SOE News

Samuel Holton, professor emeritus of social foundations of education, dies March 17

Photo of Samuel Holton

Samuel Holton

Samuel Holton, professor emeritus of social foundations of education, died March 17, 2010, at age 87. He was an extraordinary scholar, mentor and leader across his 39-year academic career at Carolina.

After earning his Ph.D. from Yale University, Holton joined the faculty of the School of Education in 1948 and remained there until his retirement in 1987. As he rose through the ranks to become chair of the social foundations area and a leader of numerous University committees and boards, he supervised the dissertation research of more than 50 doctoral students and became an educational leader in the community, state and Southern region.

“Not only was Sam Holton a member of a proud family tradition in educational and public service to North Carolina, but he was also a significant contributor to a national academic family, known today as social foundations of education,” said Professor Lynda Stone, who currently heads the academic area previously chaired by Holton. “His teacher at Yale, John Brubacher, was one of the very first professors of philosophy and history of education in the United States. Today there must be dozens of professors who are part of this lineage, as am I. Through Carolina’s graduate education, this tradition continues, a wonderful legacy of which Sam was an integral and significant part.”

Holton was a prolific researcher and scholar. Among his numerous scholarly publications, he wrote a landmark textbook in 1969, Understanding the American Public High School, which remains an important resource today. The School of Education honored him in 2007 by presenting him with the Distinguished Leadership Award.

“Sam was the most learned of his generation,” said his former colleague, Professor George Noblit, when presenting the award. “He was regarded as a faculty leader and a person of the highest moral character. He led by example, for instance, in admitting and advising students of color in the Ph.D. program. He was among the first at Carolina to do this.”

“Sam was always congenial but with a stubborn streak for issues of fairness and equality,” Noblit said. “When others argued for practicality, Sam would argue for what was right.”  

Born in Durham, N.C., in 1922, Holton earned a bachelor’s degree from Duke University in 1942. He served in the U.S. Army Air Corp in India and China as a meteorologist during World War II. After the war ended, he earned a Master of Education degree at Duke, before pursuing doctoral study in education at Yale. While on professional leave from UNC-Chapel Hill from 1953-55, Holton was principal of Bartlett-Yancey High School in Yanceyville, N.C.

His public service touched his community and reached across the state. He served on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education from 1968-75 during the turbulent years of the Civil Rights era. He was a leader in the Kiwanis Club for more than 50 years and served on the board of trustees of North Carolina Wesleyan College in Rocky Mount, N.C., and Goodwill Industries of Eastern North Carolina. An Eagle Scout as a youth and later a Boy Scout leader, he was recognized in 1966 for his 30 years of service when the Boy Scouts of America presented him with their highest honor, the Silver Beaver Award.

Holton and his wife Margaret established the Samuel M. Holton Graduate Fellowship at the School of Education in 2000 to help support doctoral candidates. More recently, the Holtons established a fund that will eventually create an endowed professorship, the Samuel M. Holton Distinguished Professorship, at the School of Education.