Educator William Woodson Trent (January 31, 1878-June 15, 1960) was known to legions of West Virginia schoolchildren from his scrawling signature on their report cards and other school documents. He served as state superintendent of schools from 1933 until 1957. Born in rural Nicholas County and educated in the local schools, Marshall State Normal School (now Marshall University), and Columbia University (A.M., 1921), he rose through the teaching ranks to become secretary of the West Virginia Education Association (1919–27) and editor of the influential West Virginia School Journal (1923–27).
Throughout his long professional and political career, Trent maintained a close association with the state Baptist Convention, and he was often a dynamic speaker at its annual meetings. After serving as president of Broaddus College and Alderson-Broaddus College (1927–33), a Baptist institution, he ran as a Democrat for state superintendent of schools in the landmark election of 1932.
Upon assuming office, Trent almost single handedly oversaw implementation of the county unit system of public schools, in 1933 and 1934. A fierce, often outspoken defender of school teacher interests, he soon developed into one of the state’s most formidable politicians. He was reelected as state superintendent in 1936, 1940, 1944, 1948, and 1952. In several of these elections he polled more votes statewide than the party candidate for governor. As a member of the State Board of Public Works, he was a staunch advocate of additional pay for teachers. He successfully fought off several attempts to check his powers as superintendent, including the proposed Short Ballot Amendment of 1938 and reforms proposed in the 1945 Strayer Report. When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision ending segregation in the public schools, Trent worked with Governor William Casey Marland to integrate the state in a peaceful and speedy manner.
His long political career came to an end in January 1957 after Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Republicans swept the state in the election of 1956.
This Article was written by Paul D. Casdorph
Last Revised on November 05, 2010
Casdorph, P. D. Youth Education in West Virginia. Charleston: 1975.
Trent, W. W. Mountaineer Education: A Story of Education in West Virginia. Charleston: Jarrett Printing, 1960.