When one looks back in history, sometimes tragic events result in interesting, unintended results that eventually shape the world we live in today. The same is true of our local community. When a 43-year-old man named Joseph Earle Carmichael died suddenly and unexpectedly on May 23, 1917, it set off a chain of events that would shape the Oceanside community for the next hundred years.
While largely lost to obscurity today, Carmichael was a well-regarded and respected educator when he was hired as the supervising principal for the Oceanside Union Free School District No. 11 prior to the start of the 1913-1914 school year. Robert L. Weaver had recently departed after three relatively tumultuous years as the district’s supervising principal. During his tenure, community factions arose, resulting in a complete change in the make-up of its Board of Education. Before coming to Oceanside, Carmichael had been supervising principal in the Pelham Public School District in Westchester County for three years before its school board decided to abolish the position.
While not a title generally found in New York school districts today, the position of supervising principal was commonly used in the early 1900s under a slightly difference organizational structure. Most counties, including Nassau, had a superintendent who provided New York State oversight over the individual school districts within the county. In Oceanside, there was no schools superintendent yet. Most districts used a position called supervising principal to fill the role of chief officer.
In the early 1900s, Carmichael was considered a successful supervising principal and an extremely well regarded educator. Born in Alder Creek, N.Y. in 1874, Carmichael had worked school districts in Vernon, Lake Placid and Skaneateles, before being appointed supervising principal at the Pelham School District from 1910-1913. After learning that his position in Pelham was eliminated, the students and faculty at graduation defied the school board’s recent prohibition of giving gifts to its staff and presented Carmichael a gold watch bearing his initials on the case. He was cheered by all in attendance when he appeared on stage.
After arriving to Oceanside with his wife in 1914, its school district had around 300 students and consisted of one “modern” brick building, which had been constructed for $75,000 in 1911. The district’s boundaries were similar as they are today except that it included Island Park. Additionally, after years of infighting, the Long Beach barrier island communities secretly lobbied for the passage of legislation to secede from the Oceanside School District and form its own. While the Oceanside community had developed factions between the newer residents moving into the community and older established families, Carmichael appeared to remain above the fray, and became active in Oceanside’s Presbyterian Church serving as a deacon.
After his wife died in 1915, Carmichael became a boarder in the home of Arthur Davison, at 33 Academy St. On the evening of May 22, 1917, Carmichael finished a prayer group at his church and returned to his home around 11:00 p.m. appearing in good health. The next morning, however, Carmichael failed to get up for breakfast and his usual morning walk at 5:00 a.m. Davison found Carmichael lying in his bed with his face buried in his pillow, not breathing. Based on his position and the fact that he suffered from epilepsy, the coroner determined the cause of Carmichael’s death to be asphyxiation while under an epileptic seizure.
Funeral services were held for Carmichael the next day at Oceanside’s Presbyterian Church. The service was conducted by the church’s pastor, the Rev. L. Walter Stephens, who was also a close friend of Carmichael. Out of respect for their principal, it was reported that the teachers and administrators marched from the school to the church to pay their respects to Carmichael.
The death of the popular supervising principal resulted in a further fracturing of the community and Board of Education resulting in further changes and instability. More significantly, it also set in motion a series of events that shaped the community’s future for the next hundred years.
As for Joseph E. Carmichael, he joined the cast of many, many others who have become forgotten pieces of Oceanside history.