Back in the 1980s, John Allen was doing a blacksmithing demonstration at an event at Audubon Acres in East Brainerd when he saw then-Bright School headmaster Kirk Walker.
Dr. Walker, who had taken his young children to the event, recognized Mr. Allen as the parent of a Bright student, Jocelyn, so they began conversing.
“We started talking and he asked me what I majored in” (when in college), he said. “I said forestry products/wood technology.”
Apparently while Mr. Allen was striking the metal, an idea struck Dr. Walker, who thought Mr. Allen would make a good teacher at Bright if the opportunity ever presented itself.
Well, it turned out that Bright School did soon need a manual training/shop teacher. As a result, Mr. Allen’s name quickly came to mind.
“Not long after that, (then-shop teacher) Mr. (Aaron) Lowe told him he was getting ready to retire,” Mr. Allen recalled. “Kirk took a chance on me.”
From that hiring in 1987, some 27 years quickly flew by, and now the 66-year-old Mr. Allen is getting ready to retire this week as well. Scheduled to replace him this fall is Richard Parks, who has been a math teacher at Brown Middle School and is a woodworking enthusiast.
As Mr. Allen looked back on his career several days ago from inside his shop class, his ready smile and upbeat manner quickly revealed he still has a heart for children. But as he admittedly said, he no longer has the legs.
“I’m pushing 67,” he said with a laugh. “I need two new knees. In the evenings, my legs go out on me.”
His wife, Beverly, retired about two years ago as a legal administrator with the Spears, Moore, Rebman and Williams law firm, and they hope to enjoy more family activities together.
But Mr. Allen is admittedly not stepping away without mixed emotions, as he calls his time at Bright a high period of his life.
“I just thought I would give it a try,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be the job I would fall in love with. It (Bright School) is a sweet little place.”
Mr. Allen became the shop teacher at Bright after a somewhat unusual career until that point. A 1965 graduate of Chattanooga “City” High School, he spent a year at Columbia Military Academy in Middle Tennessee as a post-graduate before enrolling at what became the University of Memphis.
While at Memphis, then called Memphis State, he developed into an all-Missouri Valley Conference linebacker with the Tigers’ football team.
Besides dealing with the physicality of college football, he also had some positive lessons in its civility. A number of the conference teams Memphis played were in the forefront of integrated teams in the South, so he was able to experience in an early and positive manner the world of diversity that now exists.
Among the future NFL stars he played against were Mercury Morris, Duane Thomas and Robert Newhouse, he said.
After finishing at Memphis, Mr. Allen became interested in shoeing horses. His uncle had some horses, and Mr. Allen noticed that the farriers/blacksmiths who shoed the animals made good money.
So he went to a horseshoeing school in Riverton, Wyoming, and soon had a good business around Chattanooga regularly changing horseshoes.
But it was also busy and hard work, so he was certainly interested in the Bright School position when he talked with the school about it in 1987. He also figured the teaching job might help him and his wife more easily accommodate the schedule of their daughter, who was to be a third-grader at Bright during his first year.
As a result, he soon went from molding horseshoes to trying to mold lives.
And he has enjoyed much about the work, which has involved primarily teaching the youngsters how to make items out of wood. This has included getting them to appreciate the mechanical and mathematical processes involved, as well as the intrinsic satisfaction from completing a task and seeing their finished products.
“Seeing where the kids are and what they can do and moving them on a little bit is rewarding,” he said.
Although Bright has always prided itself on the core academic subjects, the school has also always stressed the industrial arts.
This dates to school founder Mary Gardner Bright, who believed that working with one’s hands was an important part of an elementary student’s educational and overall personal development. That has been OK with the Bright students, as most have found shop class fun due to both the activities and the teachers.
The current shop class that has been used since the school moved from Fortwood Street to North Chattanooga appears to have changed little. This is in large part due to the fact that the same wooden workbenches have continued to serve adequately three or more generations of students.
The benches – which Mr. Allen has sanded down a couple of times over the years -- are stamped or painted with what looks like an insignia from the T. Clerton firm in Alliance, Ohio. However, no information could be found on them online or through the Alliance Library.
The products made using the benches have not changed a lot, either. For example, the familiar wooden Santa Clauses with long triangular faces date to before previous teacher Aaron Lowe, Mr. Allen said.
And Mr. Allen has also continued such other longtime items as the traced hands for kindergarteners, pencil holders for first graders, the mice with whiskers for second graders, small totem poles for third graders, and Santas and birdhouses for fourth and fifth graders.
He has also introduced a few new ones, such as the Tennessee state boxes, toolboxes and a variation on the birdhouses.
One he decided not to continue having the students make due to some construction challenges he found was the “Lowetar” stringed musical instrument synonymous with Mr. Lowe, who offered it more as an advanced project. Mr. Allen said a problem also existed with trying to find the nuts on which to tie the Lowetar string.
The late Mr. Lowe, a former piano instructor at Cadek Conservatory who also made guitars, taught at Bright from 1964 to 1987 and was a popular teacher known for his upbeat, patient and encouraging temperament.
Mr. Allen jokingly said he was naive when he first came to Bright in that he did not realize he was replacing such a beloved teacher as Mr. Lowe.
“I really was oblivious to that,” he said with a smile. “I met Mr. Lowe and visited his class in the spring. And I would call him at night. He was glad to help anyway he could.
“But I didn’t know coming in that I was following a guy who was greatly revered. As time went on, I realized I was following a legend.”
And after 27 years, Mr. Allen, in turn, has reached his own legendary status, according to school officials.
“Many of us remember those teachers who deeply influenced our lives,” said Bright headmaster O.J. Morgan. “But we will all think fondly of Mr. Allen because he taught us those things that go far beyond the normal fare of school life.”
Among the lessons, Mr. Morgan said, are Mr. Allen’s gifts for being kind, loving, humble, generous and patient, which the headmaster called the greatest lessons of life.
Mr. Allen, who hopes to go back to doing some blacksmithing and horseshoeing in his retirement to try and perfect his craft even more, has also been touched being at Bright and working with children for nearly three decades.
“It’s hard to leave a sweet little spot like this,” he said.
Click here to hear a brief audio interview with Mr. Allen.