Minden Press-Herald

Oct 01st

Webster School Superintendents

Locally, attention this week has been focused on the process of selecting a new Superintendent of Schools for Webster Parish.

So I decided to update and rerun two Echoes from the time of the last Superintendent search.

The next two Echoes of Our Past will give a brief overview of the individuals who have held that position over the past 120 or so years, and focus on a hotly-contested battle for Superintendent that took place 103 years ago, during the late summer of 1908.

Louisiana, and much of the south, lagged behind the rest of the nation in the establishment of public schools.

Although the post of State Superintendent of Education was created in the Louisiana Constitution of 1845, and the language of that document seemed to require public schools be created, in reality it was the 1890s before public schools emerged in most of Louisiana.

Even after that time, the systems existed on barebones funding for many years. As late as 1914, the Minden High School exhausted its annual funding in early April and students were assessed tuition fees to keep the school open for the rest of the academic year.

Webster Parish first hired a Superintendent of Schools in 1892. There were no qualification standards for filling the post at that time and the local School Board, referred to as the Board of Directors, elected John M. Davies.

Upon Davies' death in May 1908, the board appointed Thomas M. Fuller, a teacher at Sibley and also former state Senator and newspaper editor to the post in an interim capacity.

Later that fall, he was made the permanent Superintendent, the first required by state law to devote all his time to the post. As such, the salary was raised to $100 per month for Fuller.

When Fuller died unexpectedly in December 1920, for the only time in Webster Parish history, the School Board looked outside Webster Parish for a new Superintendent.

Effective with the first meeting of January 1921, Edwin Sanders Richardson, formerly head of a division of the Louisiana Agricultural Extension service and former Superintendent of Schools in Bienville Parish took over the post of Superintendent. Richardson was originally from the Gum Springs community west of Minden, so he was a local native, but had been working in Baton Rouge for nearly a decade.

Richardson brought the Webster Parish schools into the modern era through his program of consolidation and standardization that became a model for the rest of the nation. He also introduced the concept of parish-level administrators, outside the individual schools.

His first hire as an Assistant Superintendent was James Edward Pitcher, son-in-law of famed LSU President Thomas Duckett Boyd. Pitcher had been serving with the Agricultural Extension Service in Minden prior to being hired by the School Board.

In August 1936, when Richardson was named President of Louisiana Tech, Pitcher was appointed to finish his unexpired term. In 1937, Pitcher was appointed in his own right. He served until 1961, surviving an ouster attempt during the height of power of the White Citizens Councils in 1957.

Pitcher was succeeded as Superintendent by Assistant Superintendent for Instruction; R. O. Machen, Sr. Machen had begun his career in the Webster Parish system as a teacher and coach in 1926 and had worked in the schools of our parish continuously since 1932

Upon Machen's retirement in 1969 the job of Superintendent was assumed by another veteran Webster Parish educator, Robert H. Manning, Jr. Manning had begun teaching career as a teacher and coach at Dubberly High School in 1937.

At the time of his appointment, Manning was the Assistant Superintendent for Transportation, Maintenance and Purchasing, a post he had held since 1951.

In 1971, Manning retired and was replaced by Assistant Superintendent Wayne W. Williams, Sr., father of present Superintendent, Wayne W. Williams, Jr. Williams had begun work in the Webster Parish system in the late 1930s as a teacher and coach at Shongaloo High School.

In 1978, Williams retired and was replaced by the Attendance Supervisor and Title I Coordinator for the system, Harry M. Campbell.

Campbell began his career in Webster Parish schools in 1947 and had moved into the Central Office administration in 1970.

After six years on the job, Campbell retired in the summer of 1984, and was replaced, at first on an interim basis and then permanently, by Assistant Superintendent Jerry Lott. Lott had begun his career in the Webster Parish system as a teacher and coach at Sarepta in 1961 and had become Assistant Superintendent in 1979.

Lott retired in 1999 and was replaced by Richard Noles, a Webster Parish native who had been serving as Elementary Supervisor after a long career in teaching and administration in the parish beginning in the late 1960s.

That brings us to the current Superintendent, Wayne W. "Butch" Williams, Jr. I'm saving Butch's bio for a later article. So as the School Board begins the process of choosing a new Superintendent let's look back for a while at the first competition for the post, in 1908.

Webster Parish's first Superintendent of Schools, John M. Davies had been born in 1859 in Louisiana; his father was an immigrant from Wales. By profession, he was a civil engineer and served as the parish surveyor for Webster Parish.

Davies was also involved in governmental affairs as the clerk of the Webster Parish Police Jury. The post of Superintendent of Schools was not a full-time job under the law of that time, so Davies held that job as a part-time public service, beginning in 1892 although he was paid a salary that had reached $75 per month by 1908. Although it seems Davies didn't devote much time to board affairs, other than to supervise and take minutes at the quarterly meetings. Nevertheless, he held the title of Superintendent, the first person with that distinction in Webster Parish.

By the spring of 1908, changes were coming in Louisiana education. Standards for accreditation and certification of schools were being imposed to bring about increased quality of education in our state.

Locally, Minden High School had become an accredited high school for the first time, under the leadership of the brilliant young educator, C. A. Ives, who would later go on to a distinguished career as the Dean of the College of Education at LSU.

Plans were in the works to build a new high school building for Minden, through a combination of city and parish funding.

In 1908, as seems the norm in Louisiana, politics became injected into education reform. State Superintendent of Education, James B. Aswell, announced reforms intended to bring some standardization to the teaching requirements in Louisiana.

Along with restructuring the examinations required to become a teacher, Aswell called for the institution of a qualifying exam to become eligible to be named a parish Superintendent of Schools. While this was a needed change, Aswell's program was part of his plan to win election as Governor, by increasing name recognition.

It seems that, if the reaction in Webster Parish was typical, Aswell miscalculated. We do know that his bid to become Governor of Louisiana failed, but he did eventually gain election to the United States Congress where he would serve for 18 years.

Webster Parish school officials and the public felt that Aswell's plans were an outrage and a usurpation of the power of local people to choose their own leaders.

Even though the same ideas were shared by many in Louisiana, the changes were approved to take effect in the fall of 1908.

As this controversy over Aswell's changes was at its height, an unexpected vacancy occurred at the top of the local system.

Superintendent Davies, although only 49 years old, had been suffering many health problems in recent months. He spent much of April 1908 in Hot Springs, Arkansas, hoping the waters would prove beneficial.

Davies and his wife returned to Minden in mid-May for school graduations, but Davies died suddenly on Tuesday, May 26, 1908, from what was described as a "malignant attack of yellow jaundice."

The local School Board moved promptly to fill the vacancy as the coming changes in requirements for Superintendent were in the forefront of their minds.

There was a loophole in the standards to take effect in the fall, a Superintendent currently holding office when the new rules took effect was "grandfathered" into the job, and not required to meet and state-imposed standards.

Wishing to maintain what they saw as complete local control, the board moved rapidly and hired Thomas M. Fuller, a prominent local man, who of late had been serving as teacher and principal at Sibley.

The board discussed making a permanent choice for the office in the fall, but most assumed that Fuller would retain the position.

By mid-summer, local political concerns entered the picture.

Fuller had long been active in politics having been formerly a State Senator for two terms. As such, he had political enemies who did not want to see him in the job.

They objected to the board making Fuller's appointment permanent, citing the same claim that local school officials were making against Aswell's requirements, that the board was ignoring the will of the people.

The controversy over Fuller's role became more intense when his initial financial report to the School Board, in July 1908, indicated some problems in administration of the school system.

There had been no graft or intentional mishandling of funds, but Fuller's report indicated that because of lax oversight, the apportionment of funding for schools had not been handled correctly.

Several schools, most notably the Yellow Pine school south of Sibley, had been shorted a sizeable portion of the annual appropriation for several years.

This revelation increased public demand for a better administration of the schools, while the manner in which Fuller revealed the information fanned the fiery rhetoric of his detractors.

Fuller had issued a statement that seemed to take full credit for the audit of schools finances. Letters to both the Webster Signal and the Minden Democrat pointed out that the School Board had ordered the examination and that Fuller was attempting to paint himself the hero, when he was merely a part of the project.

At this point, the Democratic Committee of Webster Parish, along with the School Board crafted a unique plan.

This plan, it was felt, would not only assure the input of the voters in determining the new Superintendent, but also send a strong statement to Baton Rouge as to the way Webster Parish felt about Aswell's qualification standards.

The Democratic Committee announced it would be holding a party primary election for the office of Superintendent of Education.

Although the job was not elective in nature, the party planned to use the primary as a measure of demonstrating which candidate the Democratic voters of Webster Parish felt was best able to lead their schools.

Since there were few, if any, registered Republicans in Webster Parish in 1908, the plan was not met with objection by the voters.

The state did not have to pay for the election, as it would be strictly a party project, and in those days of paper ballots, the expense was minimal. The lynchpin of the plan, however, was the cooperation of the School Board.

In a formal vote the Board agreed to accept whomever was chosen by the voters in the primary as their choice for Superintendent.

Most assumed that Fuller would be the choice, but this was the Board's way of deflecting possible criticism about its handling of the task, while also making a statement about the doctrine of local control over the schools.

In next week's Echo of our Past, we will examine the course of that campaign and aftermath of the unique election of Tuesday, September 1, 1908. The only time in local history when the voters had their direct say on the choice of Superintendent of Schools for Webster Parish.

John Agan is a local historian, an instructor at Bossier Parish Community College and a published author. His column appears Fridays in the Minden Press-Herald.






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