Then and Now: ETSU has “changed significantly”

When East Tennessee State Normal School was founded in 1911 under former President Sidney Gilbreath to educate the region’s teachers, it might’ve been difficult to imagine what the institution would become more than a century later in 2019. 

Only 29 students registered on the first day of the school’s first semester. Today, East Tennessee State University has an enrollment of over 14,500 students and offers a wide variety of programs in 11 colleges and schools.

Senior Vice President for Academics and Interim Provost Wilsie Bishop said Gilbreath would be proud of the university’s progress over the decades, in terms of both capital projects and academic program growth.

“I think he was a man with vision, and I think he knew creating an institution of higher education here in Johnson City and serving Northeast Tennessee was going to make a difference in the lives of people. That was part of what he established as our original mission,” said Bishop, who’s held a variety of administrative positions at the university since arriving at the campus in 1978. 

In the institution’s early days, Bishop said the university was viewed primarily as “a university that was convenient for people in the area to come to.”

“I think we’ve grown in our ability to attract faculty from across the country – some of the faculty that came to us this year came from some of the best institutions in the country,” Bishop said. “I think they’re drawn to ETSU because they see that we are a growing institution. The growth has allowed us to have more specialized programs and have a wide array that you’d expect to find at a university. I think we draw students now because of the reputation of our programs.” 

In 1925, the school became a college, changed its name to East Tennessee State Teachers College and gained accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools. In 1943, the college became East Tennessee State College before finally settling on East Tennessee State University in 1963.

Since the 1970s, ETSU’s enrollment has doubled, and the university’s distinguished health science programs have emerged into what they are today. By 1978, the university’s Quillen College of Medicine admitted its first students after being established by the legislature in 1974. 

“In 1978, the College of Health was split into the College of Public and Allied Health and the College of Nursing. They were called ‘schools’ at the time,” Bishop said. “So the activity of putting the five colleges together that we now have that serves as the Academic Health Science Center, or ETSU Health, really started in ’78.”

Before Stanton Gerber Hall was built, some College of Medicine labs were inside the university’s Mini-Dome under the bleachers. From the mid-70s to 2000, Bishop said the “dome was doing more than athletic events.”

“They were doing research under the bleachers,” Bishop pointed out.

In 2005, the university established the Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy after locals rallied to found the new school. In 2007, the College of Public and Allied Health, which Bishop was previously dean of, was split into the College of Public Health and College of Clinical and Rehabilitative Health Sciences.

“I think (Gilbreath) probably would be surprised to see what a strong academic health center the university has become,” Bishop said. 

Bishop said the physical makeup of the university’s main campus has changed dramatically over the decades, particularly under President Brian Noland’s tenure. 

Since Noland took leadership in 2012, the construction of the $26 million William B. Greene Jr. football stadium was conceptualized and eventually completed in 2017 after the football program was reintroduced. Now the $45.5 million renovations to the D.P. Culp University Center and the long-anticipated $53 million James C. and Mary B. Martin Center for the Arts are set to be completed in 2020. 

Earlier this year, the newly acquired $20 million Millennium Center was transformed into a new academic building for ETSU’s highly ranked computer science program, complete with new, state-of-the-art classrooms. ETSU also recently requested $71.8 million from Gov. Bill Lee’s budget for a new humanities building. 

“I’ve been here on my 42nd year, so I’ve seen the campus change a whole lot during the time I’ve been here. When I first arrived, State of Franklin (Road) wasn’t finished in front of the university,” Bishop said. “The visible image that the university provided to the community has changed significantly.” 

Educators, others inducted into inaugural Johnson City Schools Hall of Fame

Twenty people associated with Science Hill High School and Langston High School were recognized Saturday — some still living and some posthumously — in the inaugural Johnson City Schools Hall of Fame.

The Legacy Group inductees were:

George Biddle, now deceased, retired in 1985 after 43 years with the school system. During those four decades, Biddle worked for nine superintendents and helped supervise the construction of six schools.

Jenny Brock, currently mayor of Johnson City, graduated from Science Hill in 1967. She attended ETSU and created wellness programs for fortune 500 companies. She later started Fit Kids fitness program for the Johnson City schools.

William A. Coleman Jr., a retired Navy captain, graduated from Langston High in 1964. He was commissioned into the Navy as an ensign and worked his way up through the ranks, commanding eight naval ships over a 27-year career.

Dr. Hezekiah B. Hankal, born in 1825, is often referred to as one of the founding fathers of Johnson City. He was a teacher, preacher, physician and opened Johnson City’s first African-American school in the late 1860s in a log cabin on Roan Hill.

Homer L. Pease, now deceased, was determined to serve in the military and joined the Marines at 13, with a stranger pretending to be his father. Pease’ age was eventually discovered after he was injured two years later in the Battle of the Bulge.

Le Roy Reeves, now deceased, graduated from Johnson City High School in 1893 and went on to teach in the system. He developed the design for the Tennessee state flag.

William Rhea, who died March 31 in Killeen, Texas, graduated as valedictorian from Langston High School in 1964. He was an outstanding football and basketball player. He attended ETSU for one year before joining the Army where he served more than 30 years, ascending to the rank of command sergeant major.

Steve Spurrier, a 1963 Science Hill graduate, went on to win the Heisman Trophy while a football player at the University of Florida. He became the university’s head football coach, then later coached the University of South Carolina.

The Tradition Group inductees were:

Paul Christman graduated from Langston and later returned to teach. He also served in the capacity of coach and assistant principal. After Langston closed, he became an assistant football and track coach at Science Hill.

Wyck Godfrey, a 1986 Science Hill graduate, has made his mark in the film industry, working on blockbusters like “Rocket Man, the “Mission: Impossible” movies and many more.

Kat Peeler, a 1981 Science Hill graduate, earned an engineering degree from Princeton University in 1985 and later worked as a software engineer. She became a beauty industry leader for L’Oreal, where she rose to senior vice president of global marketing. She was the marketing powerhouse behind the Garnier Fructis line. Now, Peeler is the founder and CEO of Eco Guar Group, which works toward a more sustainable future for underprivileged, minority global communities.

Callie Redd, a 1955 graduate of Langston High, taught in the city school system for nearly 40 years. She retired in 1998 and was remembered as a strict but caring teacher and friend.

Lottie Ryans graduated from Science Hill in 1978 and has been a leader in the region since then. She served three terms on the city school board and two years on the state Workforce Board in a position appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam. She now helps develop creative partnerships and programs to ensure a continuing strong workforce.

Rodney Sturtz, who died from cancer in 2004, began working at Science Hill in 1967 as the choral director. He taught students how to read music, stay on pitch and have proper posture for the best sound.

The Modern Group inductees were:

Dr. John Boyd began teaching at Henry Johnson Elementary School in 1974 and later became principal at Columbus Powell Elementary until it closed. Boyd now works at ETSU in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis.

George Carver, a 50-year employee of the school system, currently serves as a custodian at Fairmont Elementary. Carver said he loves his job and the kids at his school.

Evelyn Dugger served as the superintendent’s executive assistant from 1965 until her retirement in 2017. She began in the superintendent’s office through a work study program at Science Hill where she graduated from the same year. Dugger went on to work for nine superintendents.

Guy Mauldin was described as one of those “rite of passage” teachers. The math teacher semi-retired recently after 44 years of his 60 years teaching at Science Hill. He still teaches part-time and is involved in national mathematics as a teacher trainer.

Bonnie Sampson served as the communications and public relations director for more than 10 years. She helped create the Johnson City Public Schools Foundation and was a key force in strengthening community relations.

Joan Lincoln Swingle was a kindergarten teacher for 38 years before retiring in 2004. She started the first kindergarten program in the Columbus Powell Building at the request of then-superintendent Howard McCorkle. She always believed little children should have fun while learning in school.

Johnson City 150 — 5 Questions with Tom Hager, the city’s longest serving school board member

Editor’s Note: This article is the latest in a series of occasional 5 Questions features regarding the people and families of Johnson City shaping the city’s past, present and future as we celebrate the city’s 150th birthday. Look for more in the series over the next several weeks.

Tom Hager is the longest-serving school board member on the Johnson City Board of Education. In his 35-year tenure on the board, he’s witnessed a lot of changes in local public education.

Before being first elected, the Johnson City native and public defender investigator enjoyed success in local sports before serving as an Army veteran in Vietnam at the time of the Tet Offensive.

Hager recently spoke with the Johnson City Press to tell us more about himself, his time on the board and more.

What have been some of the most notable changes you’ve witnessed in your time on the board?

“Starting 35 years ago, probably (when) we had basically turned over all the school buildings in the city. If you hadn’t gotten a new one, you got one renovated, except for Towne Acres … and then just the responsibilities that teachers have, particularly with all the testing they have to do now.

“And also, we can’t ever forget school safety. Years ago, we didn’t think a whole lot about it, and now it’s probably at the forefront.”

As a public defender investigator and as a Vietnam war veteran, what have you learned from experiences in those fields?

“I live day-to-day, and I learned in 1967 it’s best just to live one day at a time and take one day at a time.

“I try to do that, and I’ve always had interest in people; I started my career working with young people, and that continues today. The reasons I ran for the school board in 1983 was because of my interest in young people.”

Tell us about your history in local sports

“I played sports my whole life; I probably started playing baseball when I was 8 or 9 years old in what we call Stratton Field, which is now Dawn of Hope — I would call it ‘Dawn of Hope field’ — and progressed on up to high school. I played football, basketball and baseball.

“We were fortunate enough in 1962-63 to win state tournaments in baseball, and I had one of the first scholarships offered at ETSU in baseball. I played two years there and then I was drafted into the Army, so that interrupted my college time.”

Where do you see the board in 10 to 15 years?

“I’m sure technology’s just going to keep exploding, and that probably will have a greater impact, maybe, in the time period we’re talking about.

“Who knows what vouchers are going to do to public schools? That would be a great concern if I was going to be here then.

“(Also) testing. Where are they headed with testing, and how is the testing going to be done? And, some places in the country have had a shortage of teachers, particularly in two or three areas. Are people going to be interested in wanting to be teachers?

“You know, as a school board member, you (also) worry about school safety. You just don’t want some of this tragedy that’s happened across the country. You don’t want that to happen here, but I’m sure the people where it’s taken place didn’t want it there either.”

If historians looked at your time at the board, what would you hope sticks out most?

“Well, I would hope that we’ve become a better school system. I think we have. All the superintendents I’ve worked with have brought something to the table, and it was something that — when they were here— was something we needed.

“I hope that (for) people who’ve had children come through the system, it’s been a good experience for them, and I hope it’s been a good experience for the students.

“For me personally, you want to leave something better than it was when you started. I think that’s happened while I’ve been here, so I’m hoping that that’ll be something people will think about.”

A brief history of Science Hill High School

When taking a look at the growth of any community, one needs to look at its schools and education system. Much like Johnson City itself, Science Hill High School has witnessed a lot of changes over the years. 

On Aug. 24, 1868, Science Hill High School — then known as the Science Hill Male and Female Institute — held its first classes after being established in 1867. The founding of the school and its first class sessions predates the sesquicentennial anniversary of Johnson City by more than a year.

The school’s first building was erected by Tipton Jobe using materials provided by individual citizens throughout the community, who also helped with labor.

This was back when the town was still known as the unincorporated community of Johnson’s Depot before it was incorporated as Johnson City in December 1869. 

In 1880, Science Hill was granted a charter when it continued running as a community school before later becoming a free public school.

It wasn’t until 1889 that the school was organized into a grade system similar to what the Johnson City Schools district uses today.

In its formative years, Science Hill was located on the hill near Munsey Memorial United Methodist Church and adjacent to the old Johnson City Public Library, known then as Mayne Williams Public Library. In the 1910s, the original school was razed and a new building was erected on the same site.

As time passed and Johnson City acquired a public school system and a school board, a 1936 newspaper clipping said the school buildings at that time were “not of sufficient capacity to accommodate the children of Johnson City.”

With a new grade system, overcrowding remained a concern in the 20th century, and as the population of the town began to grow during the Baby Boom of the 1950s and 1960s, the old Science Hill building became too overcrowded. This led the school system to realize the need for a larger school, which led to the construction of the new campus on John Exum Parkway in 1961, where the school stands today.

According to local historian Bob Cox, Science Hill students paid tribute to the old school on the hill in a program titled “Junior Civitan Variety Show — Tribute to Old Science Hill,” which was hosted on May 12, 1961. 

“The location was the former downtown Science Hill School Auditorium. My classmates could have opted to present it in the nice, new auditorium on John Exum Parkway, the location of our new school,” Cox said. 

“I suspect the students much preferred to do it at the then-empty downtown high school as a parting farewell memorial. After all, that is where a great deal of memories about our school years resided. Sadly, several of our classmates have long since departed us.” 

It would be another three years until African-American students at Langston High School joined the students of Science Hill, and another 18 years before the old Science Hill campus was eventually demolished in early 1979.

Additional construction for the new campus – including 11 classrooms and an expansion of the library and cafeteria – was finished in 1997 to meet the demands of a growing student population once again. 

Today, the school serves nearly 2,300 students.