Old Hickory Academy and Episcopal Day School began separately in 1970 with endless preparations and succeeded through the collective determination of countless individuals. Followed seventeen years later by a consolidation, University School of Jackson has emerged today as a premier, independent institution in West Tennessee. For the school's 35th anniversary, a history was written to commemorate 35 years of the tireless efforts from the many parents, teachers, students, and friends who donated their time, sweat, and at may points, financial responsibility, to keep a dream alive of providing the highest quality education for children in West Tennessee.
The focus of the school's history is on four major events of USJ’s life – the beginning of Old Hickory Academy, the beginning of Episcopal Day School, the consolidation of those two schools to form University School of Jackson, and the formation of a single campus for the entire student body. We also list headmasters, founding board members, board chairmen, National Merit award recipients, and more in an attempt to highlight the work and success of as many individuals as possible. An apology is extended to the many more parents, faculty, staff, and students who left their impression on the University School community and who will not be formally recognized by this history. Without their determined actions, the combined achievements now accepted as University School of Jackson would not have reached the high standards it holds today.
"University School of Jackson: Celebrating 35 Years"
was researched and written by Matthew Reed, Class of 2001
- University School of Jackson 1987+:
- Consolidation of OHA & EDS: Spring of 1987:
- Episcopal Day School: 1970-1987:
- Old Hickory Academy: 1970-1987:
The goal to make University School of Jackson a premier college preparatory school in West Tennessee was met with immediate issues. The new consolidated board of trustees named subcommittees to help address a number of tough decisions, and the new school emerged over the summer of 1987. Principles of faith, scholarship, and service became the backbone of the new institution.
Structures that once housed Old Hickory Academy and Episcopal Day School underwent dramatic transformations. The decision was made to house preschool and the early grades in the two buildings on the EDS campus and use Old Hickory’s campus for older students. Each school was repainted with the newly chosen colors of Columbia blue and white. Red was chosen as a contrasting accent color. Generals and Gryphons were replaced with the Bruin and paw prints. The Bruin, a mythical bear, was chosen for its versatility. It could work with both girls’ and boys’ teams, young and old. Its image could be softened in the form of a teddy bear for preschoolers or be used as a ferocious bruin with bared teeth for high school athletics.
Kim Barton took on the difficult task as the new headmaster of USJ to consolidate the schools’ two staffs. His personality and strength in leadership grounded his decisions. The knowledge that he would be replaced in two years allowed him to make the best decisions – not necessarily the most popular decisions.
The new school began to take on a form of its own as students, faculty, staff, and parents moved in a unified direction. After two years, Verne Hawes replaced Kim Barton as headmaster. Hawes was challenged from the beginning as he replaced a respected predecessor, as well as having to continue the healing process from the consolidation. The school was in debt, largely associated with the structure EDS built before the consolidation. Hawes addressed teacher compensation as one of his central goals. Through his leadership, USJ continued to form its new identity and rise as an academic institution.
After four years of service from Hawes, USJ leadership began moving the school into a new direction. Parents previously had been heavily involved in influencing school decisions – a necessary component because of the inherent tension the consolidation created. Now, it was time for a more centralized leadership to take control. The board would hire the headmaster, ensure finances, and set long-term goals. The headmaster would hire and fire faculty and staff and lead the day-to-day operations of the school.
Danny Walker and Carolyn Epps chaired the headmaster search committee. James Vaught was brought in and eagerly accepted by the faculty. At the time, he was thought to be the school’s best option to lead USJ to the next level. After only a few months, though, Vaught’s leadership was wavering. The board, faculty, staff, parents, and students questioned the direction of the school and demanded that action be taken. The board of trustees decided it was time to replace Vaught.
Now, the school had to find a suitable replacement and do it quickly. Carolyn Epps was appointed interim headmaster. Met with suspicion in the beginning, Epps was able to convince the school community that she took the responsibility seriously and cared about the future of the school dearly. She was able to assume the role of headmaster in a truly unique position – as a current parent and board chairman. Epps identified issues and concerns of faculty, staff, and students that no previous board chairman could have. “Some of the problems were stunning,” says Epps. “One of them was the inequity in salaries – we were paying women so much less than men.”
At this point in University School of Jackson’s history, faculty became the top priority. It was understood that with a respected and happy faculty, education could then prosper. If the school’s faculty was taken care of, then USJ leadership could concentrate on the quality of education.
USJ operated as it should have. With the expertise of Vice Board Chairman Jim Campbell, the school was able to retire the $250,000 debt left from the school consolidation. Now, with the school free of debt, leadership was able to begin long-range planning. Epps was to remain headmaster for all of 1994. The school community was once again settled and comfortable.
In a short time, however, USJ leadership heard that a well-respected educator, Don Coffey, was retiring from a prominent Memphis public school. Known for his character and reputation with academics, Coffey was contacted, and Epps waited for a phone call in her home later the same night.
“I was determined not to let him hang up the phone until he agreed to meet with us,” explains Epps. Her strategy worked. Coffey agreed to meet with Epps and Campbell later that week.
The leadership of USJ did not want to miss the opportunity of recruiting one of the area’s well respected educators. Though Epps was slated to continue as headmaster, plans changed quickly. The two met Coffey at the Upper School campus on Hollywood Drive at dusk. “We didn’t want him to be able to see the condition of the school – the potholes in the drive,” says Epps. “The entire time we were thinking, ‘Why would he take this on?’”
After dinner that night, Coffey was convinced that this was exactly the type of job he wanted to take on. Epps and Campbell agreed to approach the board with the idea that the school needed to break from the comfortable situation they were currently in with Epps as headmaster and entrust the job to Coffey instead. After a dinner with board members and their families, Coffey’s clear concern for education won over USJ leadership. The board voted to hire Coffey in the summer of 1994 and take the needed next step to provide the highest quality education for its students. Coffey accepted the job with a distinct philosophy. His bottom line, he says, “is to get service to the kids.” Believing in empowering teachers, Coffey quickly gained the respect and trust of the USJ community.
With a headmaster in place and the school’s debt relieved, the board of trustees again looked at long-term goals. It established a five-year plan that included upgrading facilities, improving teacher compensation, and building a new Middle and Upper School to replace the metal building and overcrowded conditions on the Hollywood Drive campus.
Facilities were upgraded, but close care was paid to faculty as well. “From the time I was there,” Coffey explains, “I never felt that support wasn’t there for the teachers. With salaries and benefits, we addressed teachers first, then we were able to move on to bricks and mortar.” With each goal accomplished along the way, leadership asked the questions, “What’s next? Where can we go from here?”
USJ leadership understood that in order to continue the success of the school, major renovations of the properties on Hollywood Drive and Old Humboldt Road were necessary. In 1995, one year after Coffey agreed to become headmaster, USJ took a dramatic step and began raising money for a new campus on McClellan Road. Much like the beginning of OHA and EDS, it wasn’t hard to convince parents to pledge their financial support. Property was bought the same year, and with financing in place, the school broke ground in the spring of 1996 for a new Upper and Middle School to replace the Hollywood Drive property. Lower School students would continue to be taught on the Old Humboldt Road campus until funds were available for a new Lower School. In the fall of 1996, USJ’s enrollment reached 1,017 students from three-year-olds to high school seniors.
Board Member Richard Fite and his construction company, H+M Construction, used innovative methods to construct the new school. Over a weekend in October 1997, parents, faculty, and students moved from the Hollywood Drive Campus into the new building. The school featured separate Middle and Upper School wings, state-of-the-art science and computer labs, two gymnasiums, a 500-seat theater, and an extensive outdoor sports complex.
Old Hickory Academy’s original metal building was deserted without hesitation. Its limitations were obvious during rainstorms when classes would stop due to the noise of falling rain blistering the metal roofing. Small, trailer-sized classrooms lined the perimeter of the campus to accommodate the growing enrollment numbers. Outdated desks and lab equipment were left behind for the new accommodations.
After seven years of service as University School of Jackson’s headmaster, Coffey made the decision to retire. To ensure a successful transition, he remained for the 2000-2001 school year as Steve Maloan eased into the Headmaster position.
Maloan came into the position with University School of Jackson as strong as ever. He oversaw the culmination of USJ’s most ambitious long-term goal. In 2004, Lower School students, from three-year-olds to fifth graders, moved into a new facility next to the Upper and Middle School on McClellan Road. The new Lower School featured state-of-the-art technology, a cafetorium, classrooms designed specifically for each grade level, two gymnasiums, and an eco-learning center. Three-year-olds in pre-school and college-bound seniors now shared one campus.
This realized goal of USJ in 2004 marked the end of years of planning and anticipation. For the first time, high school students were able to interact with and set examples for the lower school children. Enrollment rose to 1310 students. A sense of community was reestablished on the 125-acre campus. When the new Lower School opened, University School of Jackson implemented another major change: It adopted uniforms for students.
In Jackson, sometimes a lunch at The Old Country Store is all that’s needed to settle differences and strike a deal. Sometimes, though, it takes a lot more to bring two groups to decide on a common goal. For the consolidation of Old Hickory Academy and Episcopal Day School, it took weeks of confidential talks, long nights of deal-making, and when everyone thought the idea had come to a divisive impasse – it was a lunch at The Old Country Store that settled a final roadblock in the creation of University School of Jackson.
The final decision in March of 1987 for Old Hickory Academy and Episcopal Day School to consolidate their talents and assets into one leading independent scholastic institution did not come overnight. Many attempts had been suggested by families and discussed in board meetings, but had ultimately failed. Two separate institutions had grown independent of each other for 17 years, and each had achieved a level of comfortable success. Many ideals of the two schools were similar – both were founded on Judeo-Christian values, whose main objective was the betterment of their children through strong academic programs. Academically, the schools were competitive up to the ninth grade – where EDS’s academic program graduated its students to other high school programs in the area – many to Old Hickory Academy. However, each time leaders from either school brought up the subject of merger, it swiftly had been met by concerned parents who rejected the idea outright.
In early March of 1987, Frank Bloom approached an EDS parent, Robert Alderson, during a basketball game between the two schools. Bloom, new to Jackson, had been hired as the president of Union Planters Bank and had just enrolled his two children at Old Hickory. Bloom could be objective and was not biased by history, politics, or underlying rivalry of either school as he clearly saw the logic in consolidating the two institutions. Alderson, an EDS board member, agreed with Bloom that night that while the schools appeared to be rivals, the two actually had very similar missions in education.
Bloom saw two independent schools competing for the same student body. Each school sought the same academic, fine arts, and athletic standards found at peer institutions in the Southeast. Bloom felt that through consolidation, OHA and EDS could achieve their goals together and provide the best possible education in the area.
On March 16, 1987, a small group met at Union Planters Bank to entertain the idea of consolidation. The group was led by Tom Reed, EDS Board Chairman, and Hunter Welles, OHA Board Chairman. The men, who lived across the street from one another, saw many benefits and challenges about merging. Each school’s decision to keep the effort private allowed the group to fully examine how and why such a consolidation could be beneficial for both schools. Each Board Chairman formed an independent task force to fully investigate the benefits and possible drawbacks of consolidation.
On March 22, both task forces decided to move ahead and attempt to negotiate the consolidation. Timing happened to be on the side of each school as well. EDS had recently finished construction on an $800,000 building for a high school while OHA was in negotiations to build an $800,000 structure to house an expanded lower school program. Rivalry between the two schools had mellowed over the years. Student crossover from EDS’s lower school program to OHA’s high school helped ease tension between the two schools. However, some people from both schools remained adamantly opposed to the idea of consolidation.
Chairmen of the boards, Reed and Welles, met with Alderson, Carl Kirkland, and Jerry Kizer of EDS and John McCutchen, Bill Ennis, and Gordon Sipes of OHA. Meetings between the two groups were held in private. Each task force knew that undue pressure would be forced upon their boards if the discussions were made public before solutions to the various problems were agreed upon.
Reed’s wife, for instance, was a member of the media, and Reed did not want to jeopardize her position. The night the final decision was made to go public with the idea of the consolidation, Reed had to tell his wife on her birthday, “I can’t take you to dinner tonight, and I can’t tell you why.” Everyone honored the idea that secrecy was the best approach. Midnight meetings became commonplace in the days leading up to consolidation. Leaders involved used all spare moments they had to clarify the remaining details of the deal.
One hurdle was not in ideology or opinion, but rather in the way each school was able to make decisions. OHA’s board was empowered to make major decisions for the school. The EDS board, however, had limitations with the responsibility to poll families on major decisions, such as a vast restructuring of the school. Each school’s leadership set out to address any and every problem and other possible “sticking points” before the task forces approached their respective boards.
The task forces addressed important issues, such as the new identity of the consolidated school. While these leaders did not come up with specific answers, they did agree on key aspects. Neither OHA’s nor EDS’s mascot, colors, and name would be used for the consolidated school. Neither school’s leadership would maintain complete control of the new school. Each school had to ultimately relinquish its established identity in order to gain a mutual trust. With most every possible problem answered, one loomed heavily over the task forces. Who would be the new headmaster?
Every major obstacle had been met with reason and compromise from the collective task force. Each side had made concessions. EDS leadership agreed that the chairman of the first board of trustees would come from OHA. OHA leadership agreed that it was in the best interest of the new school to change its identity, even though OHA’s established high school had more than 700 graduates. However, when it came to the issue of who the new headmaster would be, neither side would back away from its own current leader. The discussions had reached a stalemate.
Each school had a trusted headmaster of its own. Joe Thornton lead EDS, and Kim Barton headed OHA. When neither side could come to an agreement, Alderson stepped in and asked Thornton to consider having lunch with Barton. The two headmasters met for lunch on March 25 at The Old Country Store. Over chili and onions, Thornton and Barton reached their own solution.
Thornton approached Reed and expressed that he had decided to step aside and assist Barton. However, Barton agreed that he would only remain headmaster for a maximum of two years. These selfless acts built a level of trust on which each school could agree and assured that the consolidated school would come into its own with fresh leadership. The period of two years would allow the new school board to look beyond a “them” and “us” mentality.
With this final obstacle agreed upon, the joint task force concluded that all major issues had been hammered out.
Later that night, on March 25, 1987, both task forces approached their boards with the same message: EDS had just built a structure and OHA was about to commit large sums of money towards a new building of its own that would only make one another’s resources redundant. Both schools were seeking the same type of students. And while two good schools currently existed, with consolidation, there could be one great school. The meetings of both the OHA and EDS boards finished late that night with resounding success as each agreed to proceed with the merger and inform the parents, faculty, and staff of each school. A press release was written overnight and on March 26, 1987, the plan for merger was announced publicly.
Faculty and staff from each school were called to separate mandatory 7 a.m. meetings on March 26. “We told them everything we knew,” explains Reed. “We understood that this would come as a surprise to most people, so we wanted to be as up front with the situation as possible.”
The Episcopal Day School board educated its parents on the points of the merger and on April 10 achieved a 93 percent consensus among its families to approve the merger officially. With the OHA board’s overwhelming support, the two schools were committed to the consolidation.
EDS brought its solid, revolutionary lower school academic program to OHA’s academically strong high school. Three hundred forty three EDS students joined OHA’s 560. In a matter of a few weeks of negotiations, each school was able to realize its five- to ten-year long-term goals in the seconds it took to sign the final papers for the schools’ consolidation.
The community met the decision with surprise as many never thought two independent schools, considered friendly cross-town rivals, could ever reach consensus on a merger. The wisdom behind the deal was quickly grasped. EDS and OHA had managed to consolidate a few years ahead of the Jackson City and Madison County school systems.
Parents from both EDS and OHA met the news with surprise. Many families were unsure of the idea. Many others resented the idea of combining the schools, eliminating 17 years of history from each. Old Hickory graduates no longer had a true alma mater to call their own. Today, University School of Jackson continues to struggle to relate to the first graduates of Old Hickory Academy. However, by the time the announcement was made, the decision was final, and as everyone knew them, Old Hickory Academy and Episcopal Day School would no longer exist when school reopened after the summer break in August of 1987.
Carolyn Epps, one concerned EDS parent, met the decision with complete shock. Her reaction wasn’t uncommon. Why hadn’t she been asked? Many families had no idea that the schools had been discussing a possible merger. “That group had to be so sure,” Epps recollects. “They had to completely separate themselves from the issues and not look to make people happy. They had a long-range plan and vision and knew what was best for both schools.” With the momentum of the board’s approval and answers to any possible sticking points, the EDS board was able to successfully convince parents of the idea. At the time, it may have been difficult for many families from each school to understand the decision. However, a new school was forming, and this was the time to define new traditions. Families from both schools had a unique opportunity to create a new joint image of quality education to the West Tennessee community.
Rooted in small student-teacher ratios, fine arts, and a unique understanding of how students best receive instruction, Episcopal Day School was founded on the idea that a quality education is one that addresses each student as an individual. By no means a large operation from the beginning, EDS originated with only a handful of parents, whose approach to education was revolutionary at the time. Today, University School of Jackson fosters many of these same ideals in its academic programs.
In September of 1970, Episcopal Day School opened its doors at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church to 17 students in five grades. It was joked that the first board of trustees could have met in a phone booth. The school may have started small, but the leadership involved had lofty goals. One grade each year would be added up to the ninth grade. At the time, EDS had no plans on having a high school. Emphasis was placed on primary education.
With a strong core group of leaders, Episcopal Day School quickly developed, and the determination to keep a dream alive of providing a well-rounded, culture-based education in Jackson began. Steve Switzer was recruited as the first headmaster with a salary of $12,500. Switzer’s faculty members were hired without contracts for the first year. Uncertainty, faith, and determination defined EDS’s first year of operation.
In the few years leading up to the opening of EDS, parents made many decisions on the direction of the school. Though the school was called “Episcopal Day School,” teaching was not entirely faith-based. While Christian values played a role in the foundation of the school, the school was not an Episcopalian institution at all. Instead, parents relied more on the support of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, which also was interested in fostering independent education in Jackson.
Parents hoped that this dynamic relationship could benefit their school in a number of ways. Episcopal schools around the country had a reputation from which EDS could draw. Episcopal schools had a core set of values on which EDS could rely. However, EDS leadership did not want to alienate any faith. An early decision was made that while Episcopal Day School would be associated with the Episcopal Church by name, it would not be run through the church administration.
This open relationship that EDS was able to forge with St. Luke’s was invaluable. A key component of the educational programming came through St. Luke’s rector, Paul Walker, who had previous experience in education. His guidance helped the board find necessary faculty and helped define EDS’s earliest academic programs.
Episcopal Day School adopted the gryphon as its mascot. The gryphon is a steadfast English symbol with mythical qualities. Having the body of a lion, the head and wings of an eagle, and a back covered with feathers, the gryphon was a statement of strength rooted in regality. EDS began a series of many further decisions and transitions that would little by little help develop its identity.
During the first year, as students were taking classes at St. Luke’s Church, parents were looking for a long-term solution for a building EDS could call its own. In the early months of 1971, they found their structure on Old Humboldt Road. The “Pleasant Plains” campus, as it was called then, had recently become vacant due to public school integration. For $35,000, Episcopal Day School had its home. Parents signed their names on the bank note to finance the school, and St. Luke’s once again provided its support with $5,000 of seed money to aid the new school.
Parents joined their efforts to repair the school that had just been purchased from the county. EDS relied on labor and donations for a majority of the necessary upgrades. The Duck family, for example, donated carpet, the Townsends donated lighting, and all of the families involved helped to clean and paint their new school. EDS could afford items such as paint, but could not afford to hire professional painters for the labor.
Some recall one “feisty” woman who boarded a tractor and bush hogged an entire field alone. EDS was formed on single actions such as the mother on the tractor. Every parent took responsibility for the welfare of the physical structure of the school and the academics within it.
That winter, the entire student body rode in a float shaped as a giant red sleigh in the Jackson Downtown Christmas Parade. With room to spare on the enormous float, everyone wore red caps and sang Silent Night in French through the entire parade.
To help raise funds during that first year, EDS mothers Jo Lewis and Betsy Cox held the first Episcopal Day School Antique Show and Sale in the spring of 1971. Housed in the Lambuth gym, the successful event was marked by a few mishaps along the way. A miscommunication with the security hired for the event forced fathers to sit watch over the antiques at the gym overnight, guns in hand. Cox readily admits “that a lot of this was done by the seat of our pants.” The event cost $2,000, but raised $5,000 and provided a much-needed source of revenue for the school.
In the following years, EDS continued to make improvements on the physical structure while growing its student body. In its second year, EDS implemented a progressive and controversial academic curriculum. An adapted form of the Montessori program was pushed for by Headmaster Switzer and a group of mothers. The Montessori program provided a degree of freedom in education that was revolutionary at the time. Three- and four-year-olds were taught French and Spanish. Third and fourth graders rotated classrooms for different subjects. Students were allowed to read ahead while others were given assistance when needed. Essentially, every child was taught at his or her own pace so each student could excel according to his or her own ability. Today, USJ still uses this developmental approach in its Lower School.
In the first few years, the board of trustees struggled to obtain land around its new campus that could be used for athletics and other recreational events. A deal was struck with the Dodson family who owned land on the opposite side of the Pleasant Plains MB Church. The family allowed EDS to use the field, but would not sell the school the land. The school’s first home soccer game was played there. EDS largely played teams from Nashville and Memphis because few other West Tennessee schools had soccer programs.
EDS parents helped pioneer a youth athletic program called the PAL league. Basketball and soccer were played against other schools in the area, such as St. Mary’s and Old Hickory. Today, hundreds of students still participate in the league every year.
In 1974, with little money, Episcopal Day School expanded its existing structure and added a gym to its campus. Now the school could host events of its own, as well as have home basketball games. At the time, children dressed for gym class in the furnace room.
Structures, however, didn’t define the school in the early years. The dedication of faculty and staff saw to the success of EDS. Bobby Carter volunteered as the boys’ basketball coach. Lou Shelton coached the girls. Tommy Scott taught theater and was known to show up for class in full costume. Dick Bradley was the social studies and history teacher, who pushed his students to think innovatively. Even the much-loved janitor, Earnest Porter, made his impression on the children of Episcopal Day School.
EDS provided an environment that allowed its faculty members to teach as they saw best. Children were able to participate in everything from sports to theatrical performances. Every child was given an opportunity for success with the school’s low enrollment. While the small number of students had distinctive benefits, the size of the school was always a pressing issue with EDS leadership.
EDS continued to grow, but financially struggled. Some issues the board of trustees dealt with at the time helped define the state of the school. The smallest decisions became major because of finances. At one point, the school lawnmower broke down. Should the school try to repair it or finance a new one? Afternoon sun was streaming into the classrooms and distracting students. Could the school even afford to install blinds? What kind? How will they be paid for? Answers were always found, and the school continued its slow growth. While finances strained the school in its earliest years, its many other successes would help shape and attract the student body Episcopal Day School sought.
Casual Sunday conversations turned to action when, in the late 1960s, a small group of parents came together with a single goal – to provide quality education for their children in a private setting. Many parents were aware of the fine independent, non-parochial school systems throughout the state, though none existed in the Jackson area. Realizing opportunity, parents joined in 1968 to establish an independent school in Jackson that included primary education through a high school curriculum. Old Hickory Academy and the Fighting Generals emerged.
The founding parents formed a board of trustees and held countless meetings for prospective parents to outline the limitations of the current educational system and the benefits OHA could afford their children. One family at a time joined the effort, and Old Hickory Academy began its challenging journey to the first day of school in the fall of 1970.
Hiring teachers. Attracting students. Securing financing. Building a facility. Buying desks, books, and supplies. “Challenging” is understating the obstacles a new private institution must overcome in order to open its doors for the first day of classes. With every step, there were always a few who doubted the school could make it. Devoted parents, though, lead the way in making sure that Old Hickory Academy would not only make it, but prevail as a leading academic institution in West Tennessee.
The founders had ideas of grandeur: an excellent academic institution with competitive facilities, teachers, staff, athletics, and fine arts. None would have been possible, though, without the decision of 40 parents to personally sign their names to the bank note, which allowed land to be purchased and construction to begin. At this point, the school was a privately held corporation in which parents purchased stock worth $500, besides making yearly tuition payments.
With financing in place, parents devoted their attention to the direction of the school. Many ideas and suggestions converged, but through the early leadership a central theme emerged: quality education. The school at this point could have gone in many directions.
A group of parents concerned solely in the education of their children came to the forefront of this discussion and influenced the history of Old Hickory Academy and subsequently University School of Jackson to this day. The emphasis these parents placed on quality education made OHA into one of the foremost academic institutions in West Tennessee.
Property was purchased south of the interstate on Hollywood Drive, and construction began in 1969. Professionalism and appearances were relied on to establish Old Hickory Academy as a legitimate educational institution. An old house on the property was refurbished and converted into the school’s headquarters until the new building was constructed and functional.
Once again, parents came together. They provided hours of labor and needed supplies to keep the growing price of the new school as low as possible. A metal building was chosen as an efficient and cost-effective means of building until a better, more permanent, and substantial structure could be afforded in the future. Donations of supplies and labor were gladly accepted as parents of all backgrounds built risers, painted bathroom walls, hauled furniture, and worked to finish the new school building. During the first days of classes, fathers could be seen dangling from ladders to complete the final touches on the lighting and electrical work in classrooms.
The chemistry of the student body was eclectic as OHA attracted students throughout Madison County and its surrounding areas. One student, Lynn Lawrence East, transferred to OHA for her senior year of high school. “I wanted to go to Old Hickory,” she explains.
“Everything was very new, very different, but it was not like I was moving to Siberia. I was excited. I saw this as a challenging opportunity. Everyone took this on as an opportunity. There was no one, core group of friends. We were all in this new venture together.”
The faculty and staff were comprised mostly of local talent. Many were young and recent graduates of Union University. A nucleus of respected public school teachers was recruited, which brought the necessary experience and credibility to the education offered within the first years of OHA. The board of trustees found a strong leader in Don Hopper, who was able to lead the relatively young staff of educators. Teachers such as “Miss” Nora Smith, who is described as a class-act elementary school educator, Anne Woodall, who is known for her influence in the direction and quality of the education within OHA, and many, many others had an incalculable effect on the education provided within Old Hickory Academy.
Several grade levels were combined in the first few years to maximize the school’s staff. Third and fourth graders, for example, would be taught in the same classrooms with teachers dividing their classes for instruction.
During that first year, there were many “firsts” for OHA and its Generals. The building was brand new and housed high-tech laboratories for the sciences. Every athletic team had new uniforms. The first Miss OHA Pageant was as professional as any in the state. If Old Hickory was to have an event, it would put on a show. Attention to detail was very important as the school attempted to secure itself as a first-class institution.
The school was a year away from joining the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA), but competed in any sport it could field a team. The first football game was played in Marvell, Arkansas, on a red-clay field. It was a daytime game because there were no field lights. Home games were played on L.L. Fonville Field at Lambuth University – Old Hickory didn’t have a field of its own yet. With only two seniors on the team, the young Generals did not fare all that well against their more experienced competition. Baseball had its first of many winning seasons that year. Beverly Williams, considered as an “icon of music and fine arts” in West Tennessee, directed the first drill team for girls. That first year, cheerleaders were doing pyramids – something many schools had not done yet. The first graduation of OHA’s seniors was held at Poplar Heights Baptist Church across the street from campus.
In the first few years, Old Hickory Academy defined itself as a leading educational institution with competitive athletics and fine arts. What the school did not have in either physical structure or capital was provided by parents, students, and staff.
At first, for example, OHA did not have a cafeteria, so mothers volunteered and sold Stewart’s pre-packaged sandwiches, which were considered quite fancy at the time. On Fridays, the mothers would cook hot lunches in their homes and bring them to an older building on the property to serve students. The sandwiches, drinks, and other snacks sold raised money for the daily operations of the school.
Academically, Old Hickory Academy sought the most comprehensive course program it could. A common philosophy of the school’s academics was that if OHA could provide a rigorous honors program, then every other course would follow and be strengthened as well. Within a few years’ time, OHA offered Advanced Placement courses and a tough honors program. Over the years, OHA gradually increased the scope of its Advanced Placement curriculum. With this emphasis on college preparatory coursework, Old Hickory Academy was able to claim a one hundred percent college attendance rate from its graduating seniors for years. Today, University School of Jackson continues this tradition as it prides itself in a one hundred percent acceptance rate of each graduating class into colleges across the country.
Before the beginning of the second school year, the board of trustees approved the purchase of property south and east of its existing campus. OHA saved the land destined to be a subdivision and secured what was needed for its athletic fields. A stadium was completed and enthusiasm mounted as the Generals joined TSSAA. Leaders of the school recruited John Hooper – a renowned football coach from Brownsville High School – as head football coach. The school’s increased competitiveness on the athletic field directly impacted the classroom. With OHA’s athletics, student-athletes from around the area saw the school as a viable option for their education.
In Old Hickory Academy’s third year, the institution changed from a corporation with privately held stock to a non-profit organization. The parents who held stock agreed to donate their funds to the now non-profit Old Hickory Academy – an altruistic show of confidence in their previous investment.
During the fall of that year, OHA held its first Holiday Merchandise Mart, chaired by Mona Hicks. Reluctant at first to take on the project, Hicks ensured the event’s success through hours of planning and assistance from every mother in the school. Seventy-five merchant booths were rented in the basement of the Civic Center, which brought in enough revenue to cover the advertising costs for the event. Revenue the first year was largely produced through the mothers’ efforts in their bake shop and arts and crafts booth. An instant hit was Mary Francis Campbell’s Christmas mice – hand-sewn creatures – that led people to line up for them year after year. After the first year’s success and net profit of $1,700, the Old Hickory Academy Holiday Merchandise Mart became a staple of pre-Christmas shopping in the Jackson area.
In the early years of Old Hickory, everyone knew everyone else and contributed to the success of the school in some way. The years that followed built on that first year’s successes.
Within those first few years, The Wizard of Oz was performed as the first theatrical production. Elementary students through high school seniors participated. For years to come, parents manufactured sets, sewed costumes, and donated props. In 1982, Margaret Harrison raised the level of OHA performances with her first production of Li’l Abner. Her legacy remains as University School continues to perform a major musical in the spring every year.
While the school could put on a show, the budget remained tight as OHA’s leadership continued to fund its academics, fine arts, and athletics, while also paying off its debts. Year by year, fewer people doubted the success of Old Hickory Academy. Countless obstacles had been overcome, and OHA settled into a familiar routine with quality education, competitive athletics, and stunning fine arts programs.
By the mid 1980s, OHA leadership evaluated the school and determined that building expansions were necessary to handle the needs of its growing enrollment. Old Hickory Academy had plans to develop a program for three- and four-year-olds as well. With a strong academic program in place for kindergarten through twelfth grade, OHA leadership began the necessary steps during the 1986-1987 school year to secure financing for the project.
USJ'S ALMA MATER
All hail to thee, dear USJ,
Now hear us as we sing;
We pledge our hearts and minds to thee,
Our loyalty we bring.
A beacon bright, a shining light;
An inspiration too,
Our loyalty belongs to you;
Our Alma Mater true.
You’ve shared our lives, our hearts, our smiles,
Our dreams and all our fears,
The countless mem’ries we hold dear,
Will linger through the years.
Faith, Service, and Scholarship
Our motto ere shall be.
We hold the fondest memories,
Dear USJ for thee.
Composed and written by Margaret Harrison in 1987.