Gainesville’s first vo-ag teacher recalls program’s start 50-plus years ago
I think it was in May 1965 that a few members of the Gainesville R-5 School District board, along with the superintendent Mearle Luna, came to the University of Missouri at Columbia to interview prospective vocational agriculture teachers. I was told by my university adviser that these people wanted to interview the top two students in the agricultural education program. I was one of those students. I didn’t have the top grade point average but was in second place.
The board members, as I remember them, were Curtis Taber, J.J. Pace, Rex Johnson and maybe one or two more. I sat in a classroom and was interviewed by these people. After the interview, I was told that the student who had the top grade point average did not want the job. I scheduled an appointment to travel to Gainesville, look at the school and talk to the administration. I made the trip and signed a contract for $6,200 per year for 12 months of work.
My family and I moved to Gainesville the last of May or the first part of June. We rented a house on Harlin Drive from local banker Hugh T. Harlin that was just across the driveway from the superintendent’s home.
I worked the month of June with no pay as my contract began July 1, 1965. There was no building to house the new vocational agriculture program, only a blueprint of a building that was being built. I believe the district hired a carpenter with the last name of Roberts to oversee the construction.
I was given an office, of sorts, on the stage adjoining the high school gymnasium. I began my work by writing lesson plans for each class I intended to teach. I also needed to fill out purchase orders for books and equipment I needed in the classroom, including chairs, tables and office furniture. I also filled out purchase orders for shop equipment and consumable supplies.
When school began, no classroom was available as the new building was still under construction and would not be ready until the second semester. So I set up a classroom on the stage. I soon discovered that my few years of previous business experience operating a service station and my age of 25 would be an asset with a bunch of Ozark County boys who were a bit overzealous in the goofing-off department.
Dean Hughes, the guidance counselor, had taught at Alton, where I operated the service station. This acquaintance proved valuable, and his advice and counsel to the prospective students helped with the discipline process.
A new FFA chapter, which was then the Future Farmers of America, was formed; a charter was granted to the Gainesville chapter. This was before girls were admitted to FFA, so the new chapter consisted of all boys. The job of selling the boys on the value of FFA membership was a challenge.
Finally, the second semester rolled around, and my classroom was moved to the new building, the shop equipment was set up and we were ready to enjoy the new facilities. I remember working almost every night and weekend getting the shop ready to be usable.
Spring is the busiest time of the year for vocational agriculture and FFA departments because that’s the time of CONTESTS. In those years, the academic agriculture competitions throughout the state of Missouri were divided into sub-districts, districts and then, of course, the state level. All of the contests in the FFA, such as parliamentary procedure, creed speaking, public speaking and all of the officer books, were conducted at the sub-district level. If the team or individual placed well enough in sub-district, they qualified to go to district.
When I was hired, the superintendent was adamant about his desire to see the boys place well in various contests at all levels. Of course, a new program is at a disadvantage when it has to compete with departments that have experience and materials developed through long years of competition.
A part of the vocational agriculture program was “project” ownership or Supervised Agriculture Experience projects. Often the project was livestock ownership or livestock care. I tried to visit the homes of many of the students and look at their “farm projects.” I thought a lot of Mearle Luna and always appreciated his direct approach. I never had to wonder what he thought because he was always outspoken.
He often asked me why I thought I was worth more money than the English teacher. One afternoon I had a farm visit planned, and I knew the visit was going to get me home after dark, so I asked Mr. Luna to go with me. He quickly accepted the invitation. I don’t know that he let his wife, Stella, know about the visit, and I’m sure he had no idea how long it would be until we came home. Mr. Luna related to me later that Stella was not very happy that he was not home in time for supper.
He never again asked me why I thought I should earn more than the English teacher.
I left the Gainesville school system in 1967 and moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, to train life insurance agents for J. J. Pace. I taught vo ag at Thayer from October 1967 to summer 1968 then moved back to Gainesville to teach vo ag until summer 1969. Then I moved to Alton, where I taught vo ag until 1996, when I retired from the public school system and began working as an independent insurance adjuster.
In 2008, I started working part-time for the Oregon County Shelter Workshop, where I’m still employed part-time as chief financial officer.
In addition to these jobs, I have pastored rural Free Will Baptist churches since 1973 as a bi-vocational pastor. Since July 1995, I have pastored the Bailey Free Will Baptist Church at Alton.
As a sidenote, I served three years as president of the Missouri Foxtrotting Horse Breeders Association beginning in 2001. During my time in office, the Missouri Foxtrotter was named the State Horse of Missouri. I’ve written two books – From My. Heart to Your Eyes and Stories from the Heart of Oregon County. Both are available on amazon.com by searching for my full name, James Darrell Strain. I also have a Facebook page with my full name, and readers are welcome to contact me there.