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Rural Missouri Magazine

Kemper Marches On
Historic military school battles
debt and declining enrollment

by Bob McEowen

Above: A female cadet receives a promotion at Boonville's Kemper Military School. The school declared bankruptcy at the end of the 1999-2000 school year and announced it would close. Due to an outpouring of support from parents and alumni the school remained open and is currently reorganizing in order to recover from financial difficulties.

When Kemper Military School announced last spring it was unable to pay its bills and would close many people felt an unexpected sense of loss. Perhaps it was just the notion that something old and solid had faltered. After all, Kemper has been a Boonville institution for more than 150 years.

"It's a sad thing to see it all go by the wayside. All those people on the wall, you kind of lose a place of identity with them and that's a terrible thing," says Timothy D. Hanna, a retired U.S. Army command sergeant major and Kemper's commandant of cadets. Hanna refers to hundreds of photographs of graduates which line the halls of Kemper's administration building.

But more than the ranks of "Old Boys," the legions of former cadets of the school, Hanna says he mourned the closing for the sake of the current cadets. "I felt bad for the kids who don't have a better place to go and might not find a place to go," he adds. "I felt it was another thing society couldn't afford to allow to happen because I think there's a need for military schools more than ever before."

As it turns out, Kemper did not close. Thanks to the fund-raising efforts of the cadets, overwhelming support from parents and alumni and the protection offered by Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the school was able to reopen in the fall and has just completed its first semester following reorganization.

Few schools like Kemper remain

Kemper is just one of less than 50 military schools in the nation. Thirty years ago there were more than 500.

The oldest military school west of the Mississippi River, Kemper was founded as a boarding school for boys in 1844 by German immigrant Frederick Thomas Kemper. By 1871 students were wearing military-style uniforms to distinguish them from the local children but it wasn't until after the founder's death that the school adopted a military structure. In time, a junior college was added along with a ROTC program. Despite the uniforms and military order, the intent was never to make soldiers out of young boys.

"Are we trying to train these youngsters to be in the army? No, that's not the case at all. The military relates only to the structure," says Col. Ben Phelps, vice president of Kemper, which counts orator Will Rogers among its graduates.

A Kemper cadet reacts to a statement by his teacher during biology class. Students at Kemper Military School attend traditional classes. Their only military training comes in a junior ROTC program.

Along with Missouri's other private military prep schools — Missouri Military Academy in Mexico and Lexington's Wentworth Military Academy — Kemper serves a wide range of students. A few cadets come from military families. Others attend because their parents live or work overseas and either cannot care for their child or want them to attend an American school. But the majority of cadets are there because their parents believe the discipline of a military school will help them overcome behavioral or academic problems.

Ironically, it appears that Kemper — which charges more than $17,000 a year tuition per student — did not apply the same level of discipline to its own financial affairs.

"I can't be an armchair quarterback and criticize my predecessors but the financial management of the school was not able to keep us from the point we were at," Phelps says.

Like other military schools, enrollment at Kemper tumbled in the wake of the Vietnam War. During the mid-1960s the school was home to 600 students. By 1976 — despite the addition of females to the cadet corps — there were just 89 students in the high school and college combined. Enrollment eventually rebounded to about 400 each year but Kemper was forced to borrow money to meet expenses during the lean years.

"We've been dragging that old debt along for about 20 years and it handicapped the school," says Phelps, a Kemper graduate who returned as an administrator in 1998.

Three years ago the school received a Rural Development Corporation loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The loan allowed Kemper to consolidate its old debt and begin much-needed renovations to its aging buildings. With a new school president, Edward Ridgley, a Kemper Old Boy, military veteran and former FBI agent, the school seemed to be on the mend.

The bank calls the note

"Our financial situation was beginning to show progress when unfortunately, last year, the enrollment was not as strong as we hoped and on a given month we were unable to make the payment for that loan," Phelps says. "The bank called the note."

Kemper was $1.3 million in debt and the bank froze its assets. Believing it had no other choice, the school announced it would close at the end of the school year.

"We told the staff that unfortunately we're not going to be able pay you and that we understand those that needed to go find employment," Phelps recalls. "No one left. Every employee stood up and said, regardless of what happens we're going to stay and finish the semester without pay. It brought tears to your eyes."

The students, too, pitched in to raise money, writing letters and calling alumni, parents and corporate benefactors.

"It was the best two weeks of my life," Hanna says. "They pulled together. It was a great experience to see that — the tears and the sincerity and the kids pulling together to save their school."

All told, the students raised nearly $700,000. A parent of a former student even wrote a check to cover the remaining six weeks' payroll.

Reorganization began just days after graduation. The junior college, with its costly athletic program, closed but the middle and high schools remained open. The alumni association, along with a newly formed group, the Friends of Kemper Foundation, pledged $225,000 to cover expected shortfalls during the fall semester. The school reopened with 105 cadets — less than half the previous year's enrollment. As the term progressed the school gained 35 cadets. The expected budget shortfall never materialized.

"We've been within our budget every month since the bankruptcy process and we're encouraged by that," Phelps says.

So much so, that Phelps and others say the school can work its way out of its current financial difficulties and continue to change the lives of young men and women.

"It will take us some time to regain our credibility that yes, we are a long-term, viable institution. We know that. But we think we're going to make it," Phelps says.

Editor's note: Kemper is now closed.

At the beginning of this year, the student records for Kemper Military School were transferred to the Western Historical Manuscript Collection-Columbia for preservation purposes. As a courtesy to former students, that office is providing transcript information on request. For more information, please go to http://www.umsystem.edu/whmc/kemperms.html

Please direct all future Kemper Military School transcript requests to the following:

WHMC-Columbia
#23 Ellis Library
University of Missouri-Columbia
Columbia, MO 65201-5149
Attention: John Konzal
konzalj@umsystem.edu

For other information, contact:

Kemper Alumni Association
P.O. Box 362
Boonville, MO 65233

Above: An upperclassman "Old Boy" slips into a line of "new boys" waiting in Kemper's mess hall. The school uses a discipline structure modeled after the military to correct behavioral and academic problems.

 

 

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