Rondthalers of Ocracoke
Alice and Theodore Rondthaler had been married for a decade
when Alice’s mother came from Connecticut to live with them
in Clemmons, North
Carolina. Mrs. Keeney was suffering from the
In New England in the
mid-1930s the popular cure for her
malady was withdrawal to the seashore. Alice soon made inquiries about
resort destinations on the coast of North Carolina. Someone suggested
Ocracoke Island was isolated and far from the cares of the mainland.
natives were stress-free, relaxed and friendly, and, Alice was told,
perfect place to take Mrs. Keeney for the cure.
Alice asked about places
to stay, and was told that Ocracoke
had no hotels, but Aunt Mame took in boarders. She should just write to
Mame.” Her address was simply, Ocracoke, NC.
About two weeks later
Alice received a post card with this
note written in pencil: “Aunt Mame ain’t keeping
folks no more but you can stay
with me. Uncle Gary.”
That was all it took.
Alice and Theodore began making
preparations for their first trip to Ocracoke, “on
faith” as Alice recalled.
On the appointed day Mrs.
Keeney sat quietly, never speaking, as the Rondthalers motored east to
coastal village of Atlantic. There they would meet the mailboat for the
hour trip across Pamlico Sound.
The next day, around
noon, Alice, Theodore, and Mrs. Keeney
boarded the Aleta, a 42 foot wooden
vessel powered by a diesel engine. In addition to the mail and a small
of freight the Aleta could hold
two dozen passengers. Theodore passed his expensive leather suitcase to
deckhand who promptly tossed it unceremoniously through the deck hatch
the hold, where it landed on blocks of ice.
me,” Theodore asked with as much civility as he
could muster, “why did you throw my luggage below
“Why, to keep
the ice from melting, of course,” came the
Truth be told, Alice and
Theodore were immediately impressed
with the unpretentious demeanor and straightforwardness of the captain
of the Aleta.
About two hours after
their departure, when the mainland had
fallen below the western horizon, and the Aleta
was still out of sight of Ocracoke, Mrs. Keeney looked at her daughter,
uttered the first words she’d spoken in three years.
“Alice,” she said, “where
in the hell are you taking me?”
Rondthalers’ first trip to Ocracoke would not be their
last, for it was love at first sight. The people, the history, the
and the lifestyle all resonated with Alice and Theodore, a couple
commitments to equality, tolerance, simplicity, and peace.
Alice Keeney (1899-1977)
was a young, single woman when she
moved from Somersville, Connecticut to Winston Salem, North Carolina.
worked as secretary for Rev. Howard Edward Rondthaler (1871-1956), a
distinguished Moravian pastor who later served as president of Salem
and still later was consecrated bishop of the Southern Moravian
Rondthaler was married to Katherine Boring, a Philadelphia Quaker.
Ronthaler’s eldest son, Theodore Edward (1899-1966), was
born in the parsonage while his father was pastor of Christ Church in
North Carolina. The Moravian faith was central to his upbringing. Six
generations of Theodore’s forebears had served as Moravian
teachers and clergymen,
in Saxony, Russia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.
Theodore attended private
and public schools in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
and in North Carolina. In the summers, from 1912, when he was thirteen
old, until 1921, he visited Pocono Lake Preserve in Pennsylvania to
visit his grandparents.
Lake Preserve was a summer camp founded by devout Quakers, Isaac
Joseph Elkinton. The camp consisted of one hundred cottages and offered
hospitality to members of the Orthodox branch of the Philadelphia
Meeting of the Society of Friends.
It was at the lake that
Theodore developed a life-long
interest in swimming, rowing, and canoeing. He also enjoyed music,
playing his guitar and clarinet. Perhaps the most enduring lessons
learned at Pocono Lake Preserve were the high ideals and principled
of the Quakers.
Following graduation from
high school, Theodore enrolled in
the University of North Carolina, where he graduated in 1919. He was a
of Phi Beta Kappa, the student council, and Golden Fleece, the highest
organization on the campus. The Order of the Golden Fleece selected its
based on “service to the University as reflected in
scholarship, motivation, creativity, loyalty, and leadership in
After receiving his B.A.
Theodore pursued a number
of interests, including unloading fish at Fulton’s Fish
Market in New York
City. He lived in the Bowery, an area “filled with employment agencies, cheap clothing
and knickknack stores,
cheap moving-picture shows, cheap lodging-houses, cheap eating-houses,
cheap saloons," as it was described in 1919. Bums, prostitutes, gangs,
and thousands of sailors on shore leave frequented the Bowery. Theodore took a room at the
YMCA, one of the first institutions of
social reform in the Bowery. While rooming there he was frequently
From the YMCA Bowery
Theodore moved to New Jersey, where he
enrolled in Princeton University. He received his master’s
degree in English
and Latin in 1923. During the next two years he toured Europe by
and attended classes in Munich and Paris. With only enough money for
fare back to the states, Theodore earned his meals aboard ship by
clarinet at the captain’s table.
By 1924 Theodore had
returned to North Carolina
where he began teaching Latin at Salem College. There he met and fell
with Alice Keeney, his father’s secretary. They were married
in 1927. The
following year the couple moved to Clemmons, North Carolina where
taught high school. He later became principal.
The Rondthalers had two children, Howard and Alice Katherine.
In 1935, while the
Rondthalers were living in Clemmons, they
discovered Ocracoke. They were instantly enamored of the island, and
week vacation quickly expanded to three. They even bought a cottage,
Dan and Sabra Tolson home, which at that time was owned by the
McIlhenys, a mainland
family that enjoyed spending summers on the island. Remarkably, it was
until two years later that the Rondthalers saw the inside of their new
then on they spent as much of the summer as possible on Ocracoke.
On December 7, 1941 Japan
attacked Pearl Harbor, and
suddenly the United States was at war. By the end of the spring school
1942 the T. A. Loving Company had begun work on a Navy Section Base on
That summer Theodore
secured a carpenter’s permit which allowed
him to work on Ocracoke. Because of his ability to read blueprints and
surveyor’s transit, Theodore was soon transferred to building
the first paved
road on the island, a one-lane concrete strip between the Base and an
“Ammunition Dump,” a row of protected and
reinforced buildings used to store
By October the T.A.
Loving Company had built barracks for up
to 600 Navy personnel, administration and engineering buildings, radar
communications facilities, an electrical shop, offices, and a mess hall.
Alice and Theodore kept
their permanent residence
in Clemmons until after the war. In 1945 they took jobs at an
liberal arts college located in the mountains of North Carolina. Black
College emphasized art, poetry, music, and design, which were
the curriculum according to John Dewey’s principles of
taught several unconventional courses, including “History of
Communities.” No doubt he included references to Ocracoke,
where he and Alice
continued to spend their summers.
By 1948 the Rondthalers' children,
Howard and Alice Katherine, were enrolled at Reed College in Portland,
Oregon. At that time Alice and
Theodore Rondthaler left their
jobs at Black Mountain College and moved to Ocracoke permanently.
hired as principal of the local school, and Alice as one of his four
In short order, as Carl Goerch put it in his 1956 book
“Ocracoke,” they were
“considered as much a part of Ocracoke as the lighthouse or
the Coast Guard
goes on to say
“there’s a mutual liking and understanding existing
between them and the
natives of the island.”
The Old Ocracoke School House:
(Photo courtesy of Earl
In his spare time
Theodore enjoyed strolling through the
village, using the many well-worn sandy paths that wound between modest
clapboard houses, family cemeteries, general stores and chicken yards,
across makeshift wooden bridges that traversed languid tidal creeks.
was out and about visiting neighbors, or simply stopping to chat with
mending their nets or with carpenters building a new skiff. When storms
hurricanes threatened, Theodore made it his mission to pass the word
Alice was just as
gregarious. One islander described her as
a “walking newspaper.” In her wanderings about the
village Alice collected the
news: who was down with the flu, how many fish were brought to the
the preacher’s new baby was due, why the mailboat was late
getting into the
harbor. Eventually Alice published her local news in the school paper
the Outer Banks weekly newspaper, the Coastland
Every spring Alice
organized a Junior Class trip to some
distant city, maybe Raleigh, or even Washington, DC. For many of her
this would be their first opportunity to visit a city, hail a cab, eat
fancy restaurant, or see a play.
Former students remember
Theodore and Alice as “a mighty
good principal and teacher.” It would be an understatement to
say that they
were respected. This is not to say that Ocracoke students
didn’t occasionally play
pranks – tacks on the teacher’s rush bottom chair,
or a toad in the teacher’s
desk drawer. But Principal Rondthaler attempted to instill his values
(fairness, respect, responsibility, and creativity, to name a few) in
The Rondthalers remained
at the school for fourteen years.
At retirement Theodore
obtained his surveyor’s license. At
that time island deeds were notoriously vague. Corners were often
“the large live oak tree,” “the corner of
Harry’s chicken pound,” or “the stake
near William’s shell pile.” For several years he
used his skills to provide more
accurate deeds, and settle land disputes.
Quaker background also helped him settle personal
squabbles. He not only informally mediated quarrels between neighbors;
also available as a counselor for couples experiencing marital
Even after retirement
Alice and Theodore continued to teach
Sunday School at the Methodist Church. Theodore acted as lay preacher
minister was off the island. Both are remembered for their familiarity
Bible, and their ability to bring meaning to ancient texts by
to current events and contemporary issues. The Rondthalers were always
respected. They were also persuasive advocates for social harmony.
Sometime after Marvin
Howard established the Ocracoke Boy
Scout troop in the mid 1950s Theodore accepted the position of
of many volunteer roles he filled.
Eight students graduated
from Ocracoke School in 1965.
Theodore had been retired for three years, and he was recruited as
Speaker. He chose as his text two verses from the Biblical book of
he shewed me: and, behold, the LORD stood upon a wall made by a
a plumbline in his hand. And the LORD said unto me, Amos, what seest
I said, A plumbline. Then said the LORD, Behold, I will set a plumbline
midst of my people Israel”
Theodore described the
plumbline, a simple contractor’s tool,
and pointed out that the plumbline embodies the principal of
Then his talk became personal. Addressing each graduate by name he
spoke of the
need for dependability – for Joseph and Reginald who were on
their way to
college; for June Yvette and Margaret who would be attending nurses
for Jimmy who would be doing training in auto mechanics; for Vickie and
who were getting married; and for Armistead who would be pursuing
maintenance and repair.
Theodore also became
chairman of the Ocracoke Board of
Mosquito Control and was instrumental in implementing a policy of
mosquito control ditches to drain breeding areas within the village.
Theodore died in April of
1966 after a struggle with cancer.
His tombstone on Ocracoke reads “Yea, a man may say, thou
hast faith and I have
works: Shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my
faith by my
works.: James II: 18.
Rondthaler in Back Row, with Students (back row: Maude Ellen Garrish,
Peggy O'Neal, Wanda Simpson,& Josephine Howard; front row:
Willis, Mickey Garrish, & Walter C. O'Neal):
(Photo from the Alice
Rondthaler Collection, courtesy Ocracoke Preservation Society)
After Theodore died Alice
continued to give her time and
energy to the Ocracoke community. She wrote for local publications,
island history and stories, continued to be an active member of the
church, and befriended both native Ocracokers and newcomers to the
invited friends to her cottage for seafood
dinners. Alice almost always baked brown bread, and fixed baked beans
with bacon. "Maggie,” she once said, “you
can bring the green beans.
Merle, you can bring the potato salad, and Sherrill, you and David can
the crab cakes.” When Sherrill protested that she'd never made
crab cakes, Alice countered that all she needed to do was walk across
the lane and ask her neighbor, Rebecca Spencer, how to make crab cakes.
"Rebecca makes the best crab cakes on the island," Alice pointed out.
It was Alice's way of introducing newcomers to island natves.
Once, while on a road
trip off-island, Alice was pulled over
for speeding. She explained to the officer that she was listening to a
the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and it was just
not possible for her to
drive slowly to that tune. The trooper found Alice’s novel
but he issued the ticket anyway…along with a warning to
listen to different
music while driving.
Alice continued to travel
into her 70s. On her last trip to
the mainland she contracted an infection, and died shortly afterwards
complications of pneumonia. Her body was returned to Ocracoke for the
funeral, and carried to the community Cemetery, as so many before her, in Monk Garrish's old blue Jeep pickup truck.. She
is buried beside Theodore. Her
reads, “She hath done what she could.” Mark XIV: 8.
(Photo from the John Wall
Collection, courtesy Ocracoke Preservation Society)
Alice often said that
once you get Ocracoke sand between
your toes you’ll always come back. Theodore frequently
remarked that he
couldn’t thank Ocracoke or its people enough for what they
had given him.
Ocracokers will always be
indebted to the Rondthalers for
their abiding love of this place, and for their many and valuable
to the school and the community.
Mrs. Keeney may not have
known “where in the hell” her
daughter and son-in-law were taking her in 1935, but Alice and Theodore
discovered where they were – home.