Wind pierced the heart of St. John’s Military School’s campus last week in the wake of bitter news that wafted through one day earlier.
Cadets at the private north Salina school quietly conversed among themselves Thursday morning while tromping through skiffs of new-fallen snow on their way to classes and appointments.
Indoors, St. John’s staff fielded phone calls from around Kansas, the nation and world, many of them from families and alumni responding to news that the nearly 131-year-old institution is closing.
The final graduation is May 11.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Ginger Wooten, St. John’s vice president.
“I’m not sure I have words to explain what the last 24 hours has been like,” she said. “There were lots of tears and hugs.”
Money, love, support and encouragement were offered by the extended SJMS family, and some pleaded for reconsideration.
But the St. John’s board of trustees’ decision is final, said Col. William Clark, school president.
Money problems, brought on in part by costly legal issues, and media reports that school officials believe damaged the school’s reputation and lowered enrollment, all contributed, they said during interviews over the past week.
The colonel emerged from a long meeting Wednesday impressed and proud of his cadets and others at St. John’s. Clark counseled many cadets and employees during the day, and he spoke at an evening service in the campus chapel. He shared written letters from some who put thoughts in writing.
“What we got was an outpouring of love and support,” Clark said of his St. John’s family. “They know this place loves them, but our kids are struggling right now.”
Options for cadets
Staff members were reaching out to other schools Thursday, most of them military, and also consultants, to provide cadets and their families with educational options for next year, Wooten said.
“We want to finish the year with dignity,” she said.
School officials requested reporters not seek comment from cadets. Present and former faculty members, along with alumni and others, flooded the St. John’s Facebook page and used other forms of electronic communication to express their views.
“The good memories I have of the cadets, faculty and staff will remain, but it’s a shame that greed and hate have caused St. John’s to close,” wrote Paul Sommers, of Salina.
He was a counselor from 1969 to 1979 at the military school, followed by 21 years in Salina public schools.
Sommers said he missed witnessing the brotherhood of those cadets in the sixth through 12th grades.
“They would help each other, encourage and prod each other,” he said. “They were interested in everybody on their squad succeeding. I saw a lot of kids who didn’t want to be there, and later they said, ‘Thank you so much. I’m ready for life.’ And parents would say, ‘You’ve given me my son back.’ ”
Sommers placed blame on “ambulance-chasing lawyers and media that got their kicks and vented their hate by reporting only one side of a story.”
“This school is so desperately needed in a society that has become so confused and upside down that we can’t put the sex of an infant on the birth certificate because the child may feel like changing it some day,” Sommers said. said. “Much of what Americans once thought to be honorable, morally right and worthy of emulation is quickly being destroyed and replaced by bitterness and revenge.”
In 2014, the school settled a lawsuit filed by 11 former students who alleged physical and mental abuse. Settlements for four of the juveniles ranged from $55,000 to $1.8 million.
Last year, two students were arrested on suspicion of aggravated criminal sodomy after a boy said he was sexually assaulted in a dorm room. Another lawsuit was filed over an alleged sexual assault in 2016.
Recent grad talks
Reece Turner, a 2017 graduate, said he was “surprised and heartbroken” with the news.
“It’s as much a part of me as anything in my life,” the 19-year-old said Thursday evening after a day of classes at North Greenville University in Tigerville, S.C.
Turner is a sophomore majoring in political science and minoring in English, with a goal of going to law school at the University of South Carolina and becoming a medical malpractice attorney.
Thoughts have been with St. John’s this week. His brother, Ryan Turner, attended the military school as a freshman.
“When I broke the news to my mother, she cried a good bit,” Reece Turner said. “It’s such a big loss for my family and for countless other families. I would not be talking to you and attending a university if it wasn’t for St. John’s.”
Asked about legal problems at the school, the former cadet re-framed the question.
“I would say alleged problems,” he said. “We knew a lot of the allegations that were brought forth. I personally say it was hearsay. I attended that school for six years and (behavior) was what you would typically see at a public school. I honestly feel St. John’s was singled out because we are a private school.”
At 5-foot-6 and 155 pounds, and a “troubled kid” who grew up mostly in Texas, Turner said he was never bullied, harassed or hazed at SJMS.
“We were a bunch of guys who lived together 24-7, and we gave a lot of crap to each other,” Turner said. “I value the education that I got at St. John’s to the highest. Unfortunately, there is a double standard. I feel like certain media outlets care only about getting the story. This crap happens at high schools all over the country. It happened less at St. John’s with a small body of students.”
After his college semester wraps in late April, the young man said he is driving 17 hours to Kansas to spend some time with friends in Salina and on campus. He will attend the St. John’s commencement on May 11.
“I can think of no other place I’d rather be,” he said.
Staff member reacts
News of the closing was “gut wrenching” to Roy Lawrence, St. John’s director of development and advancement. In his 32nd year at SJMS, Lawrence was a longtime football and basketball coach and athletic director.
“It was almost like you have something yanked away from you, like taking my heart out of my chest,” he said.
He took calls from alumni and friends, “shared tears” with some and is looking forward to seeing them at commencement.
Moving from St. Louis, he came to Salina to play basketball at Kansas Wesleyan University, but a car crash ended his athletic career. KWU coach Jerry Jones encouraged Lawrence to apply at St. John’s.
During interviews, he said, Col. Keith Duckers, then SJMS president, posed a tough question.
“He said, ‘You’re three years older than my oldest cadet. Why should I hire you?’ ” Lawrence said. “I said, ‘I will be the best you ever had,’ and I was hired that day back in 1987. Been here ever since.”
At 53, Lawrence is unsure about his future, although he already has been offered jobs.
“I am so in love with Salina, Kan.,” he said. “I just don’t want to move away. This has been home for me.”
Learning of the school’s planned closing was difficult for Margaret Neaderhiser, owner The Tangled Thread, an alterations shop at 106 S. Santa Fe.
The business does tailoring for St. John’s.
“It saddens us for the boys and the employees,” she said.
Tangled Thread has been serving the school some 14 years, handling such chores as taking in and letting out uniforms, and sewing on patches.
“It’s our largest account,” Neaderhiser said. “It has lessened through the years, but that’s only because of the decline in the number of boys.”
Her company also does work for the Kansas National Guard, Kansas Highway Patrol, Salina Police Department, Salina Fire Department and other clients with uniforms, including football teams.
“This closing affects so many other businesses, from dry cleaners, the hotels parents stay in, to the mall and retail outlets. You name it,” Neaderhiser said. “We’ll be fine, but we’ll miss them — not just financially, but a big part of our day is working with them. We’ve always had such a good relationship with St. John’s.
“We’ve met several cadets. They’re always so nice and polite.”