BEHIND THE BLACKBOARD: Degrees of separation: A future college president, captain of TV and kindergarten teacher

Rick Wagner • Jul 28, 2017 at 2:25 PM

What do Captain Kangaroo, my kindergarten teacher and a retired president of a local community college have to do with one another?

For one thing, I came to know all three, although Bob Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo) only through television. But in a few degrees of separation, it turns out the captain and the future college president, Bill Locke, met and worked together, and the future president once instructed kindergarten teacher, Jean Price. It all was in the name of early childhood education back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a time that included the birth of mandatory kindergarten in Tennessee and what I consider a golden age of children’s television.

Keeshan was first on the scene, via our local CBS affiliate, on our 24-inch black-and-white Philco console television. I remember watching the captain even before “Sesame Street,” “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” and “The Electric Company” on public television. Mornings with the captain, Mr. Green Jeans, Grandfather Clock, the Moose, Bunny Rabbit, Mr. Banter the Painter and others on the show were a childhood staple. (A trivia note: Captain Kangaroo and Mr. Rogers did a crossover show where Bunny Rabbit and the captain visited Mr. Rogers.)

Although most folks think about Locke as a president emeritus of Northeast State Community College, he began his education career in early childhood education after a stint in the Vietnam War. He was the first male kindergarten teacher in Tennessee, teaching for Kingsport City Schools, where he had graduated high school, for a year starting in 1970.

“I taught her (Jean Price) so she could get her certification,” Locke recalled. Price was the first kindergarten teacher at Surgoinsville Elementary School in Hawkins County, starting in the fall of 1968. My class came along in 1969.

Locke was hired in 1971 as a regional supervisor for early childhood education by the Tennessee Department of Education, with a territory from Mountain City to Chattanooga. After a year of that, in 1972, he became director of early childhood education for the Clinch Valley Educational Cooperative and ran a federal program that taught parents how to teach their preschool children at home. The program incorporated the “Captain Kanagroo” show.

“We were the only ones in the nation who used television for that,” Locke said of Clinch.

He came back to the state DOE in 1973-75 as director of elementary and early childhood education for the Clinch cooperative. Since 1970, kindergartens had grown from 127 to 2,400 across the state, a gradual phase-in which Locke said made sense.

“We had a lot of houses used” for kindergartens, he said, as well as churches.

Then he went back to the Clinch cooperative and spent eight years as its director, joined Walters State Community College in 1983, became Northeast State president in 1996 and retired in 2009.

During his time with the Clinch cooperative, that program worked with the shows’ scripts to coordinate at-home preschool learning and saw the start of the federal Head Start program. He and other cooperative employees went to New York a couple of times for the shooting of the “Captain Kangaroo” show. Imagine being on set with Keeshan when a barrage of ping pong balls was released on the captain.

I digress. The reason he was there was to coordinate the preschool curriculum with the show. Too bad Locke didn’t get to release those ping pong balls just once, though. And too bad nobody got to ask the unanswerable question: What did Captain Kangaroo captain? The studio where the show was shot?

Lesson: The Clinch Valley Cooperative in East Tennessee used an iconic television show on a commercial network to help parents teach their preschool children at home.

Bonus question: Aside from schools, where did kindergartens in Tennessee often locate in the early years of the program?

Rick Wagner is the education writer for the Times-News.

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