John Shearer: Reminiscing About Old Tyner School Buildings Scheduled To Be Replaced

  • Friday, August 5, 2022
  • John Shearer

One Saturday morning recently when the sky was perfectly blue and before the sun made it too red hot, I decided to walk around the grounds of Tyner Academy and Tyner Middle Academy across the street.


With plenty of grass fronting Tyner Road and the expansive Tyner-East Brainerd Park of mostly ballfields nearby, this area featuring several buildings constructed before and after World War II had almost a modest college campus look.


I was not alone for my visit, as accompanying me was Ernie McCarson, who had enjoyed a successful run as head football coach in the 1970s and ‘80s by getting the Rams to reach new heights a few years before Wayne Turner’s very successful stint at a lower classification.


“I walked these halls many a year,” Coach McCarson said as we walked around and he told me what had been in each building, the changes that had been made, and how the school had been proud of its stand-alone auditorium on the lower part of the campus.


Other than a few small new additions like signs and entrance halls, Tyner looks much as it did when coach McCarson was just getting started roaming the sidelines of the football stadium.

While that fact likely adds to the nostalgia for former students dating back as far as the 1950s or ‘60s and helps them more clearly reminisce when visiting or looking at the school, that is also part of the problem.


Because of their age and deferred maintenance due in part to a lack of adequate funds, the Hamilton County School Board has announced plans to build an entirely new school campus. The students had even walked out in protest in recent months before the initiative was approved in recent weeks.


With help from the Hamilton County Commission and federal relief funding, the roughly $60 million school campus that will be called Tyner Middle High Academy is scheduled to open in August 2024. 


Efforts to reach county schools and Tyner administration officials proved unsuccessful, but news reports have said construction on the new school in the current area of the football stadium will begin after this football season. A new stadium and parking area are scheduled to be constructed up the hill in the area where the main buildings now sit.


Although a developer sensitive to historic preservation and with adequate funds might have been able to restore the buildings or some of them and created a new use if Tyner had decided to relocate to another campus, razing will be the outcome here. 


As a result, I thought it might be fitting to at least give the old buildings a pre-obituary writeup, as Tyner students, staff and others are excitedly waiting for the new school campus.


According to some information in some newspaper clipping files at the Chattanooga Public Library, Tyner High had opened there in 1907, making it apparently the oldest public high school continuously at the same site in Chattanooga/Hamilton County.


Located on a small hill as was the custom for schools, Tyner used the Hilltopper nickname for decades before the Rams moniker came into vogue.


The first building, called Old Main, was designed by the Adams and Alsup architectural firm and was located where the middle school academy campus now is. It had a wing constructed on to it in 1923. 


The current long high school structure with the original auditorium opened on Dec. 11, 1938. It was similar in look to the plans also used for such other then-Hamilton County schools as Hixson, Red Bank and Soddy Daisy. The original auditorium, later used for the band, resembles the auditorium that is now part of the Hixson Community Center, except the Tyner one has the initials, “T.H.,” over the front door. That, of course, stands for Tyner High.


The expansive Tyner grounds during its early days housed some horses in a barn and had buggies in what was an early rural bus system for the school.


The principal at Tyner from 1922 until well into the 1950s was C.C. Burgner. Johnnie Moore VanGelderen graduated in 1958 and said students were almost afraid of him until getting to know him as they grew older.


“C.C. was a very kind man, which we learned later,” she said with a laugh, adding that his wife also taught Latin and English at Tyner.


Unfortunately, the idyllic and peaceful academic atmosphere that had lasted well into the 1950s at Tyner had a rude awakening during one night in early January 1957, when Old Main burned to the ground. 


“I remember that really well,” said Charles Forgey, who was a senior that year. “I had science in that building and band and algebra. It was a two-story building with oiled wooden floors. We came in that morning, and it was gone.”


Ms. VanGelderen, who graduated in 1958, remembers the incident well, too. “We drove up in the school bus and it was burning. I had art classes and theater classes there.”


She remembers that all the students were displaced immediately, with a new schedule enacted. The high school students went until noon without eating lunch there, and then junior high students attended in the more-cramped quarters in the afternoon.


Plenty of building projects were on the way for the school, however. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, such structures as the junior high facility (now middle school academy), the small home economics building next to the middle school academy, and the praised auditorium opened. People for six decades or more have not had to ask where the mid-century auditorium is, as it says it in big letters on the front.


The architect for all three of those buildings was Frank Gibson. Born in Ducktown, Tn., he graduated from Copperhill High before enrolling in the praised architecture program at Georgia Tech. He then began working for the Miami firm of Joseph DeBrita.


After serving in the Army during World War II, he worked for Shutze and Armistead in Atlanta designing postwar telephone company buildings. He later moved to Chattanooga and worked for Bianculli, Palm and Purcell and then the successor firm of R.H. Hunt. 


The Lake Hills resident later moved to Greenville, S.C., where he died in 1997 at the age of 81 and was buried.


Other Tyner campus buildings have been built over the years as well, including some vocational buildings. The current football stadium opened for the 1967 season and was built through the help of Bob Evans, Bob Brown, Benny Eaves, Bill McKaig and Don McDade, according to coach McCarson.


Before that, the football team played across Tyner Road in a small stone-lined grandstand still there in a somewhat dilapidated form. 


“I am amazed at how small the football field was,” recalled Ms. VanGelderen of the older facility. “Everything seemed so big at the time. And everyone came to the football games.”


The newer Tyner stadium was considered a showplace stadium the first decade or two it was opened and had a nice track. I remember running in an annual areawide track meet there my senior year at Baylor School in 1978.


The unique gym, which also has a mid-century look, was completed in late 1975 and opened in early 1976. 


A new addition to the junior high/middle school section designed by Planning Associates Inc. opened in 1980.


Ms. VanGelderen, who had sisters attending Tyner dating back to the 1940s, said she has many great memories of walking the halls of the school while a student in the 1950s. She especially liked the library, which sat next to the older auditorium. She also said that a new cafeteria was added to the school plant while she was there.


Besides the physical hallways, she also recalls the challenging mental passageways to knowledge offered by the teachers. Among her favorite instructors were English teacher Ms. Stokley, fellow English teacher and librarian Ms. Duncan, and American history teacher Ms. Johnson.


“Those were excellent teachers,” said Ms. VanGelderen, who later worked in international logistics for Astec Industries. “I can’t tell you how great the teachers were. We received a very good education there.”


Besides expanding their horizons academically, the students also did geographically, as the county school then drew students from Harrison, where Ms. VanGelderen lived, up to Harrison Bay and back over to East Brainerd via Kingspoint. That was in part because Brainerd High did not open until 1960.


When coach McCarson – a former Central High football player and military veteran -- arrived at Tyner in the 1970s as the football coach, he said the school had a lot of pride. It had a healthy mixture of black and white students, and everybody respected the principal, Harry Phillips.


Coach McCarson particularly liked him. “He was very well organized and got good people to do even better,” he said.


The coach, who in 1979 with Mr. Phillips’ sons, Stan and Tank, had the best team in Chattanooga and ended Baylor’s dominance, said he liked his time at Tyner before later becoming a longtime assistant principal at Soddy Daisy High and doing construction work.


“Those were some of the best times of my life,” he said. 


Ms. VanGelderen also greatly enjoyed her time at Tyner, but she understands the need to build a new school and replace the buildings where she took many a step way back in the 1950s.


“I am sad but have heard about the deterioration of the buildings, and certainly the county and city deserve better than what they are offering the kids today,” she said, adding that she was talking recently with some 1958 classmates, and they also agreed a new school was needed. 


“It is dangerous for them to be in the atmosphere there.”


* * *


To listen to a brief interview with former coach Ernie McCarson about his memories of Tyner, Click here.


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