Written By Kerry Watson Garner
Caryite June Atkinson still uses the skills she learned in high school and college.
She takes all her notes in shorthand. Her background in typing has helped her to master the computer. She finds her accounting knowledge handy for budget planning. And she maintains what she taught her business education students years ago — that 81 percent of the success on the job is personal relationships.
“I always tried to instill that working well with someone, respect for others and getting the point across while remaining tactful was very important in the business world,” Atkinson said.
These same three positive attributes have made Atkinson a success as the first woman ever to be elected as the State Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Garnering advice from her group of friends who call themselves, “Women of a Certain Age (now Attitude),” to run for the top position, and having already served with three of the past 17 superintendents that she looks up to greatly — Dr. Craig Phillip, Bob Etheridge and Mike Ward — she went on a cruise to make the final decision. By the end of the Caribbean vacation, folks were already congratulating her on running — so she decided to go for it.
When she put her name on the ballot, she was one of three Democrats and two Republicans vying for the title. It was the first time in her life she ever ran for a political office.
The rest is now North Carolina history.
After a 10-month delay of the job, which Atkinson described as a country song with lyrics like: “I knew what I was doing, but I don’t know what I was thinking,” she is now the head of all North Carolina’s 115 public school districts and also serves on the Council of State.
She is still a newlywed, married for three years to Cary orthodontist Dr. William Gurley, and is a member of the First United Methodist Church in Cary.
Her path to being forever a Caryite started during her education career when she came to the area to work with DPI — 30 years ago. She was following a dream started by her grandmother, Nora St. Clair, in her home state of Virginia.
“I watched her prepare Sunday school lessons and talk about how great it would be to be a teacher,” Atkinson added.
Through her own public school years, she liked history and social studies, but found her most challenging, yet enjoyable, class in high school to be accounting. In college, she had a friend who was majoring in business, but she couldn’t get her love for education out of her mind, so she decided to combine both interests into a business education degree from Radford University.
A master’s degree in vocational and technical education from Virginia Tech and a doctorate in educational leadership and policy from N.C. State University also add to Atkinson’s buzzing business credentials.
As she followed her “super” path, she continued to see how her business courses had taught her lifelong skills.
Today, she still takes the time to stress the importance of work and learning to students she comes into contact with. Especially with the way technology continues to plow forward.
“I try to make sure every teacher embraces technology because today’s generation will continue to do so,” Atkinson said. And to be successful in the real world, kids need to know real technological advances.
It all goes back to her original lessons of Business Education 101.
“Through work experience,” she added, “you see the relevance in learning.”