create “betterment societies” which would have most closely represented PTA organizations today, canning clubs for girls, and educational community groups for young women. She was also part of the faculty at Mitchell College in their home economics department.
Only a few years after women received the right to vote, Celeste was elected superintendent of the Iredell County school system, the first women to fill the position. She was elected by an overwhelmingly unanimous vote. This would have been quite the accomplishment for many people, but for a woman during a time when females were ineligible for certain positions of leadership across the country and still only in the infancy of their right to vote, this was an outstanding achievement.
During her time as superintendent, she initiated much of the school consolidation that took place at that time. By doing this, she was able to minimize the number of schools, increase student body numbers and teachers, and as a result qualify schools for accreditation. This also allowed for teachers to focus on one grade (or two) rather than teaching a variety of age groups. Celeste had to conduct this project with efficiency and had to wield a great deal of diplomacy when dealing with pushback from county residents. Many did not want to see their local schools disappear while others were in favor knowing that consolidation would mean a higher quality education. Celeste was the perfect woman for the job. In 1926 a new high school was built and named after Celeste. It now serves as an elementary school and is the only school in county named after a woman.
In addition to her role in Iredell County, she also served on several other educational boards and committees including the North Carolina Textbook Commission, the Democratic Executive Committee of North Carolina, and the Board of Trustees of Appalachian Teacher’s College (now Appalachian State University). After serving three terms as superintendent (six years), she married Dr. Charles Lee Smith in 1933 and moved to his hometown of Raleigh where she lived the last few years of her life. She was being treated at a hospital in Baltimore, Maryland for an extended illness which took her life on September 30, 1935 at the age of 51. By her life works, her determination was clear. She wanted to elevate education in Iredell County and she overcame so many challenges in order to succeed. Now that you know the story of the name Celeste Henkel, think of her the next time you drive by her school.