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Last updated 2/4/2021 at 9:08am

Rear Admiral (Ret.) Walter H. Cantrell, a 1954 Brevard High School graduate, served in the U.S. Navy for 41 years. After his retirement, he continued to help government agencies with some of their most vexing engineering challenges.

A Father's Lessons

Dunn's Rock master craftsman Walter L. Cantrell had a successful business in Canter Woodworkers, however, he didn't encourage his son, Walt, to follow in his footsteps. While the woodworking skills he shared helped Walt when he was young, the most important lessons he taught served him for a lifetime.

As a young man, Walt contributed to the family enterprise by cutting, planing, sanding, routing, drilling, screwing and gluing wood, skills he says he learned by osmosis and hasn't used much since his youth.

"I would make wooden coat hangers, glove boxes and card boxes, but dad didn't want me to get hooked on it," he said.

His father also would take him along to help with furniture deliveries of his custom orders.

"He wanted me to meet the different kinds of people in the world, to see the haughty and the low and all the in between. It was a good exposure," Walt said.

As his father's reputation for craftsmanship spread, so did their delivery radius.

"We delivered to Charleston, Savannah, Richmond, Jacksonville, and, in those days, you didn't make the trip as quickly as you do now with the interstate," he said.

The elder Cantrell encouraged his son to begin finding ways to fund further education for himself.

"He told me, 'For you to be successful, do something other than what I'm doing. Get a college education,'" Walt said.

His father's academic education had ended by necessity in the late 1920s before he reached high school. Cantrell's father had died in 1919 during the flu pandemic, and he hoped to find a way to help support his family by moving to Tryon to join the apprentice program of Tryon Toymakers and Woodcarvers. This program, while teaching Cantrell fine skills, involved no academics.

Young Walt began to make a little extra money by delivering GRIT, a rural farm publication.

"I delivered GRIT for all of Dunn's Rock on my bicycle. It was a whole dime per copy," he said.

He also worked at Rockbrook Camp for Girls every summer.

"I did everything – cutting brush or wood, repairing cabins, cleaning cabins, working the kitchen, taking girls on hikes. There was no set job description; I did whatever needed to be done," he said.

Walt said though he tried to get scholarships to Georgia Tech or N.C. State, it was Rockbrook Camp owner Nancy Carrier who suggested that he try for an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. Walt served in the Navy Reserve in high school, which also commended him for an appointment to the Academy.

Since Naval Academy candidates need a sponsorship from a U.S. congressman or senator, which typically involves either political connections or contributions, Walt credits his acceptance to the Carriers, who were politically active.

Walt's father, who was rightly proud of his son's path, told him, "Do well and make at least one rank higher than me."

Cantrell served with the Navy Seabees during World War II. After the war, he served in the Navy Reserve until 1963, retiring with the rank of chief petty officer.

Attending the Naval Academy was an eye-opening experience for Walt.

"When I first got there, I wasn't sure what I had done. I had no idea what the arduous physical requirements were. I recall being asked to do 20 chin-ups," he said.

When he responded with, "What's a chin-up?" he got a talking down, which he has not forgotten.

The academic standards of the institution were also rigorous.

"Most of my classmates had a year or two of college, so I had to compete straight out of Brevard High School with people, 85 percent of whom had college experience or college degrees," he said.

At the time Walt was at the academy, all students majored in naval architecture and marine engineering. After graduation, Walt served on a guided missile cruiser for a year. Then he qualified for submarine school, which was even more of a challenge.

"I had wonderful tours on submarines," he said, noting that one of his singular duties was escorting Princess Grace of Monaco on her first and only submarine ride. This event landed his picture in The Transylvania Times, "LTJG Cantrell with the Princess!"

However, his most significant event on a submarine occurred in New York City, when his submarine was designated to be a host ship for New York's first Summer Festival. As duty officer, Walt initially refused a request by two young ladies to visit the submarine, but he changed his mind after sneaking a look at the young ladies through the periscope. He then discovered that the mother of one of them had grown up in Brevard. That was the beginning of what is now nearly a 59-year marriage to Elizabeth "Betsy" Wilson Cantrell.

He also was interviewed by Admiral Hyman Rickover, known as the "Father of the Nuclear Navy," to join his nuclear power program. When Walt turned down Rickover's offer of a position in order to pursue an advanced engineering program at MIT, Rickover let him know that he thought it was a poor decision, one which would prevent him from being selected in the future. Rickover was famous for personally interviewing and selecting the people who worked under his command.

As it turns out, Walt's first assignment after finishing the MIT program was at a nuclear power program at Pearl Harbor. He said his appointment, "must have been under Admiral Rickover's radar."

MIT was not the end of Cantrell's education. He was sent by the Navy to the JFK School of Government at Harvard University to study international relations.

"The Navy wants you to constantly be expanding your knowledge, and they want to benefit from your wisdom. They don't want you to get complacent or too comfortable in any one spot," he said.

That turned out to be a great fit for Walt: "I told my wife when we married; I'm not going to stay in the Navy if it's not challenging or enjoyable. Forty-one years later I retired in 1995."

Walt moved and changed positions frequently during his years in the Navy. He served in Vietnam and Scotland, as well as Newport News, Va., Washington, D.C. and California. In his work he was responsible for the design, construction, testing and repair of nuclear submarines, including the Trident Class, which helped the country win the Cold War. He also served as the commanding officer of an engineering duty officer graduate school, which helped convert engineers' technical skills into more practical knowledge.

Eventually Walt became deputy commander, Naval Sea Systems Command, overseeing not just submarines, but all classes of ships. He was the number two person in command of all maintenance and new construction for the Navy, with responsibility for over 100,000 employees. In his last post, he was selected to be in charge of the Navy's space and electronics program, a position which he held for four years.

When Walt reached his mandatory retirement age, he retired from the Navy as a two-star or rear admiral, the highest rank one can attain as an engineer. He had obeyed his father's admonition to outrank him. During all of his Navy travels, Walt didn't forget his roots in Dunn's Rock. Early in his career, he put aside his submarine pay to purchase property from the Carriers near his parents' home. When he was in Vietnam, he put his combat pay aside to buy a cabin kit to build on the land. Finished over a number of years, the cabin would be a place that his family enjoyed visiting through the years. After his retirement from the Navy, Walt served for a short time as the CEO of a defense electronics company. With a dislike of the morals and ethics of the commercial market, he left that job for one with General Dynamics, which was building a state-of-the art $260 million shipyard in Bath, Maine.

He and his wife, Betsy, fell in love with the northern state.

"Maine is very much like it used to be here – rural, spread out, with salt-of-the-earth people," he said. "The way of life is less harried. It offers a totally different quality of life, with its natural beauty, the oceans to the mountains and the lake country."

After his work with the shipyard, Walt thought his retirement had really begun, but government agencies kept calling.

Following the Space Shuttle Columbia explosion in 2003, which killed all seven astronauts aboard just before it's landing, Cantrell was asked by NASA to help oversee a return to flight program.

"I had to sign off on all the technical changes and ensure the safety of the return to flight. It took us longer than we thought. I told them I would step down after the first flight, but I ended up staying on for one more flight," he said.

"That's it," Cantrell said after working for NASA.

It was time for retirement.

Then came the Deep Water Horizon oil spill disaster in 2010, and the government's call for him to be an expert witness. His contribution helped the government get a historic settlement with BP.

Ten years ago, Walt and Betsy left their beloved Maine for Asheville, where they live in an accredited continuing care retirement facility. Their son, Tom, lives in Port St. Lucie, Fla. A former Marine fighter pilot, he is now a commercial pilot with three children.

Walt reflects on his wide variety of experiences with gratitude.

"You do best when you're challenged," he said. "Complacency sets in if you rest on your laurels. Once you master one challenge, its best to move on to another one."

While Walt's challenges these days are less taxing, he still handles them with the same sense of responsibility and duty. His calendar is filled with commitments to help judge national debate tournaments and interview candidates for all the service academies, duties he fulfills via Zoom during this pandemic time.

"It requires a lot of attention," he said. "I owe it to people involved. As dad taught me, you give it your best. He gave every piece of furniture his best, using the right piece for the backing, paying attention to detail and quality. He taught me a lot of good lessons."

Carrying On The Family Business

"Barbara was the dutiful daughter for the dutiful son-in-absence," Walt said of his sister, Barbara Cantrell Wilson.

"She looked in on our parents," he said, when he was unable to do so.

Barbara said she became involved in her parents' business, Canter Woodworkers and Walter Cantrell Antiques, when both of them became ill. Her mother, Faye, had a stroke and her father, Walter, was diagnosed with cancer. Before that time, she helped out occasionally on Saturdays.

As a young person she did her share of work in the shop, especially during camp season, when there were lots of people in town, dropping off and picking up campers.

At that time, the shop was mainly selling novelty items for tourists, things like handmade bookends, trays, recipe holders and other knickknacks. Her father took custom furniture orders, and her mother took care of the business' books and helped out by doing some chair caning, which was not necessarily her favorite thing.

When the time came for Barbara to step in and help out due to her parents' illness, she said she knew nothing about the inner workings of the business and had to be a quick learner.

Luckily, Barbara's husband, and high school sweetheart, Deedie Wilson, had been learning woodworking through the years from his father-in-law. The two married in 1960. After serving in the Navy Reserve in High School, Deedie served for a couple of years in the Navy. When he returned to the area, he began working at Ecusta. In his time off, he would spend time with his father-in-law learning his trade. When Deedie retired from Ecusta, he started working full-time at Canter Woodworkers.

The couple still run the business today. Deedie accepts custom orders, and spends a lot of time repairing and refinishing furniture. Barbara said the market for antiques has slumped over the last several years, so the business does not focus on that area as much. Deedie enjoys his work with wood, just as his father-in-law did, and plans to continue doing it as long as he's able.

The Wilsons' son, Brian, worked with his parents in the shop for a while, where Barbara said he was an "excellent salesman."

"He had been around his granddad and learned his mannerisms and his way with customers," she said.

Barbara Cantrell Wilson stepped in.

Brian now works as special projects and finishing production manager at Transylvania Vocational Services. Brian's son, Christopher, is a graduate of Liberty University, where he received a full-scholarship to play the electric bass with a touring group. His younger son, Cameron, is currently at Liberty studying videography.

Deedie and Barbara lived on Greenville Highway, south of her parents' shop until after their deaths, when they moved into her parents' home.

When asked if the house is filled with her father's craftsmanship, she said that her father "didn't have a lot of extra time to make things for us, but we do have some of his pieces and I treasure them."

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