Chester Martin Remembers 2 Of His Favorite Topics

Thursday, January 4, 2018 - by Chester Martin
Unidentified group at Kirkman Technical High School, perhaps around 1960
Unidentified group at Kirkman Technical High School, perhaps around 1960

What better way to start the new year than by remembering two of my very favorite topics: Vocational Education, and Music in the Schools?

My old high school was one of these  - Kirkman Vocational HS - which served a very large number of students for many years. Granted, the majority of students who went there were not interested in anything but to "get out of school and go to work", as many students came from poor homes where money was needed - immediately - without all the social niceties of a four-year college (or university) program following high school.

My old school is well-remembered as "Kirkman Vocational HS", changing its name slightly to "Kirkman Technical HS" in later years. Kirkman was FULLY ACCREDITED in every way, enabling any graduate desiring a college degree to continue at the higher university or college level. That is exactly what I did - and I learned things at Kirkman that were not taught at the university - and which came in rather handy for my later employment at the U.S. Mint, where hand lettering was absolutely required of the job!

In my day, there were many local industries that actually had a dependency on Kirkman HS graduates; they depended on each year's crop of Kirkman graduates to start working up their  employment ladder - and I am referring specifically to industries such as Combustion Engineering and Chattanooga Glass Company - both now gone. At least one student I knew went to work for one of those industries, climbed the ladder of Success and became very wealthy from all the patents he earned for his company. (No college degree!)

A new Kirkman-type vocational school would not have the limitations of former "smoke-stack" industries, but the new curricula could be adapted to the digital age just as easily. And such adaptation would not place it in conflict with already existing computer programs - as at Chattanooga State Tech. Students would still be learning Social Studies, English and Math in the morning, and then getting a fine intro into simplified Computer Science in the afternoons. Such a program could then possibly deliver a better-qualified student to the higher level institution. The new vocational school would be acting almost like on-the-job training while the student was earning his or her high school diploma. An entire new crop of both students and teachers could benefit from such a new school. Kirkman had both eager students and highly dedicated instructors such as Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Pennington, Frank Huffaker, Willie Blanche Wheeler Looney, David Dicus, Charlotte Roesslein, "Chief" L.B. Bender, and many others of equal abilities. All of these are gone now, but who can say that an equally competent new breed of teacher is not waiting in the wings to guide an ever-increasing number of students in the right direction to fulfill their New Age dreams? It should be noted that Ms. Wheeler-Looney (above) came to Kirkman HS with both a law degree - and a teachers' certificate: she chose Teaching!

And now to my second favorite topic: MUSIC IN THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS! That used to be a really big deal, folks - and the only "letter" I ever earned in all my 12 years of public schooling was when Brainerd Junior HS won a statewide Band competition - at Oak Ridge - in 1947! (Not exactly a "letter", but we all got circular emblems telling of the event, and that could be sewed on the sweater of our choice.)  Mr. Albert Richard Casavant was the new Music Director for all the city schools, and Mrs. Frank Huffaker was head of the music department at Brainerd Junior HS (going later to City HS).They were both very proud of our efforts. Music classes - especially Band and Orchestra - were a lot of fun, too, and there were a great many participants. Same was true for every school in the City system. (City and County schools were divided then; County schools did not have a similar music program.)

I remember after school in the afternoons when everybody would be trying to crowd onto a bus while carrying a load of books in one arm and a clunky instrument case in the other!  (That was in the days before the very sensible modern "back packs" had been discovered!) And then in the downtown area you could always see a few school-age students carrying instruments hidden in cases, and you would wonder what sort of instrument it concealed. Was it a saxophone like yours, or....what? These young musicians hung together pretty well, too, and created long-lasting friendships which people like local world-class clarinetist, Jay Cravens, could attest to. On the national news programs I have also noticed in recent years how special music programs in formerly high-crime areas of large cities have greatly reduced those problems. I am speaking specifically about Juvenile crime - and how the former street gangs are being broken up by the stronger desire of the young people to make MUSIC in their after-school down time.

I personally think it was wrong to let Kirkman Technical High School simply drop off the map - and I feel the same as regards the music program we once had in our schools. Kirkman was not "zoned" in my time, as students came there from far distances in every direction. It is true that Howard High School has assumed some of Kirkman's former prominence in that field, yet I believe that it may be zoned in some way to keep the flocks of students that Kirkman once had from attending; don't know for sure. I only know our city could benefit once again by strong Music and Vocational Ed programs.

The picture at the top of this story shows an unidentified group at Kirkman Technical High School, perhaps made about 1960.  Both teacher and students show an intensity of dedication so obvious that I will let it stand for itself as proof of the need for another Kirkman!

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Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter, sculptor and artisan as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net.

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