Answer Man: Metro-east school made name for itself in military circles

News-DemocratJuly 8, 2014 

What can you tell me about the old Western Military Academy in Alton? My uncle, Capt. William DeMent, was an instructor there. He said one of his students was Jimmy Doolittle, who led that daring air raid on Japan in April 1942. -- Fred Shrader, of Aviston

Dozens of decorated military men received early training at this distinguished metro-east school, but Doolittle is not among them.

Perhaps your uncle meant Gen. Paul Tibbets, the 1933 WMA grad who would pilot the Enola Gay on its atomic bomb-dropping run on Hiroshima. Or, perhaps, it was Tibbets' friend Lt. Cmdr. Edward "Butch" O'Hare, the 1932 alum and Navy ace for whom Chicago's busy airport was named in 1949.

Whoever it was, this private prep school for boys produced outstanding leaders for nearly a century. It took root in 1879 when noted St. Louis educator Edward Wyman opened the Wyman Institute. He said Upper Alton needed "a boarding school for the proper education of young men."

After Wyman's death in 1888, Col. Willis Brown purchased it in 1892 and changed the name to the Western Military Academy. Then just four years later, Col. A.M. Jackson and Maj. George Eaton bought the school from Brown, and the school would remain in the Jackson family for the rest of its days.

The school quickly made a name for itself in military circles. In the early 1900s, it was designated an Honor Military School by the Department of War. By 1920 it found itself among the "Distinguished Colleges and Military Schools," which earned the school the right to one appointment, without examination, to West Point. This all came despite a devastating fire in 1903 that closed the school for more than six months.

Even in the early 1900s, the school's administration realized the importance of mixing good times with the academics and training, so recruitment brochures told of the trips and entertainment students would experience. As the school gained acclaim, it would host such luminaries as Dizzy Dean, Jack Dempsey, Tommy Dorsey -- even Frank Sinatra.

In return, many of those students would later lay down their lives for their country. During World War I, for example, of the 402 graduates after 1909, 73 percent would serve in the war. Four died while others were listed as "wounded" or "lightly gassed," according to Robert Scott's history of the academy.

By World War II, the school had just 2,000 graduates, but more than 1,000 served in the war. More than 40 were killed in action while dozens earned Silver Stars, Distinguished Flying Crosses and the like.

Not all graduates would achieve fame in a uniform, though. Other notable students included artist Thomas Hart Benton; Illinois Gov. John Stelle, who would play a major role in designing the G.I. Bill of Rights; journalist Sander Vanocur; and future CBS President William S. Paley, who, in his autobiography, would call his days at Western "a turning point of my life." (Doolittle's education came in L.A. and U.C.-Berkeley.)

But by the late 1960s, rising costs and the anti-Vietnam War sentiment began to take its toll. In the 1967-68 school year, the school had a full enrollment of 325. The final yearbook -- in 1971 -- showed enrollment of just 154. In June 1971, Western held its 92nd -- and last -- commencement ceremony. It is now home to the Mississippi Valley Christian School.

For much more colorful history and old pictures, go to www.savewestern.com.

When I was a boy in the 1960s, I seem to remember going with my mom to a beauty parlor where the Belleville Labor & Industry Museum is today. I also recall a TV repair shop being there as well. Can you confirm this? -- Gary Simmons, of Fairview Heights

Now here's a mental image for you: Let's say you were zapped when you stuck your finger into one of Everette Sakosko's broken TVs and your hair stood on end. His wife, Geraldine, would have been right there to smooth it over again.

That's what could have happened for nearly a quarter century at 123 N. Church St. The site of Charles Beck's cigar business for 40 years, the building turned into the home of Ed's TV and Radio in the late '50s. Then, in the late 1960s, his wife joined him by opening the Lady Orchid Beauty Salon.

The salon closed in about 1990 and the last listing for Ed's was in the 1994 city directory, shortly before Everette's death in August 1995 at age 79. His wife died 10 years later at 82. The city bought the historic street house, built in 1837, shortly before Christmas 1995.

Today's trivia

Jack Nicholson played the title role in his very first feature film. What was it?

Answer to Tuesday's trivia: In both "Zelig" and "The Purple Rose of Cairo," Mia Farrow's on-screen sister was played by her real-life sister Stephanie.

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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