Chapter 2: Why did John Wagner serve only six months as Hawkins superintendent?

Rick Wagner • Nov 30, 2019 at 2:00 PM

As the late national radio commentator Paul Harvey used to say, now for the rest of the story — this time about my great-uncle the school superintendent. Except this time it is not that much different than the preliminary findings I made.

Some readers may remember my recent column and blog about John Wagner, who served as superintendent of schools for Hawkins County from September of 1948 until February of 1949, about six months. He resigned three days into the job but apparently withdrew that resignation letter written in early September. However, he resigned for good in February. He went on to a career as a principal in neighboring Sullivan County and retired from there. He and his wife are buried at East Lawn Cemetery, near where I used to live in Indian Springs.

I have heard from some folks who knew something about what had happened back in those post-World War II days. Here they are:


1. Janice Dean of Church Hill, who has written a book about the history of Mount Carmel and surrounding areas, said that her mother, Velma Mann Christian, was friends with my great-uncle and his wife, Tella, and that he had a hard time handling news that a male student he paddled hanged himself in a barn that same day.

2. Another who responded, who didn’t want to be identified, said that in the 1930s officials from the state came in and cleared out the Hawkins County school board because of improprieties, but that was well before my relative came to head the school system. According to a lawsuit challenging actions of the county school board in 1937 before four of the seven members were removed by a circuit court, the new board hired different teachers. It was settled by the Tennessee Supreme Court, which ruled the board’s original teacher contracts granted were valid.

3. A third person, a cousin named Janie Stroupe Smithson, said she had the inside scoop since her grandmother was a sister very close to my great-uncle. Her grandmother was Kathryn Tennessee Wagner Marshall. She said they looked alike and could have passed for twins. Smithson said the issue was the pressure placed on him. Smithson said it came from various sides toward Wagner, a Democrat who upended county politics: the school board, his supporters. and the Republican Party, the latter upset that he defeated three-term GOP incumbent E.A. Cope.

Smithson said she remembered talk about the student suicide but that the reason for my great-uncle’s “nervous breakdown,” as it was called back then, was the pressure he felt once he took the helm of the school system. The Kingsport newspaper at the time of his first resignation letter reported that he had gone to Claiborne County to rest. That’s where he went to college at Lincoln Memorial University and had met his future bride, a fellow educator.

Smithson, like me, said she always called John Wagner simply Uncle John.

“Uncle John told my grandmother all about it,” Smithson said. “They got together often.”


The bottom line? Smithson said John Wagner simply couldn’t cope with the politics and pressure of the position.

“It was just more than he could handle,” Smithson said.

“He said it just made him so nervous he couldn’t stand people coming at him from all different directions,” Smithson said her grandmother had related. “It was his salvation to move to Sullivan County.” She thinks he may have gone back to his alma mater of Lincoln Memorial University to get an advanced degree between his time as a superintendent in Hawkins and first principalship in Sullivan.

Smithson said that my great-uncle likely was elected because he was a popular principal at Surgoinsville High School, near where he lived, and that he had family (including that of my grandfather and his brother, Charles Wagner) in and around Surgoinsville as well as others in and around Church Hill, since he grew up in Goshen Valley, just south of Church Hill across the Holston River.

She said that in that time period, the only Democrats she remembered winning countywide office were my great-uncle and Lyle Ratliff, who was elected county judge to preside over the county court. (That would be the equivalent today of the county mayor or 20 years ago of the county executive, and the county court was what is today the county commission.) Another Democrat to be elected in Hawkins County in later years, during my lifetime, was state Rep. Ken Givens. There have been some others over the years, including at least one Democratic sheriff.

My great-uncle and Ratliff knew each other, and an aunt who grew up next to the Ratliffs once told me she remembered a story about Ratliff saying he was surprised going to a movie and seeing my educator great-uncle laugh so long and hard at the cartoons, which were shown before the full-length movies back then.

My uncle, J.D. Winegar, went to Surgoinsville High when my great-uncle was principal, as did my father and mother, J.D.’s older sister. My uncle recalled over Thanksgiving dinner this year that he clearly and painfully remembers “Mr. Wagner” quietly checking up on him and others in a study hall — specifically that my great-uncle “tapped” him on the back of the head for talking. He did that to boys who were talking when they weren’t supposed to be talking, my uncle said.


Former Sullivan County Director of Schools Glenn Arwood also remembered John Wagner as being a longtime winner on a local television show he said was possibly called  “Quiz Bowl” on WCYB-TV, Channel 5, or possibly WJHL-TV, Channel 11, but I couldn’t find anything online about such a 1950s or 1960s local show on the Internet. The closest thing I could find was a mention of “Klub Kwiz” on WCYB that had members of local civic and service clubs. Maybe that was the show.

“He was some kind of celebrity,” said Arwood, who began his career as a principal in Sullivan County when my great-uncle already was a principal. 

“He was there for a long time before he was dethroned,” Arwood said. “He was very intelligent. I enjoyed being around him.” He said my great-uncle was the type of person who people gathered around to hear, even on TV. And he liked my great-uncle, even though Arwood was a Republican and my great-uncle a Democrat. 

If anybody out there knows about this local quiz show of yesteryear or my great-uncle’s time there, let me know.

Rick Wagner is an education writer for the Kingsport Times News and can be reached at rwagner@timesnews.net or (423) 392-1381.