Saving Wentworth's Treasures
Alumni of the military academy in Lexington quickly mobilized to secure its historic artifacts for posterity
by Leigh Elmore
The statue of a World War I soldier, "The Doughboy," was presented to Wentworth Military Acadamy by members of the Class of 1918. (photos by Leigh Elmore)
The announcement last spring that Wentworth Military Academy in Lexington, MO would close after the 2016-17 academic year sent shock waves throughout the Wentworth community – the students, faculty, employees, alumni and community supporters were completely taken by surprise.
The word went out in a brief one-page letter to all the affected Wentworth communities with no opportunity for feedback, or even a chance to ask, "Why now?"
It was no secret that the school's finances were on shaky ground, but the situation was apparently far more dire than most alumni had been led to believe.
Wentworth was placed on probation in 2015 by the Higher Learning Commission for financial instability. But, most alumni though thought the situation had stabilized.
That's why the abrupt announcement last April 7 was like a punch to the gut for many whose families had been involved with the school for multiple generations.
The traditional class stone, this one commemorating the Class of 2000, lies in the weeds behind the new museum until space can be cleared for it.
What about the artifacts?
So as the idea that Wentworth would cease to exist as a military academy sank in, the realization arose that the school housed a treasure trove of artifacts and memorabilia that told the history of the school that has anchored the east side of Lexington since 1880.
"It was the oldest military academy west of the Mississippi River, steeped in 137 years of history," said George Hittner, who spent seven years at Wentworth in the 1990s and currently is an attorney living in Houston, TX. Hittner is vice president of the Wentworth Alumni Association, and the closing announcement put him in "mobilization mode."
Various hats of different eras are mixed together.
Hittner quickly began alerting his fellow Wentworth alumni that most of the school's collection of artifacts could be "lost to the winds" in a public auction that was scheduled for early October. So he created a website dedicated to saving the treasures of Wentworth and housing them in a museum to be created in Lexington.
The plaque on the statue's plinth records the names of Wentworth graduates who gave their lives in World War I.
"Our 'Old Boy' alumni (remain) uncertain about the future of the historically significant memorabilia that transformed the otherwise brick and mortar campus into hallowed ground, memorializing the tremendous sacrifices and accomplishments of
the many Old Boy 'greats'," he posted earlier this year.
"This small academy nestled near the banks of the Missouri River in Lexington has produced countless military leaders such as General William M. Hoge, General Mark Welsh, and two Medal of Honor recipients; business leaders such as James "Bud" Walton, and Eddie Chiles; arts and media greats such as Robert Altman and Marlin Perkins; sports pioneers such as George Rody and Ben Jones; and public servants such as former Ambassador Charles H. Price II and U.S. Congressman Ike Skelton who served 34 years in public office and as chairman of the House Armed Service Committee. Their legacies have left an indelible mark on each respective field of expertise," Hittner stated.
He sent out an emphatic alarm: "Considering the campus is now in the control of a disinterested third party who may view these items as debt-settling pieces of brass, steel, wood, and glass, we are at risk of permanently losing countless artifacts to an ad hoc auction in the near future just as Kemper Military Academy experienced in 2002. For this reason, we need your help to secure our rich history for future generations."
Mobilizing the Old Boys
The real estate, the buildings and all of their contents had been transferred to the stewardship of lawyers and bankers, who were planning a huge auction of Wentworth's treasures, including the bronze statue of a World War I soldier, "The Doughboy," a memorial to the Wentworth students who gave their lives in that war, and a gift to the school from the Class of 1918.
A portrait of Steven G. Wentworth, the founder of the school.
Hittner identified the Old Boys' task: Obtain and secure the historically significant WMA memorabilia as a collective body of loyal Old Boys and members of the WMA Alumni Association.
"Our purpose was to permanently honor the physical artifacts that link us to our storied 137 years of excellence, promote to future generations the timeless values first immortalized by our founder Steven G. Wentworth, summarized as 'Achieve the Honorable', and serve as a rally-point for future Old Boy musters," Hittner said.
But it took a bit of brinksmanship on the part of the alumni association to achieve its goal of securing Wentworth's historic heritage for the new museum.
A prized grandfather clock is unceremoniously standing,
waiting for a better environment.
In a nutshell, the legal and financial caretakers of Wentworth's artifacts maintained that the items all belonged to the school, which was entitled to dispose of them as it wished, in this case via an auction.
Hittner was emphatic in countering that the artifacts should revert to the student body in the form of the Wentworth Alumni Association, because most items had been presented to the school by various graduating classes.
Hittner began recruiting a small army of volunteers to show up for the auction, which was set for Oct. 7, in order to buy as much as possible. He also filed a lawsuit on behalf of the alumni association against Bank Midwest, which was charged with disposing of the items by the Wentworth Board of Trustees.
Jennifer Kerr, an attorney who was born and raised in Lexington and who also serves as president of the Lafayette County Historical Society, joined him as co-counsel on the case. Kerr has a deep and abiding interest in anything relating to the history
of Lexington, even though she has no direct connection to Wentworth herself.
"Once Jennifer and I got together, we knew we were going after the artifacts," Hittner said.
"These things represent the history of the school," Kerr said.
Jennifer Kerr displays an academy dress uniform that dates from the 1880s
That's one for the Old Boys
It looked like the case was headed for court, but at the 11th hour the two sides reached an out-of-court settlement avoiding a public spat that would have tarnished the school's reputation, while keeping Wentworth's treasures intact as a collection.
"We obtained the vast majority of them through the settlement," Hittner said. "Above all, we wanted to save 'The Doughboy' and the names of those boys who gave their lives during World War I. We were able to negotiate for 'The Doughboy' and the other artifacts that Wentworth was going to put on the auction block."
So the alumni identified what they wanted out of the collection and permitted the remainder to be sold at auction, which was conducted by Oldham Auctions on Oct. 7.
"But then we were only given one day to remove what we wanted for the museum in order to separate it from what was to be sold," Hittner said.
Much of the school's artifacts now lay in boxes awaiting development of a new museum to house them in Lexington. Here a personal scrapbook is open.
The word went out and the volunteers showed up and in one day transported hundreds of boxes of plaques, portraits, yearbooks, scrapbooks, military uniforms, sports uniforms, photographs and all variety of mementos from the school to the site of a new museum at 1126 and 1128 Main St. in Lexington, two storefronts downtown.
"We were very fortunate that the right space became available at the right time," Hittner said. "It's a beautiful space."
Kerr said they hope to have part of the museum open to the public by next fall. "And we hope to have a banquet hall space available for use by early 2018," Kerr said.
The auction went ahead as scheduled with more than 400 bid tickets turned in. The alumni were a
Detail of medals on dress uniform.
strong presence at the auction with Hittner bidding on their behalf. "When I had my red cap on that meant that I was bidding for the association, so
my compatriots would not bid. If I had my cap off, that meant they were free to bid personally," he said.
"We just wanted to keep the collection together," Kerr said. "We didn't want the school's history scattered to the winds."
The beloved statue of "The Doughboy" still stands on its plinth on campus, but the association is trying to decide whether to move the statue to the lawn of the historic Lafayette County Courthouse or lend it to the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, where it was on display several years ago. A special committee has been formed to make that decision.
A statue of a griffin-like dragon, the school's mascot, still stands in front to the main administration building as well.
A griffin-like dragon, the school's mascot, stands in front of the main administration building.
Speaking for the alumni association, Hittner said, "We are pretty proud of ourselves. I am so proud of how the alumni have come together and raised more than $100,000 to obtain and house the artifacts." He recognizes that the fund-raising has only just begun as more money will be needed to renovate and prepare the new museum space of 11,000 square feet for the public.
"We as alumni have acquired more in three weeks, than we did in the previous 100 years," Hittner said. "These things are priceless."
And as for "The Doughboy": "We have permanent custody forevermore," said Hittner. "It will never fall into private hands."
To find out how to donate to the Wentworth Military Academy Museum go to the website www.wmamuseum.org.
Wentworth Military Academy History – A Timeline
1880 - Steven G. Wentworth founded the Wentworth Male Academy in honor of his son. Sandford Sellers is enlisted as the school's first superintendent.
1882 - Wentworth becomes a military academy. David W. Fleet enlisted as the first commandant.
1890 - Name changed to Wentworth Military Academy.
1914-1918 - Enrollment doubles to more than 500 students.
1923 - Junior college classes are added in addition to high school curriculum.
20th & 21st Centuries - Ongoing rivalry with Kemper Military Academy continues until Kemper's closing in 2002.
1933 - Col. James B. Sellers named superintendent, guides school through the Depression, World War II and the ensuing prosperity. Several major buildings added to the campus.
1954 - Former President Harry S Truman speaks at 75th anniversary of Wentworth's founding.
1960s - Campus additions including Wickoff Fieldhouse are built.
1966 - Early officer commissioning ROTC program begun.
1970s - Wentworth survives enrollment drops and financial problems under the leadership of Supt. Col. J. M. Sellers.
1980 - Vice President Walter Mondale addresses students on the 100th anniversary of founding.
1990 - The last two members of the Sellers family retire from Wentworth, ending a 110-year tradition.
1993 - Female cadets admitted for the first time in attempt to boost enrollment, soon surpassing one quarter of the student body.
2002 - Maj. Gen. John H. Little named superintendent. New barracks constructed.
2017 - Wentworth's closing announced on April 7. Final commencement held on May 13. WMA Alumni Association gains ownership of bulk of school's memorabilia. The remainder sold at auction on Oct. 7.
2018 - Proposed opening of the WMA Alumni Museum in Lexington.
Leigh Elmore can be contacted at email@example.com
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