History of St. John’s
Through the foresight and efforts of an Episcopal Bishop, the Right Reverend Elisha Smith Thomas, and a group of prominent Salina businessmen, St. John’s Military School for boys opened in 1887. These men recognized the need for a disciplined educational and living environment for young boys and established a military school to be operated under church auspices. In the more than 131 years since, St. John’s Military School for boys has helped raise young men into outstanding leaders.
As a school founded by Episcopal Bishop Elisha Smith Thomas, religious training and education has been an essential piece of the St. John’s experience. The founders believed that a solid religious foundation is necessary in order to build the moral and ethical character that is required of any sound educational endeavor.
While much of the emphasis on a day to day basis at St. John’s revolves around Corps and academic life, the Chapel remains sacred and special at St. John’s Military School. It has opened its doors to thousands of Cadets who have become spiritual leaders in the 60 plus years it has been at St. John’s Military School. Prior to that time the Chapel stood at Camp Phillips, which was southwest of Salina, and was erected at the beginning of World War II. The camp served as a training site for soldiers going off to war and the Chapel served as a place of solace for those same soldiers.
Virgil “Lefty” Loy, a long time teacher and coach at St. John’s Military School, wrote about the acquisition of the Chapel in his work, “St. John’s Military School…A History”. He writes,
“When World War II ended in the fall of 1945, Camp Phillips, an Army training base southwest of Salina, was deactivated. Many of the buildings at the camp were sold by the government. These conditions gave Col. Clem an opportunity to further expand the physical plant of the School.
At a meeting of the Board of Trustees on November 9,1945, the following resolution was moved, seconded and passed that, ‘The Board of Trustees approved filing a bid of $1,500 for one of the Chapels at Camp Phillips, the selection of the Chapel being left to Colonel Clem, who succeeded in purchasing the building for $2,000. The building was moved to the school campus, remodeled and furnished. It was dedicated and consecrated by Bishop Nichols in 1947.”
Since those days, the Chapel has been renovated and received stained glass in the late 1970s. In the early 1990s, a new organ was given to St. John’s by an anonymous donor from Salina. Also, to enhance the worship of God in the Chapel, 12 Holy Icons, painted by Mrs. Erin Kimmett, were added. Most recently, the Chapel has been improved by new siding and carpeting provided by Mrs. Jessie Given.
Handle of Memories
“Wrapping my hand around the handle for the first time since I graduated brought back much more than I had anticipated. The feel of the handle was strangely familiar yet haunting after some 30-odd years. The place I lived, like it or not, was gone, nothing left but an old front door handle that I must have wrapped my hand around over a thousand times as a Cadet.”
Lou Barnett, Old Boy Class of 1973, is referring to the door handle that was once the passageway to old Vail Hall, the first building established on the St. John’s Military School campus. Built in 1887, the hallowed building was home to Cadets, administration, teachers, staff offices, classrooms, and the Chapel. Named after Right Reverend Thomas Hubbard Vail, the proud gothic four-story structure stood tall on the Kansas prairie until November 6, 1978. A fire destroyed the three-foot thick walls and reduced the structure, and the hearts, of many in the St. John’s family, to smoldering rubble.
Rev. Bill Salmon, Old Boy class of 1953, reminisces: “Every year I cry during the passing of the Handle ceremony. The circle of Old Boys is an emotional reminder of what I left behind as I first grasped the handle on the door to Vail Hall in 1951. Walking through this portal was an act of leaving behind the past and an introduction to my future. This yearly activity is a reminder of this transition. Like a butterfly, my two years as a Cadet gave me a safe environment to gain the intellectual, physical, and spiritual tools to face the transition into my young adult values. My tears remind me of a birth that was necessary to put childish things behind me.”
The History Book of St. John’s explains how the tradition was born on Sunday morning, May 24, 1979, during St. John’s Military School Commencement. As graduating seniors and St. John’s alumni gathered, the front door handle from old Vail Hall was passed around the circle by Jack K. Vanier, SJMS Old Boy, 1940 – 1944. School President COL. Keith Duckers explained that Vanier searched through the building after its destruction by fire to salvage memorabilia from the aged hall. Among the items he recovered was the front door handle, which had been touched by virtually every Cadet since St. John’s has been in existence.
Fred Pate, Old Boy class of 1942, reflects, “I often look at the picture I have of Old Vail Hall hanging in my office and gaze upon those long stair steps leading up to that massive front door with the beautiful brass door handle. This immediately brings back my four years of residing in that lovely old sandstone building, yes a little worn, tired, creaky, and aged but still proud ‘VAIL HALL.’ Oh yes, I had some bad times but also so many good times. I have often said if I die tomorrow and could come back, I would still want to live my same life over again, especially my young and happy days at St. John’s Military School, residing in the building called Vail Hall with the brass door handle.”
You see, holding onto the handle, brings back the friendships of brothers past and present. It is the pride that overwhelms many who have stepped onto the campus with loving memories, instilled deep in their hearts. Henry Ober, the first valedictorian of St. John’s, offered words of wisdom in his Commencement address, ones that still ring true today: “I have simply to hope that our future lives, be they long or short, may be in honor to our parents, to our friends, to our state, and especially to our alma mater, from whose halls we go forth today, the class of 1890, the first graduates of St. John’s.”
The tradition of passing the handle continued with every graduating senior gathering with alumni, touching the handle of memories. What was once a handle to a door on a wonderful old building became a rite of passage for generations of young men.