Memories from a passionate educator, devoted family man, and loyal friend, Keith Chapman is the real deal
By Keith Chapman
I grew up in Johnston City, Illinois, a small community in Southern Illinois, 6 miles north of Marion, Illinois where my wife, Marilyn grew up. Johnston City was a small but interesting place. There was a gentleman named Jack Batts who was a shoe cobbler by trade but also a sculptor and a violin maker. While I was principal at Jetton Jr High School, I invited him to meet with the orchestra students to explain how he made violins. One of his sculptures is a soldier lying dead on the battlefield, and is a part of the Memorial Day celebration honoring fallen soldiers from Johnston City.
There was another gentleman by the name of Johnny Columbo who was a brilliant mechanic even though he only had an eighth grade education. As a car owner, he was very involved in auto racing and turned down two opportunities to be a mechanic at the Indianapolis 500.
Most of the communities around Johnston City had a population that worked the coal mines, and many classmates went to work in the mines after graduation. When I was in the fourth grade there was a horrible coal mine disaster in West Frankfort that killed 119 men several of which were the fathers of classmates or friends.
While in high school I participated in Young Rotarians, student council, teen town board, and played football and ran track. I was named all conference center in football and to this day I love the sport.
I have two brothers, Doug and Danny. Doug was also in education and coaching while Danny graduated with a degree in education; he became an electrician.
After graduating from Johnston City High in 1960, I had a dream of racing. At that time you had to be 21 to race legally. I was only 17 so I fabricated my age. Very few car owners wanted to put a rookie with no experience in their cars so I settled for much less than front running equipment.
Instead of going to college, I wanted to do something that would help me learn how to build racing engines so I went to vocational school in machine tool technology. It got harder to get a ride in racing, and my parents were extremely hostile to the idea since racing at that time was extremely dangerous. Still maintaining my love for football, I decided to go into education and be a coach.
I actually started my college career at McKendree College in Lebonan, Illinois, but I desperately wanted to play more football. So, I began the process of transferring to Murray State University. In the meantime, I injured my knee, for the second time, which required surgery and ending any chance of playing football. Knee surgery was much different at that time and rehab was worse.
I met my wife, Marilyn, at an A&W root beer stand in Marion while attending Murray State. After we said "I do" on July 17, 1965, we lived in married housing. I paid for college working electrical high line construction in the summers and as a janitor at school during the school year.
I completed my student teaching in March, 1967. Marilyn and I were in the process of moving back to Illinois when I received a call from Paducah City Schools. I interviewed with them a few weeks before completing my student teaching at a job fair. They asked me to come to Paducah and interview for a job to finish out the year teaching 7th grade biology.
Upon interviewing with John Cromwell, the principal at Jetton Jr. High, he offered me a contract to finish the year. While completing my paperwork, I was asked what my wife was going to do. I said she was a secretary looking for a job. They interviewed her for an opening at the central office. We were both hired on the same day.
After moving to Paducah, we had enough money to pay the first month's rent and $100 left to spare. I purchased a suit on credit to have for my teaching. For entertainment, since we had no money to spend on anything but food, we would go almost nightly to what was then Uncle Lee's. Marilyn would browse the store, other than sporting goods; of course that's the department that held my interest. I was so self-conscious that they would think we were shoplifting, that I kept my hands in my pocket until we left.
At the end of the school year, a teacher resigned to coach at Paducah Junior College, and they gave me his position. I started teaching history and became an assistant coach for three sports. After two years as assistant football coach, I became head coach.
After Marilyn became pregnant with our first child, the students starting saying, "you are going to have a cheerleader," and I countered by saying, "I was having a football player." After Amy was born, Joe Dallas, announced on the intercom to the student body that we had a cheerleader. They got a kick out of that.
Principal Dallas and the Superintendent, Dr. David Whitehead, evidently saw something in me that I did not see in myself. Joe had been to the University of Tennessee on a recruiting trip and returned with an application for a fellowship program at UT. He and Dr. Whitehead encouraged me to apply. When I received the fellowship, it amounted to more money than I was making teaching and coaching. The Board granted me a 15 month leave of absence to complete my Masters Degree.
While attending UT, the assistant principal at Jetton passed away. His position was held for me. Two years later, Mr. Dallas became principal at PTHS, and I became principal at Jetton, a position I held for 7 years until the school closed in 1980. Jetton and its students will always hold a special place in my heart, after all, it was where I started my career in education.
My assignment upon the closing of Jetton was that of assistant principal, athletic director, and curriculum coordinator at Paducah Tilghman. This was a different but fun time during my career. I always enjoyed working with staff on various curriculum related activities in my role as curriculum coordinator. As athletic director, I was responsible for developing the first athletic manual establishing guidelines for every aspect of the athletic department, including cheerleading squads. In my new role, I noticed the cheerleaders would be on the road late at night with no male figure. It made me uncomfortable so I volunteered to drive them to ballgames. Others may not have seen the need; however, it made me more comfortable. I remained assistant principal until my position was cut. My new assignment was to coordinate the in-school suspension center.
I had completed my 30 above Masters program; however, that did not include a certification for the elementary principalship. As a result, I returned to night school to complete my elementary certification. After Clark School principal, Wilda Morton, moved to central office, I applied for and received the position of principal of Clark Elementary School.
During my first year at Clark, I spent a great deal of time observing the extremely talented and dedicated group of teachers. I formed an advisory team representing each grade level to formulate a plan to identify our strengths and weaknesses. For example, my personal research identified geography as a subject of weakness across the country. I shared my findings with the staff and suggested that each class identify a country to study during the month of January. At the end of the month, we would tour the world.
I contacted Senator Mitch McConnell's office and asked for a list of US Embassies. From that list teachers chose a country to study. I envisioned each embassy sending literature, posters, and perhaps a flag. I did not envision the amount of excitement it would generate from the teachers and the embassies. Classrooms were turned into countries. It was absolutely amazing. The staff continued to develop this program with more and more detail. The parents got involved also by providing meals representing the cuisine from each country.
The program named "Month of the World and Day of Nations" was a success. Two professors from Murray State brought future elementary teachers to tour on the Day of Nations. We were invited to present at several national conferences and various groups. It was not uncommon to receive calls from schools across the country asking for information about how to get started.
In 1986 the superintendent, Dr. Allen, felt that Clark Elementary should apply for a national award (Excellence in Education). This program required that we submit information regarding all aspects of our school including curriculum, school climate, student attendance, teacher attendance, student involvement, test results, problem identification and resolution of those problems. After the application was reviewed at the State level to determine if we should receive a site visit, we were notified that we would have a site visit from a representative of the US Department of Education.
Our evaluator looked at every aspect of our program. She visited every classroom, met with groups of students representing every grade level, talked to parents, interviewed the staff, as well as the Board of Education. One of the comments the evaluator made that I am very proud of was that she felt the staff with their approach to problem solving could attack any problem and develop a proper solution. Her evaluation, sent to the US Department of Education, was reviewed and evaluated by a committee within that department. Clark Elementary was one of 128 elementary schools across the nation that received the Excellence in Education award in 1986. Representatives from Clark went to Washington DC to receive the award. As a part of the trip, I had the privilege of going to the Rose Garden at the White House where President Reagan spoke to us. This whole process was a true reward to the Clark staff, students, and school community.
In 1990 the state legislature passed the Kentucky Education Reform Act. All schools, including Clark Elementary, needed restructuring, or so they said. You may recall the news media referred to it as building an airplane while it's in flight. This was probably the most frustrating time in my education career. Here we were a school that was recognized as one of the top in the nation having to tear apart what we knew was a good educational program. On numerous occasions, I remember receiving a directive from the state to develop a plan of implementation only to have the state scrap that directive to implement another. My assistant principal, Clara Faye Downs, and the advisory committee spent hours studying and planning the implementation of the state's directives.
After numerous state plans, our team decided to carry out only the parts of the directives that benefited our students. Otherwise, continue with what we knew were best practices. In my opinion, the best part of the Education Reform Act was the improved writing skills.
I retired from education after the l996 school year. My wife said she could see the stress level building and the state's micro management took the fun out of it. Within a month, I got bored. That is when I decided to try real estate. There was a lot of flexibility; however, I never did anything half way. As a result, I was elected President of the Board of Realtors. Real Estate was a great second career and allowed Marilyn and me to do things we never thought we would do. We took cruises all over the Caribbean, the East coast from New York to Halifax as well as Alaska and Hawaii.
Our oldest daughter is a first grade teacher in Plainfield, Illinois, and our youngest daughter is a social worker for Hospice. We are the proud grandparents of four granddaughters and one grandson. Three are in college (University of Louisville, Western Kentucky University, and the University of Tennessee) and one is a junior in Plainfield, Illinois. She plays volleyball for both high school and club. Our youngest is a sophomore and plays golf for McCracken County High. He qualified for state last fall.
I used to enjoy fishing and camping but now I play golf. I decided it would be fun to follow my grandson around and occasionally play a round with him. So, at 72 I took up golf. He likes to play with me when he needs a good laugh
It's my grandkids that put a smile on my face and a spring in my step.