MEXICO, MISSOURI—Missouri Military Academy fills a prominent place in my cranial archive. It was founded in 1889. I was its director of publications and public information from 1982, when I graduated from J-school, until 1989, the school’s centennial year. In those seven years in my first small town, I matured personally and professionally. I met and married the mother of my children there, and the cadet officers formed an arch of sabers as we left the Memorial Chapel. Our first son was born there in 1987.
Over the past quarter century I’ve passed through Mexico, the seat of Audrain County, and rolled down Grand Avenue, which demarks the 288-acre campus’s eastern border. But I never took the time to revisit the stage of past life. Until 2012, keeping current through social media seemed adequate. That’s when MMA razed its iconic administration building and adjoining dormitories built in 1900, and replaced it with a 21st century, LEED certified, replica. Curiosity beckoned.
Taking photographs was one of my duties. Like the prints of my favorite images that surround me as I write, most of my memories are mentally documented in black and white. To my right, Senior Army Instructor Ardie McClure comforts Ray Sutton after Bowling Green beat the 1982 football Colonels 20-0. Jordan Chalden wails on his sax, playing the music reflected in his glasses. More memories and pictures (including this one of a student, Jeff Kays, polishing his boots in the journalism classroom during his free time) fill my past position’s responsibilities, the college prep boarding school’s yearbook, Taps, and the oldest high school newspaper in Missouri, the Eagle, founded in 1900.
Walking up to the new administration building in June 2014, the clearest difference between old and new is the dome. Always a Mexico landmark, it is now gold, not silver. Walking up the steps and through the front door, I entered a bright, airy atrium that extended up into the dome instead of the originals snug foyer, the start of the maze that led to a warren of small offices. It was quiet and free of the olfactory patina earned in its century of service to the cadets.
After explaining who I was, I asked the receptionist about some of the office staff I’d worked with. They’d all retired, with the bookkeeper, Cathy Brooks, closing her ledger last summer. Then I asked for Erin Chambers, who holds the position I once possessed. She’d be right over; I could wait in the Alumni Visitors Lounge. As it was, trophies and awards cadets have earned for more than a century filled its shelves. What I did not expect to see were all the framed 11-by-14 and 8-by-10 black & white photos of cadet life that I’d captured during my tenure.
A number of them were grouped around the big mahogany desk of Col. Charles Riddle Stribling Jr., in whose honor the trustees named the administration building 1981. Listened to a lot of stories by that desk, how he started at MMA in 1920, how he led the group of five faculty members who bought the school in 1933 and survived the Depression, and served as its superintendent until 1968, when his son, CRS III, succeeded him. Another J-school graduate, III hired me and graded every Eagle with red and green felt tip pens. Eventually green dominated red, and I wish I’d saved a few of them.
Completing her second year, Erin took me on a tour of the airy offices in Stribling Hall, or as she called it, “the Strib.” She used the same moniker when I asked about my boss, whom we referred to as “Charlie” when he was out of earshot and “Colonel” when he was. Now wheelchair bound, she said, he visits campus from time to time, mostly during the school’s special events. For a moment, I thought about finding my way to his home to say thank-you but decided it wouldn’t be polite to arrive without an appointment.
Physically, the campus footprint was unchanged. New buildings occupied the old footprints. In the atrium of Barnard Hall, the “addition” to the academic building it dwarfs, was the main portal to the red brick barracks it replaced in 2008, Alpha Company, and one of the small field pieces that stood guard outside the old Stribling Hall. Built in 1917, the three-story redbrick Alpha Company stacked two layers of cadet rooms on a foundation of classrooms. Unlike the buildings we toured, the floors didn’t creak and moan, and door jams were smooth steel rather than oft painted wood burnished by passing books and uniform sleeves. The air-conditioned atmosphere was sterile, filtered free of the essence of chalk and high schools boys living two to a room.
For as much as it had changed, I took comfort in one similarity. As mine was, Erin’s office was in a basement, hers in B Barracks, and mine in the Cadet Hospital. (Unlike mine, she had carpeting, air conditioning, and energy efficient lights; I had a window and buzzing fluorescents.) And MMA still has little appreciation for its history. Scattered about the floor and on folding tables were haphazard stacks of green, yellow, and white boxes that once held photographic paper. On the end of many of them was my handwriting, indicating the school year of the prints and proof sheets they held.
They had just transported all of them from their forgotten back corner of E Barracks, and Erin said that they’d not come across the thick three-ring binders that held of the negatives that went with the proof sheets. In case she found them, I explained the code on the pack of every print and proof sheet that led to its negative. She apologized, but I expected nothing less, and I told her about the months of spare time I spent rooting underneath the steps of the old Stribling Hall, salvaging school catalogs, photographs, and ephemeral documents chucked there for more than half a century. There’s no telling where all that went.
Heading to the Cadet Hospital to look at my old office I met another surprise, Greg Morton, the director of buildings, grounds, and security. When I greeted him by name, he looked puzzled and asked, “alum or faculty?” While the faculty face didn’t register, my name brought an instant smile of remembcognition. “You want to see your old office?” he asked, unlocking the double glass doors where my window used to be.
Now a cadet canteen, Greg said the computer-equipped cadets didn’t use it much. A dozen or so of my black & white memories lined the walls, staring at the empty pedestal stools standing at attention before the soda bar. After we caught up on the ensuring 25 years, Greg went back to work and I wandered around the back half of the front campus that had changed little. There was the field house, stables, Natatorium, and Centennial Gymtorium, smiling to myself about the discussions we’d had about that conflated moniker. And there was the swinging bridge that crossed the creek that separated the 88-acre front campus from the 200 acres behind it, not counting Lake Mismilaca. I used to cross that bridge on the nice spring and fall days that I’d walk to work.
Checking off campus with the receptionist I returned for a moment to the photos arranged around the old Colonel’s desk. Legacy is not something that I’d ever thought of before, but it seemed I had one, albeit uncredited. And I’m fine with that. I was witness to a seven-year segment of life important to all of who shared it, and returning to the grounds I’d once walked recalled more memory unremembered for a quarter century. It was good to look back, to return and compare past to present because it reunited seemingly disconnected chapters of life.