military school battles
debt and declining enrollment
by Bob McEowen
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.
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.
like Kemper remain
Kemper is just one of less
than 50 military schools in the nation. Thirty years ago there were more
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
"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.
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
"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,"
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.
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:
#23 Ellis Library
University of Missouri-Columbia
Columbia, MO 65201-5149
Attention: John Konzal
For other information, contact:
Kemper Alumni Association
P.O. Box 362
Boonville, MO 65233
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