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What happened in Hawkins County in 1948-49 stays in Hawkins County?

Rick Wagner • Oct 26, 2019 at 9:00 PM

KINGSPORT — When I was working on a recent feature about the reunion of Arcadia School’s eighth grade class of 1947, I found at least one of the four members who attended remembered my great-uncle John Wagner. He became principal of their school after they left.

That inadvertently set the wheels in motion to discover he made front-page news three times in the late 1940s and early 1950s, from not one but two counties.

In checking old newspapers, I found a front-page article in the Nov. 16, 1952 Kingsport Times News that said John Wagner, identified as a former Hawkins County principal, was to be principal of the new Arcadia Elementary School built behind the older building the Class of 1947 attended. (An even earlier structure dated from the 1860s and is mentioned in the feature on the Arcadia Class of 1947.)

HOW DID HE BECOME A SULLIVAN COUNTY PRINCIPAL?

I’ve known for years that my great-uncle retired as a Sullivan County principal, and his wife, Tella, retired as a teacher in Sullivan County. But their roots included Hawkins County, his home county, although she originally was from Claiborne County, and they met while they were students at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate.  

In this background, however, the proverbial plot thickens. Old newspaper articles I stumbled across show that to an extent, as does Wagner’s photograph on a wall in a Hawkins County school board meeting room, where he is listed as superintendent for 1948-49.

A front-page store on Sept. 10, 1948, reported that my great-uncle had tendered a letter of resignation from the Hawkins County superintendent’s position, to which he had been elected that August. He had taken office two days before writing the letter dated Sept. 3, and the story said Democratic Party friends indicated he simply needed some time to rest, was in Claiborne County for a rest and likely would withdraw the letter later.

The county court, the 1948 version of a county commission, wasn’t going to convene until the next month, anyway. He must have withdrawn the resignation because the next mention I could find of him was in a Feb. 10, 1949, article that reported he quit for the second time in about six months. This time it stuck, and the man the article said had defeated five-term incumbent E.A. Cope by what it called a large margin really called it quits.

The article said “illness” was cited the first time. He went out of state for a while to work, my father told me, before he settled in Sullivan County between Kingsport and Blountville to work in Sullivan County Schools the rest of his career.

WAS IT POLITICS INSTEAD OF ILLNESS?

Years ago, my late father told me more than once that Great-uncle John resigned because of “politics,” or how political the position was, but never elaborated. My aunt Opal Kirkpatrick, the youngest and only surviving member of Dad’s seven siblings, said all she remembers is my great-uncle was quoted as saying he left because he refused to “lie, cheat and steal.”

Back in the day, superintendents had the power to hire teachers. Did political pressures to hire particular people or take other actions against his better judgment become too much for him? My great-uncle also was a strong Democrat, despite having put himself through college at a school named for Abraham Lincoln, considered by many the founder of the Republican Party. Wagner grew up in the Goshen Valley community near Church Hill but later moved to Surgoinsville, then a Democratic stronghold in a more Republican county that then would elect both Democrats and Republicans. 

He became principal of Surgoinsville High School but left that post when he was elected superintendent. Aunt Opal said my great-uncle would have had a large block of family support for an election in the late 1940s. (If you could imagine having your uncle as principal, my father and some of his siblings in school at that time did. Most all the contemporaries of my great-uncle are gone, as are my dad and mother, both students under his principalship.)

“Everybody thought the world of him,” former Sullivan County Superintendent Wallace Ketron said. “It was Hawkins County’s loss and Sullivan County’s gain.”

WAS THERE PRIDE IN RESIGNATION?

“He was kind of proud of it (resigning),” recalled former Sullivan County Director of Schools Glenn Arwood. “He had the moxy to get out of something he didn’t think was for him.”

Arwood became principal at Orebank after Wagner left for Central Heights Elementary, from which he retired, meaning my great-uncle was principal of at least Arcadia, Orebank and Central Heights, the latter a full administrative position, Arwood said. The earlier ones were teaching principal positions. My great-uncle attended Holly Springs United Methodist Church in Sullivan County and earlier attended First United Methodist Church of Surgoinsville. (Note the “United” in the name didn’t occur until a merger in 1968.) He and his wife took trips to the Holy Land in later years.

Former U.S. Rep. Bill Jenkins of Rogersville was in elementary school in the late 1940s but remembers my great-uncle and was friends with his son. He said maybe possible “turmoil that was in the school board or the county government at the time” had something to do with Wagner leaving and said both Cope and my great-uncle were well-respected. 

“He (John Wagner) may have just got fed up with the whole mess of politics.”

Republican Jenkins, who pointed out some of his family were Democrats, also said most folks were a “little more religious and a lot more moral” back then. He said Cope was an honorable man, too.

My great-uncle died of cancer on March 20, 1990, five days after he turned 92, having been born March 15, 1898. I remember him as full of humor, loving to tell jokes, reveling in history, including local history, politics and being talkative. (I must have gotten the same talking gene, if there is one.) Aunt Opal said he wrote a speech for her when she was valedictorian of her eighth grade class and it was a good speech. (Maybe I got the writing gene, too.)

Somewhere, I hope, I still have an old cassette tape of him talking when I asked him questions in the late 1980s, but not about this. So if anybody knows the inner workings of circa 1948-49 Hawkins County school political races and their aftermath, give me an email or call. I’d love to know more details to unravel this mystery.

Rick Wagner is an education writer for the Kingsport Times News and can be reached at [email protected] or (423) 392-1381. 

 

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