Thirty years after closing, Hazel Green Academy lives on in memory

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More than 100 people attended Hazel Green Academy’s annual reunion in the Wolfe County town of Hazel Green. They signed in by decade on an old classroom chalkboard. The boarding school for Eastern Kentucky children closed 30 years ago. Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

HAZEL GREEN — As we drove into this Wolfe County town of 228 people, Bob Tutt asked me to pull the car into a hillside cemetery so he could find Henry Stovall’s grave.

Beside the headstone stood a granite monument that former students had erected to the memory of the longtime director of Hazel Green Academy.

“He had a big influence on my life,” Tutt said of the tall, tough Mississippian who instilled character and discipline in students without ever raising his voice.

“The first time you got in trouble, you had to talk to Mr. Stovall.” said Tutt, a student in the early 1940s. “I had to talk to him one time, and if there had been a crawdad hole I would have gone in it. I’ve never forgotten it, and I’m almost 85.”

At the boarding school’s old campus Saturday, we found more than 100 other former students. Many had their own stories of long-ago teachers, mentors, life lessons and life-changing experiences.

Founded in 1880 by local residents, Hazel Green Academy was one of the few comprehensive schools available to young men and women in this part of Eastern Kentucky’s mountains.

The Disciples of Christ adopted the school in 1886 and operated it as a mission, with tuition and boarding costs offset by outside donations and work scholarships for students. The academy’s motto was, “Where we find a path or make one.”

When they weren’t in the classroom building or dormitories, or studying industrial arts or home economics, Hazel Green’s boys and girls worked on the school farm, in the dairy and around campus. There were basketball and baseball teams, and folk dancing was a popular pastime.

As public schools were established in the area, the academy stopped teaching the first six grades in 1929. But under Stovall’s leadership in the 1930s and 1940s, course offerings and community services grew.

The school had its own water and power plants, which supplied electricity to the town into the 1930s. At various times, Hazel Green Academy also provided the community with a library and a small hospital. When World War II ended, the school’s farm donated more than six tons of food for European relief.

“It was the lifeblood of Hazel Green,” said Ralph Locker, 93, who moved to the town and opened a store after serving in the war under Gen. George S. Patton.

But the academy’s role declined as roads and public schools improved. In 1965, grades 7 and 8 were discontinued. The high school closed after the class of 1983 graduated.

Over the years, many students went on to college, especially Berea College, which was similarly designed to educate the children of mountain families of modest means. Hazel Green produced many teachers, doctors and community leaders.

The Bickers brothers — Don in South Carolina, Bob in Idaho and Jerry in Winchester — came back to the reunion because Hazel Green Academy was much more than a school to them.

“We came from a broken home in Owenton, and this became our home,” said Bob Bickers, a retired AT&T technician. “Three meals a day, a bed and friends. It turned our lives around. We all went on to make something of ourselves.”

Since the academy closed, the denomination and Hazel Green Christian Church have managed the campus, which is now used for conferences and events. The buildings had fallen into disrepair over the years, and that bothered Rita Rogers, whose husband, Roy, attended the academy.

“Even though I went to the rival high school,” she said, “I recognized what a special place this is.”

Rogers helped organize an alumni effort to restore the main classroom building. Now, each room has been “adopted” by groups of alumni, cleaned and decorated with old school memorabilia. She and others eventually hope to restore other campus buildings.

“Hazel Green Academy was just a special thing to be a part of,” said Scott Lockard, who graduated in the last class in 1983 and is now Clark County’s public health director. “It was so much more than a place to fill your mind. My spirit was filled here, too.”

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