Is Another Kirkman Technical School On The Horizon?

  • Wednesday, October 5, 2022
  • Earl Freudenberg

The “Chattanooga Vocational School” started in 1928 at 400 Chestnut St. after Industrial arts educator O.C. Kirkman convinced leadership the city needed a trade school. Commissioner H.D. Huffaker and Superintendent W. T. Robinson went along with Mr. Kirkman’s idea and, when the school opened, they had three teachers and 70 students. The school's popularity forced city leaders in 1937 to expand up the street and construct a large building in the 200 block of Chestnut Street.

Friends said in addition to being an educator Mr.

Kirkman was a great Christian humanitarian.  They said the Tyner resident bought groceries, bus fare, and paid medical bills for some of his under-privileged students.  His daughter Julia said, “Dad cared for his fellow man.”

Mr. Kirkman died July 13, 1943 and the school was re-named Kirkman Vocational High School to honor its founder.

Appropriately so, the late Dr. Jim Henry, who served as City School superintendent, labeled Mr. Kirkman “the father of vocational education in Chattanooga.”

Dr. Henry said there might not have been a vocational school if it hadn’t been for O.C. Kirkman.

Kirkman closed in 1991 to make way for riverfront development.  Some of the shops were re-located to other city schools but for the most part, all that was left was high school memories.

Newly-elected Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp has pledged to build a new “state of the art technical high school” and he mentioned naming it Kirkman. 

Mr. Wamp got interested in vocational education when Governor Bill Lee appointed him to the Broad of Regents and he realized Hamilton County had fallen behind the rest of the state in this area.

Mr. Wamp said, “You can’t bring Kirkman back, but we can bring back and expand training that prepares men and women for the work force.”

Mr. Wamp isn’t ready to make any announcements but said vocational education is very much on his radar screen, saying, “Stay tuned - there are a lot of moving parts going on in Hamilton County.”

Mr. Wamp said he is not opposed to expanding the Sequoyah Vocational School.  “Several of my cousins went to school at Sequoyah and I know its value,” he said.  

School Board member Joe Smith said it’s very exciting; he’s behind Mr. Wamp and hopes plans will be soon forthcoming. Mr. Smith said the old renovated Mary Ann Garber School will soon open as a vocational center but have limited shops because of space. Mr. Smith is looking forward to the day when Hamilton County can break ground for a new modern technical school "for all our students." 

Hamilton County School Board member Rhonda Thurman supports more vocational facilities.  “I would like to see Sequoyah Vocational School near Soddy Daisy expanded," she said. "There’s plenty of space at Sequoyah to build all types of shops to train our students.”

I’m in no way a Kirkman historian, but as a 1965 graduate I remember many conversations about the school, its teachers, and students. 

During a radio interview after Kirkman closed, principal and Coach Ernie Lewis estimated 11,300 students graduated from KTHS during its 63 years. Mr. Lewis said, “Kirkman’s tradition will never be lost; so many of our teachers loved the school so much they refused transfers and promotions.”

Guidance counselor Mrs. Mary Houghton said several thousand veterans from World War II received vocational training at Kirkman. She said her automobile mechanic was a KTHS graduate.

I can’t remember exactly why I chose Kirkman High School except my love for radio. The shop introduced me to the fundamentals of what made radios and televisions tick. During my high school years I spent a lot of time at WAPO radio in the Read House working as an intern.    The combination of Kirkman shop training and hanging around a radio station prepared me for my nearly 55-year broadcast career.

Kirkman grew during the 60’s adding sports and music programs. The mid 60’s saw the school's largest graduating classes.

The school board had purchased property when the Westside was being developed.  Dirt was moved and a nice football stadium opened on "Hawk Hill" for the first football season in 1963.  Ernie Lewis, Tom Weathers, Carey Henley and Nick Bratcher were among the early coaches.  Mary Ziegler directed the expansion of girls’ sports including a winning basketball team.

The afternoon of the first football game on “Hawk Hill,” students were recruited to pop popcorn and before the evening was over every bag was sold. Kirkman won that game.

A modern gymnasium was built and the University of Chattanooga selected the new gym for the Mocs home court during the 1962-63 basketball season. 

The Kirkman Golden Hawks Gym hosted many citywide wrestling meets on the weekends.  Wrestlers from Tennessee and Georgia would travel to compete with their Chattanooga area counterparts. 

Veteran musician Ralph Miller (from the big band era) was hired and developed a music program that included a choir and band. The choir sang at many public events including Mayor Ralph Kelley’s annual City Hall Christmas program. Mr. Miller was proud of the school’s marching band that performed at half time during football season.

He also organized a swing band to play at school dances.

Before the 1965 graduation, plans were announced for a new education building, library, and auditorium behind the main facility at 215 Chestnut St. Longtime educator and former city councilman Jack Benson said vocational students would have the same resources as other high school students.

Jack Carr was the principal and Ralph Pennington was his assistant when I was a student.  Mr. Carr came to Kirkman after serving as a classroom teacher.  Both men had a love for students and they would stay after school tutoring those having trouble in academics. Both Carr and Pennington would even take students home who had to stay late missing their rides.

Mr. Pennington was in charge of the Junior Optimist Club.  There were character building programs which taught what the Optimist Club was really all about. Mr. Pennington took members to the weekly Downtown Optimist Club which met at the Read House.  I remember meeting club members banker Arnold Chambers, realtor Elgin Smith and Coca Cola executive George Liner.  They were big Kirkman supporters.

Mr. Pennington said at his retirement, “Once a Kirkman student or teacher you’ll always be part of the Kirkman family.”

Many teachers provided lunch money for students who came to school hungry.  Mrs. Edith Apperson felt it was hard to learn on an empty stomach and she always kept snacks (apples and bananas) in her classroom.  The faculty had a strong passion for student needs and that’s what set the school apart from others.  

In later years Kirkman educators were just as dedicated to their students.  Frank Preston, who was principal in the late 70’s, said students came to Kirkman because they chose to be there. Another principal, Don Swafford, said Kirkman’s teachers made the school unique.

J. Mabre Armstrong worked in vocational education for a big part of his life. He taught printing but was often seen tutoring students after school in math and English. Mr. Armstrong later became Kirkman night school director.

Chattanooga businessman Emerson Russell graduated from Kirkman Tech in 1965. Mr. Russell now operates one of the most successful security businesses in the world.  (Mr. Russell beat me in a 1964 speech contest)

Other students included Hamilton County Executive Dalton Roberts, City Recreation Department director Darrell McDonald, CPD officer Danny Gray, control analyst Albert Covington who also served as special assistant to Astec Industries founder Don Brock, retired Erlanger Medical Center public relations director Paula Smith Bean, construction company owner Arlen Anderson, broadcasting executive Ben Cagle, pastor Curtis Shepherd, the late Soddy Daisy Fire Chief Jerry Smith, missionary Joel Witt, businessmen John Germ and Jerry Walls. There were thousands of other successful students who graduated from Kirkman.  We cannot forget those who chose to join the military and serve their country; some lost their lives.

Retired Chattanooga City Court Judge Russell Bean taught at Kirkman in the late 60’s.

A short time before Hamilton County Executive Dalton Roberts experienced failing health, retired County Commission Chairman Curtis Adams took us to lunch.  I asked Mr. Roberts what one thing he wished he could have accomplished while Hamilton County’s top official.  He responded, “Replacing Kirkman Technical High School.” Mr. Roberts said he had some bond money for a new school but because of the funding split between city and county schools, he failed to persuade the city superintendent to go along. Mr. Roberts said, “I only wished I’d pushed harder.”

One graduate said, “The thoughts of a new vocational training institution bring back memories of walking down the halls of the downtown school whose shops included office occupation, home making, cosmetology, chemistry, wood working, machine, electricity, refrigeration, welding and auto mechanics just to name a few.”

Longtime math and algebra teacher J.E. Apperson said, “We as faculty members hope that Kirkman guides our student’s hands and minds to success and make good citizens of tomorrow.”

The late principal Jack Carr summed it up best to the 1965 graduating class, “It is our fondest hope that the spirit you have gained while at Kirkman will become an integral part of each individual and will be exemplified before others as you make your mark along life’s road. It is my hope that you have gained every good thing for which you have been seeking during our short time together.”

At his retirement Mr. Carr said there wasn’t a day that went by that he didn’t run into a Kirkman graduate.

The Kirkman spirit continues to live on today through its thousands of proud graduates. Alumni are looking forward to the day Hamilton County has a new modern technical school to continue the dream the late O.C. Kirkman started in the 20’s. 

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