Despite the drizzle and the chill in the air, Lexington’s Main Street was packed at the 12th Street intersection on Oct. 6. Hundreds of Wentworth Military Academy alumni sat in reverent silence during the dedication of the WMA Museum, which had been in the works for a year.

Behind the crowd stood a contingent of cadets from the Missouri Military Academy in Mexico, sent as a show of support for Wentworth alumni. The Audrain County school is the last military school left in the state as of May 2017. At the start of the century there were three.

Kemper Military School in Boonville, once known as the “West Point of the West,” closed in 2002 due to financial struggles. Wentworth’s closing last year for similar reasons came as a shock to both students and alumni.

“It’s amazing, when they announced the school was going to close, how many kids looked like they’d lost a relative,” said Joe Aull, former Wentworth vice president of academics and current Lexington city administrator.

He said his biggest concern about the closing was the loss of Wentworth as an educational option.

“There are a lot of young folks out there that really benefited from the very structured, disciplined environment that Wentworth offered,” Aull said.

 

Military schools’ reputation for years has been that of places where “bad boys” are sent to learn how to behave. MMA Associate Director of Admissions Gary Stewart said this image is misleading. The true purpose of military schools is to give students a sense of confidence and direction that they might have lost, he said, and the rigid structure of the schools teaches discipline.

All students are required to participate in sports, wake up and go to bed at specific times each day, and study for a prescribed period of time in the evenings. They have little room to hide from their coursework in classes as small as seven to 10 students, Stewart said.

Museum board member Sam Ratcliffe, a former Wentworth teacher and cross-country coach, said with a laugh that he would not have survived two years in Vietnam and 44 years of marriage without the discipline that Wentworth instilled in him.

Kemper and Wentworth were both coeducational at the times they closed, but most graduates are male and Wentworth alumni still call themselves the “Old Boys.” MMA is still an all-male school.

Actor and comedian Will Rogers and former Tyson Foods CEO Donald Tyson both attended Kemper. Prominent Wentworth alumni include Bud Walton, co-founder of Wal-Mart, and Ike Skelton, a Democrat who represented Missouri’s 4th congressional district in the U.S. House from 1977 to 2011.

After the museum dedication and opening, Ratcliffe saw and shook hands with a man he had not seen since 1960. As the man walked away, Ratcliffe said, “That’s Ike Skelton’s youngest brother. We were classmates.”

The history and heyday

The first few decades after the Civil War saw the establishment of several military schools in Missouri because the country saw a need for more people to be trained in the military, said Charles Machon, director of the Museum of Missouri Military History in Jefferson City. Wentworth was founded in 1880, and its campus is adjacent to the Battle of Lexington State Historic Site, the location of an 1861 Civil War battle.

Kemper opened in 1844 as an all-male boarding school and became a military school in the 1870s and 1880s.

Military historian Jeremy Amick said the founders of military schools often did not have military experience themselves. Stephen G. Wentworth was one of them.

“A lot of people believed that the military format, the discipline, was the best means with which to deliver education,” Amick said.

Some schools were short-lived. Blees Military Academy in Macon closed in 1909 and is now a senior center, Amick said. St. Charles College in St. Charles lasted from 1901 to 1915. The barracks at Marmaduke Military Academy in Sweet Springs burned in 1896, so the school sold its assets to Wentworth, less than 40 miles away.

Kemper’s “West Point of the West” moniker was probably a marketing ploy to differentiate itself from the other military schools in Missouri, Amick said. But Machon said the label might have come from the high quality of instructors at Kemper, the less stringent admission requirements than West Point, and the much more convenient location for Midwesterners who wanted to attend military school.

Kemper and Wentworth’s heyday was in the 1960s and 1970s, “when the generation that grew up with World War II decided to give their kids a military education,” said Mike Lierman, Wentworth’s last president and an alumnus.

During the Vietnam War, public opinion turned hostile to anything involving the military. That cut into enrollment at military schools, and Ratcliffe said about 100 of them closed shortly after the war.

Faltering and folding

As enrollment at both Kemper and Wentworth declined, the buildings were poorly maintained because the schools lacked the revenue to both keep running and repair buildings.

Wentworth started an endowment fund to try to stay afloat, but it did not amass much money, Lierman said. The school had an “on-and off” deficit for 25 years, and closing the school at graduation last year was a form of “death with dignity,” he said.

Missouri Military Academy’s multi-million-dollar endowment fund is a large part of why the school is still open. Kemper did not have an endowment. Wentworth once relied on donations, which Stewart said are important to MMA as well. Ratcliffe said Wentworth had some dedicated donors that eventually withdrew their financial support.

Military schools on the coasts have higher tuition than Kemper and Wentworth and are in no danger of closing. Particularly on the East Coast, there is more of a tradition of sending children to private schools, Ratcliffe said. Some of these schools, like West Point and The Citadel, have the advantage of receiving state or federal support.

Additionally, private non-boarding schools with lower tuition than military schools are more widely available today than they were three decades ago, Lierman said.

“There aren’t very many parents who want their kids to go off to a boarding school and not be at home,” he said. “They can be at home and still get the (private school) structure, academics and athletic programs.”

Ratcliffe said being away from their children is a bigger sacrifice for the parents than the financial cost of boarding school.

Lierman said Midwestern military schools tended to have “more kids from everywhere” and attracted a large number of international students. This became a problem when President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric led some international students to choose not to attend or return to Wentworth, Lierman said, because they weren’t sure if they or their families could enter or leave the country safely. Losing about 35 students meant losing about $40,000 per year from each of them, he said, and if the school had not lost that money, it might not have closed when it did.

Aull said Wentworth’s closing did not have as much of an economic impact on the city as expected, but he said it was a “culture shock” to the community because nobody anticipated it closing. Wentworth emphasized the importance of community service, and local organizations relied on cadets to help with activities like cleanup projects and historic home tours. This was where the city really felt the loss of the school, Aull said.

“Whenever there was something going on in the community, city officials would always call on Wentworth,” he said.

Preserving history

After Kemper closed, its alumni struggled to gain possession of the defunct school’s memorabilia. The city of Boonville bought the Kemper campus in 2003 and auctioned off several artifacts. Laura Gramlich, a member of the Kemper Alumni Association, said the alumni bought as many things as they could.

Kemper alumni’s predicament made it clear to George Hittner that Wentworth alumni needed a better plan in case their school closed as well, he said. So Hittner “stepped in front of the train,” he said, by spearheading the museum effort. He lives in Texas but made 10 trips up to Missouri in a year.

As an attorney and the chair of the museum board, Hittner was lead counsel in two lawsuits against Bank Midwest, which held liens on Wentworth’s assets. The bank was going to auction off the school’s memorabilia, including the “Doughboy” statue that had been on campus since 1923 as a memorial for 14 former cadets who died in World War I. The goal of the first lawsuit was to keep the Doughboy out of the auction. It ended in a settlement in Lafayette County Circuit Court in September 2017, and the Wentworth Alumni Association obtained not only the statue but about half the school’s memorabilia, Hittner said. The second lawsuit also settled in the alumni’s favor, and they bought the rest in the auction.

The Doughboy statue was unveiled and dedicated on the Lafayette County Courthouse lawn on Oct. 6, shortly before the museum dedication down the street.

The museum effort succeeded in part because Kemper alumni advised Wentworth alumni in the process, Gramlich said. The two schools were rivals when they were open, and now they are allies, she said. Hittner agreed that Kemper alumni’s input was important.

“They told us what not to do,” Hittner said.

Wentworth alumni focused on the museum, not on reopening their school, so they had better luck preserving their history than Kemper alumni did, Gramlich said. She was a member of the Friends of Kemper Foundation, which tried for years to get the school reopened. The group formed before Kemper closed to try to support the struggling school financially.

“The alumni kind of thought, ‘Oh, we’ve heard this before, and this closing will never happen,’” Gramlich said. “And then it did, and it really caught a lot of people off guard.”

Gramlich said there were several times it seemed possible that the school would reopen. The most-publicized example was in 2008 when a holding company in Utah offered to open a school for “troubled teens” on the Kemper campus. The Boonville City Council voted down the proposal because the owner of the company had managed other schools where there were allegations of abuse. It was one of many times Kemper alumni got their hopes up only for them to fall back down.

Friends of Kemper intended to buy the campus back from the city, but Gramlich said the death of one of the most vocal alumni took the momentum out of the effort. The foundation realized after several years that the school would not reopen, although there are “still some that hope,” she said.

However, Kemper’s alumni association is still active in the community, which Gramlich said is noteworthy for a school that closed 16 years ago. The alumni association is looking for possible locations for a Kemper museum, which is currently in the planning stages. Kemper and Wentworth alumni will work together to give each other a space in each museum, and the Wentworth museum board is advising Kemper alumni in the museum planning process, Gramlich said.

Some of Kemper’s campus has been repurposed. The Sedalia-based State Fair Community College is using some classroom buildings, the old fieldhouse is now a YMCA and the Central Missouri Cancer Memorial Park opened on Kemper’s marching grounds in 2016.

Only four buildings that have not been reused are still standing, Gramlich said. One is an old dormitory that will be demolished with the next year, and the other three are a classroom building and two barracks.

Fading traditions

Iowa native William Dunn, 15, played the trumpet in the marching band of MMA cadets that participated in the WMA Museum dedication. He said it is a privilege to attend the last military school in Missouri, and he considered attending Wentworth but chose MMA instead.

“It felt good to know that our school is still doing fine, but it’s pretty sad that Wentworth went down,” he said.

Stewart said enrollment at MMA has held steady thanks to out-of-state and international students. He also said other schools ended up in debt by taking on building projects before paying them off, and MMA never started a project without paying for it first.

MMA was established in 1889 by the city of Mexico, and the school has always driven the city’s economy, Stewart said. Families and friends of MMA cadets visit from as many as 28 states and 18 other countries for events and graduations, he said.

Losing that source of revenue has been felt in both Lexington and Boonville. Gramlich said the city of Boonville lost jobs and businesses as well as revenue. Wentworth was Lexington’s biggest employer, Hittner said, and now the city lacks a major industry to its name.

“For 137 years, Wentworth and Lexington commingled in every way,” he said.

Amick said MMA’s continued existence and the preservation of Wentworth and Kemper’s memories maintain a “connection to bygone years.”

Lierman, Stewart and Gramlich all said that the value of military schools lies in the rigidly structured format of both education and daily life. Public schools are not for everyone, Gramlich said, and the military school structure allows some students to “not just attend but thrive.”

Dunn described a typical morning at MMA as waking up at 6 a.m., usually followed by exercise training, getting into formation, saluting the flag and going to breakfast before classes start. Lights are out every night at 10 p.m.

Hittner said today’s society does not completely support the environment of “being disciplined by your peers” that exists in military schools. Yelling at cadets and having them do consistent physical exercises can be seen as bullying, he said.

“There’s no way that the heyday or military schools would ever survive today,” he said.