Joplin’s Memorial Education Center celebrates centennial

The long-awaited day was finally here, the day that a new three-story building would open at the corner of Eighth Street and Wall Avenue in Joplin.

Faculty members who were to teach there excitedly received visitors in a grand public reception. Students, acting as ushers, showed residents around. The orchestra gave a series of short concerts in the auditorium.

The building, now called Memorial Education Center, still stands at that spot exactly a century later, and the purpose for which it was originally constructed has never wavered — it has continued to be a place of learning and to serve students of the Joplin area for all of its 100 years. Mirroring that grand reception a century ago, the school district will celebrate its centennial on Monday with another public reception.

"Joplin’s Memorial Education Center is a timeless treasure steeped in a history of service," said Mendy Moss, superintendent of Joplin Schools. "I have had the esteemed privilege of working within these halls and to witness daily the incomparable dedication and contributions that continue to bring this sturdy structure to life in the service of our youth."

Early years

The idea for Memorial Education Center was developed in 1915, when representatives of civic clubs and the Joplin Trades Assembly urged the Board of Education to construct a new high school to replace the existing school at Fourth Street and Byers Avenue, which had been built in 1897.

Board members endorsed that plan, citing the existing school’s overcrowded conditions, poor lighting and inadequate fire protection, and fearing that those conditions would cause the school not to be accredited by colleges and universities. The board authorized the borrowing of $350,000 — nearly $8.5 million today — and the issuing of bonds to purchase the building site as well as construction.

But they still needed the public’s approval. Prior to the Nov. 23 election, the district involved students in the campaign, sending them marching down Main Street carrying “We Want a New High School” banners. The final vote: 2,256 in favor of the proposal, 484 against it.

In 1916, the board selected Austin Allen and, after his death the following year, the Kansas City-based firm of Smith, Rea and Lovitt as the architects and Dieter and Wenzel Construction Co. as the general contractor. The property at Eighth Street and Wall Avenue was selected for construction.

The cornerstone, which had been purchased with a $79.95 donation from the JHS class of 1913, was placed on Feb. 22, 1917. A sealed time capsule full of papers, lists and artifacts was deposited into the cornerstone alongside a “wild demonstration and waving of flags and pennants when the school orchestra played ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’” the Globe reported.

The school opened on Monday, Jan. 21, 1918, with a public reception, wherein students and faculty gave tours to visitors. Classes began the following day.

"The building, constructed principally of brick, with its many windows, a high foundation of Carthage stone and trimmed with terra cotta, presents a pleasing outward appearance, but the passerby would hardly imagine that the building houses a so thoroughly modern school plant as the new Joplin school structure really is," the Globe reported at the time. "The result is that Joplin has a high school building that is surpassed by none of its size and cost in a radius of several hundred miles of Joplin."

The first commencement exercises held at the school took place on May 23, 1918, with 101 students receiving diplomas. The class of 1918 also made history with its organization of a student council, which then-Principal Henry Blaine suggested would be a medium for the interchange of ideas between students and faculty.

School activities during the first year were largely related to World War I. Students sold $6,500 worth of war savings stamps during one week of campaigns, and many assemblies were about war efforts. The school board also briefly eliminated German language courses and hired a married woman, breaking a long-standing tradition, because of a scarcity of teachers.

Period of transition

Henry Robertson, the retired owner of the former R&S Chevrolet dealership, was a student for three years at that Joplin High School campus and graduated in 1947. When he arrived as a sophomore from the former South Junior High School, he was taken aback by the size of the building.

"I thought it was huge," he said. "The halls were so long, and the auditorium was big. It’s amazing how you perceive things because going back in that building now, it doesn’t look that big. But (at the time) I was very impressed with the size of the building."

Robertson, 88, was involved with football, basketball and track; was president of his class all three years; and was named the ROTC’s cadet colonel. With World War II in the background, he and his classmates saved scrap metal and participated in parades every Thursday.

"It was a very enjoyable time for me," he said. "The teachers challenged you, and I was fortunate enough to make good grades, but you had to work for it. … I think we got a good education."

By the 1950s, growth at the high school had the school board looking once more toward expansion. Board members made a bold decision to move the student body from the downtown school to a newly constructed building in the middle of a field at 20th Street and Indiana Avenue that would hold up to 2,000 students.

Construction of the 2104 Indiana Ave. campus was finished by 1958, and the Memorial building was turned over in 1959 for sole use by Joplin Junior College, which had previously been housed in the old high school at Fourth Street and Byers Avenue. (The college had actually been established at Memorial, and classes were held there for one year in the 1930s before moving into the old high school.)

But college officials had their eyes on expansion, too, and they soon purchased the Mission Hills estate at Newman and Duquesne roads. The junior college would move out to that property in east Joplin by 1967 and become known as the four-year Missouri Southern State College.

The building returned to its high school roots in 1969, when it became Memorial High School and the 2104 Indiana Ave. campus became Parkwood High School.

Cat Johnson, 57, co-owner of Cat Johnson Auto Sales in Joplin, attended Memorial High School for four years and was a member of the class of 1978. During his time there, he played basketball — helping the team win two state championships — and worked toward his diploma with the help of his teachers, all of whom he said were good.

He said there was a rivalry between the two high schools, with Memorial often being looked upon as "the other school," but he wouldn’t have traded his experience there for anything.

"I loved it," he said. "I’d do it again tomorrow."

Present day

Since Joplin returned to a single high school campus in 1986, the Memorial building has served a variety of functions for students of varying age: it was a junior high school, an eighth-grade center, a middle school and a high school again on a temporary basis.

Today, the building serves as the location of the school district’s administrative offices. That move was made in 2015, after administrators had been uprooted from their base at 15th Street and Connecticut Avenue because of the 2011 tornado and had spent several years renting space from the Missouri Department of Transportation.

C.J. Huff, the superintendent at the time, endorsed the move into Memorial, noting that the 140,000-square-foot building was centrally located, was large enough to allow all administrative departments to remain under one roof and contained enough space for Board of Education meetings, large forums and professional development.

“There’s a lot of heartfelt feelings toward that building, and trying to maintain it instead of letting it sit idle is something we want to do,” he said in January 2015 when pitching the move to the school board.

The move required Memorial to go through some upgrades. Interior renovations were needed to turn former classrooms into administrative departments, and updates to the building’s electrical and networking systems also were completed. Additional upgrades were planned to increase Memorial’s accessibility for people with disabilities.

Students returned to Memorial in September 2016 with the relocation of the district’s elementary gifted classes to the third floor.

Kelly Kumbier, 10, works on a project during Miranda Hembree’s gifted child class on Friday at the Memorial Education Center, pictured below. The building turns 100 today and has always been used as a place of learning.Globe | Laurie Sisk

Anna Barnhart, then a fifth-grader at Soaring Heights Elementary School, told the Globe at the time that she was thrilled that the gifted program had its own building again after being crammed into the overcrowded McKinley Elementary School.

"I think it’s very nice," she said of Memorial as her classmates explored the building’s old lockers behind her. "I feel like it will give us a lot more independent space."

Moss, the current superintendent, said Monday’s reception will be a chance to walk down memory lane and revisit the years of service that Memorial has given to the Joplin community.

"It is my sincere hope that the celebration of Memorial Education Center’s 100th birthday can provide a fitting introduction to the people of Joplin and that they might see in this great landmark all that I’ve been privileged to see through the researching of its fine history of service," she said.

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