At one time the halls echoed with the sounds of teenage laughter and the banging of locker doors between classes. The building is a remnant from a time when there were South, Young and Doyle high schools as well as an Austin and an East. And there were the high schools that simply disappeared altogether, like Holston and Rule.
Today, this section of the old South High School houses the Knox County Education Museum. It moved here from its previous home in the Andrew Johnson building downtown. Before that it was housed in old Knoxville High School. The museum first opened in 2006 and contains memorabilia from Knox County Schools as well as the old Knoxville City Schools.
The museum was founded by Benna Van Vuuren, who passed away in January 2021. A native of Luttrell, Van Vuuren was a teacher, principal and supervisor for Knox County Schools, co-founded the American International School of Johannesburg in South Africa, and the private Van Vuuren Academy in Union County.
Board member and treasurer, Wayne Keener, volunteers several days a week. He said it’s paramount to the board to move forward with Van Vuuren’s wishes.
“She was a really special lady,” Keener said. “Her shoes will not easily be filled.”
Keener, 77, is retired from Cardinal Health. He once owned Woodland Drug Store in Oak Ridge. He was asked to get involved at the museum in 2015 due to his business experience.
“Well, most of the volunteers here, and it is ALL volunteers, are retired teachers or librarians,” Keener said. “Which, makes sense since it is a museum, involves history and has a library. But they wanted someone on board to help where money matters were concerned.”
And money matters a lot, especially after a year of cancelled fund-raising events due to Covid-19.
“Our biggest fundraiser of the year is a ’50s-’60s style sock hop,” Keener said. “It’s a very popular event, and without it, raising funds is difficult since it seems like a lot of people don’t even know the museum exists.”
Keener said that a large percentage of the museum’s long-time donors are school “orphans” like himself whose schools no longer exist. Keener graduated from Rule in 1962.
As an example, he pointed to one of his regular volunteer helpers, David Irwin, a retired Carter High School teacher and track couch. Irwin graduated from South in 1967.
“I think those of us who don’t have our old schools anymore are a bit more invested in this preservation,” Keener said. “We can’t go back to our old school. Its history is in here.”
Keener has some items on his wish list going forward. He’d like to find a grant writer who might be willing to donate some time to help apply for funding. He added a corporate sponsor or five would be nice.
“As you can see,” he said waving his hand toward the stage in the school’s old music room, “we have plenty of stuff. We need volunteers to help get these materials organized and displayed as well as keep the museum open for visitors. And we’re trying to do all this with very limited funding.”
A board meeting in the next few weeks will determine if the sock hop is a go for 2021 or waiting again until next year. The museum is currently asking for monetary donations to help with the construction of display cases, which cost about $450 each. Donations of school memorabilia are asked to wait until late summer or fall while cases are built and installed.
To learn more about the museum or make a donation go here.
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Beth Kinnane is community news editor at KnoxTNToday.com.