Everett’s first black teacher helped build bridges

EVERETT — Shirley Walthall, who made history as the Everett School District’s first black teacher and whose example in the classroom and leadership in the community were an inspiration to her students, has died.

Walthall, 72, battled multiple sclerosis for years. She died Feb. 8. Funeral services are scheduled at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Greater Trinity Missionary Baptist Church in Everett.

Her life spanned Everett’s transformation from a near-monocultural community to an ethnically diverse school district that today has students speaking 73 languages.

When she and her husband, Bennie Walthall, came to the city in the mid-1960s, they struggled to find housing. “There were places that wouldn’t rent to them because they were black,” said Marsha Cogdill, a longtime friend and fellow teacher. “I don’t think we were as far along as we thought we were.”

Everett had changed little since the 1940s, when a census showed the population was 99.3 percent white, said Larry O’Donnell, who wrote a history of the Everett School District. “I grew up in Everett,” he said. “Frankly, it had not changed by the time Shirley came to town. There were very few minorities around Everett. Courage is a word I would think of with Shirley.”

Betty Cobbs, who arrived in Everett in 1972 for her student-teaching experience, remembers feeling isolated and alone, not knowing anyone and living in a city with few other black people. “I was literally afraid,” Cobbs said. “When I came to Everett, I didn’t see any people of color here.”

Cobbs got an invitation from Walthall to come visit her at her home. “I didn’t have any intention of going,” Cobbs said. “I didn’t know her.”

One day, Walthall just showed up. “She came to my apartment and she literally pulled me out and took me to her house,” Cobbs said.

“She was always such a friendly and outgoing person,” Cobbs said. “She was always welcoming to everybody.”

Walthall was hired by the Everett School District in 1965, the beginning of a 35-year career.

“I remember her quite vividly not only as a valued employee but a dedicated employee,” said Roy Yates, who was a neighbor in Everett’s Eastmont neighborhood and served on the school board for 19 years. “She always had the children and families in the forefront of her mind.”

Norm Keck was the principal at Hawthorne Elementary School who hired Walthall to join his staff. “Shirley would be there early in the morning and later at night,” he said. “You couldn’t pick a much better person for kids to see and be around.”

When Walthall was later chosen to be a principal at Hawthorne, Keck said, he called her and “cheered and hollered and yelled.”

In addition to her time at Hawthorne as a teacher and principal, she taught at Lowell Elementary School, was principal at Monroe Elementary School and worked in the district’s human resources department. In 2008, Hawthorne’s library was named in her honor.

Walthall helped build bridges in education circles and the community at large by increasing understanding of minorities and cultures. “She really felt it was important for students to be exposed to multicultural experiences, to learn about different people, cultures and foods,” Cobbs said.

Walthall had a collection of African art, dolls and memorabilia in her home. “At some point, she started bringing kids to her home as a field trip, talking about the artifacts in her collection,” Cobbs said. “It was a wonderful experience for students who may not have had an opportunity to go to a museum.”

Walthall was active in local and state teacher’s associations, and Keck said she went on to work on many National Education Association committees.

She also served on the board of the Everett Public Library, Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, and the Snohomish County chapters of the Red Cross and United Way.

An annual youth achievement award given by the Snohomish County branch of the NAACP is named in her honor.

“What a great leader,” said Snohomish County Executive John Lovick. “She had a passion for teaching and compassion for her students and their families. We are all truly blessed she called Snohomish County home.”

Walthall is survived by her husband, Bennie, and by children Marla Walthall, of Everett, and Shelby Walthall, of Kent.

“She was one of those quiet giants who really lifted us up,” said Janice R. Green, president of the Snohomish County Chapter of the NAACP. “We all owe her a big thank you for the contributions she made.”

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486; salyer@heraldnet.com.

Remembrances

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Shirley J. Walthall Memorial Fund at the Greater Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, 11229 Fourth Ave. W., Everett, WA 98204, or to the Shirley J. Walthall Library Fund in care of the Everett Public Schools Foundation, P.O. Box 3112, Everett, WA 98213.

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