Chester Martin Remembers Vocational Education In Chattanooga

Friday, February 19, 2016 - by Chester Martin

I AM THE PRODUCT OF A VOCATIONAL SCHOOL EDUCATION,  and proudly so! (Oops, sorry! I did not mean to shout!), but I was directed into that school by trusted Educators who had very close ties to Kirkman Vocational High School, and I entered there with every intention of going on to "college" after graduation, just the same as if I had gone to City or Central High: Kirkman was fully accredited. And that is what I did.

The whole idea of "vocational" education is to teach a trade, so that any student who has successfully passed all the required courses - and who has passed a "comprehensive" exam at the end of his or her senior year, might be able to find a decent-paying job at a livable wage.

You only need a "certificate" and some on-the-job training to advance; not a Ph. D.!

Presumably, after four years of study in a particular field, the student has some knowledge of the field he will be entering, and little or no apprenticeship will be required. Of course, it is understood that he will be the "new man" on the job and will have to comply with the bosses' wishes. THIS cannot be taught in any school.

Kirkman Vocational High School's trade classes were called "shops". There was an Electric Shop, a Woodworking Shop, a Printing Shop, Radio Shop, etc. My "shop" was called "Commercial Art". There were also classes in Typing and Shorthand, and Cosmetology, which functioned as shops, but did not actually comply with any "tradesman" tradition. (Kirkman's shop classes all were fitted out with "state of the art" equipment, such as a real Linotype machine for Printing shop).

(With my Kirkman diploma I was able to go on to Fine Arts classes at the University of Chattanooga, then years later to a three-week International Medallic Art workshop at Pennsylvania State University, Fleischer Art Memorial in Philadelphia, and a few classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, under my friend Gene Daub).

Our school day at Kirkman was the same length as all other City schools - from about 8:10 a.m. until 3:15 p.m. Freshmen and Sophomores had their shop classes in the mornings and regular Academic subjects in the afternoon. That system was reversed for Juniors and Seniors who took their Academic subjects in the mornings, leaving afternoons free for their shops. This system worked well, because the older students were allowed to leave after lunch to work "in the field" if they were so lucky as to have a job. I was lucky in my Senior year to have such a job - at Crisman Hardware Company - not far from the school. (I worked under Bill Farley, head of their Display Department, where I helped with the ever-changing seasonal displays).

Kirkman operated both a day school and a night school. Both were always full of students.  Frank Huffaker was Principal when I started there, but he died after my Freshman year and was replaced by Robert A. Taylor. Ralph Pennington was head of the night school program at the time. Both day and night classes had a lot of "G.I. Bill" students - a program specifically created to help Veterans returning from WW2, so Kirkman's influence was felt far and wide, through many strata of Society.

I cannot tell you the exact history of Kirkman Vocational HS, but I remember that one of my mother's teachers at Central HS (Class of 1912) had been one O.C. Kirkman, and that he is the one my school was named for. I have no idea how he rose through the ranks and became important enough to get a school named after him, but that is the story. Kirkman Vocational lasted for many years. It originally was housed in a yellow brick building at 400 Chestnut Street, (which was later turned into a Local History museum), before moving to the much newer and more modern building at 215 Chestnut Street where I attended. I remember several of the older teachers re-telling how they had actually raced one another from the old building to the new one on moving day so as to claim the best room possible for themselves! That spirit of jubilation and optimism persisted on through my time. I understood that O.C. Kirkman had hand-picked his original faculty for just such good qualities as these.

Kirkman HS was still in full swing until the day it closed. Its name had changed to "Kirkman Technical HS" in later years, as times change, and everything is affected by time! And so it was that when the new development around the Aquarium got underway, space was needed for a Creative Discovery Museum - to be built exactly on Kirkman HS's old site.

It seems a shame that so dynamic an institution should have been forced to bite the dust. Its serious students had gone out to assist in some way in every industry of the city. I have absolutely nothing against the Chattanooga State Technical Community College, and think highly of its two-year "Associates Degree" programs. But it would still be very nice to have a school which offers a high school diploma plus a simple certificate showing that the student has received at least a rudimentary knowledge of a useful skill.

To my knowledge, there is no plaque, flagpole, or commemorative marker of any sort at 215 Chestnut Street to state simply that "Kirkman Technical High School once stood here".

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )
Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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