Walter E. Miller

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J.C. (Jim) Tumblin, OD, DOS
3604 Kesterwood Drive, East
Knoxville, Tennessee 37918-2557
(865) 687-1948

Fountain Citians Who Made A Difference


Walter E. Miller


(Central High School Centralite, 1971)

Walter Elsworth Miller was born in Michigan in 1867 and spent his early boyhood there. When he was twelve, the family moved to New Market, Tn., but after a short time there they moved to Missouri where Walter and his family lived on a farm. He worked his way through college at Ohio Wesleyan College in Delaware, Ohio, graduating in 1887. He began teaching in Kentucky immediately after graduation and later taught at Waverly and Petersburg, Tennessee and then at Union City.

In an interesting sketch he wrote for the 1927 Sequoyah (as the Central High School yearbooks were called until 1933) entitled, "Early History of Central High School," Prof. Miller said, "On or about the first of July, 1906, I received a telegram stating that I had been elected Principal of the County High School in Knoxville. As this was the first time that I had ever heard of it, I decided that I should investigate it and left that night for Knoxville. On my arrival there I went to the Court House where I first met Mr. Sam E. Hill who was then County Superintendent and we took the steam railroad for Fountain City to look over the place. The present street railroad had not been completed, altho it was put into operation that fall before the opening of school.

"From the first I was interested in the situation and its possibilities. True, there was nothing especially attractive at first glance. The building had not been occupied for two years, I think, and the grounds were a mass of briars and bushes. The brick building did not have a desk or equipment of any kind save some long tables and the seats in the auditorium. There was no provision for heating the building, no provision for water or any sanitary conveniences of any kind. The frame buildings were in a dilapidated condition, and a general air of neglect pervaded the entire place.

"But what attracted me was the possibilities of the place. The high school was projected to be one of a full four year’s course. Then the situation with the ample grounds, the beautiful trees, and the general air of out-of-doors that permeated it all fascinated me, probably because I had been raised a country boy. I had no idea what enrollment we should have or how the public would respond. Its distance from the city, its management under a special board, also implied that one could have opportunity to develop an individuality for the school that was not possible under other conditions.

"So I wired my resignation to Union City, went back and packed and started my household goods and came to take up the work.

" … There was an immense amount of work to do to the physical side of the plant. Weeds, brush and briars had to be cut down and the jungle made passable. The frame houses had to be put in decent condition. The main building had to have a heating plant installed and it was then the 15th of July and school was to open the first week of September. … As all of this work had to be done on credit, it is easy to imagine that nothing more was done than was absolutely necessary. … By the end of August things looked better, but there was still no water on the place except a cistern at the Principal’s house. While the building had been used for a Normal School there had been a connection with a ram at the park. We started this going after a great deal of effort, but it did not last long. (Later in the year this was replaced by a deep well on the property.)

" … Finally the great day of opening came. We had no furniture so we borrowed a couple hundred chairs and used the tables for desks. Mr. Hill stretched the credit of the Board by purchasing a Steinway grand piano for the auditorium. We had no blackboards or anything else. But we started. We enrolled, as I remember, 134 the first week. There were no classes higher than the third year."

Even with this inauspicious start there was an environment conducive to study. Principal Miller observed that, although the majority of his students were country boys and girls, they came because they wanted an education. Enrollment gradually grew to more than three times its size that first September. He estimated a couple of years later that the expanded student body from all over the county collectively traveled 2500 miles per day to come to school. The students and faculty accepted the physical deficiencies and exhibited a fine spirit of sacrifice, effort and devotion. Years later Miller concluded, "Never have I seen a stronger school spirit than at Central High School, or greater loyalty—a state of things which prevails to this day, so I am informed.

Originally, there were four departments: the Classical Course, including language with a choice of Latin and either German or Greek; the English-History Course; the Commercial Course and the Domestic Science Course. Later Agriculture and Teacher Training were added. The advanced agriculture courses included crop improvement, feeding and milking of cattle and poultry production with model chicken houses on the campus.

The first graduating class in 1908 called for the first Sequoyah yearbook, copies of which are still retained in the Heritage Room at the school. There were 22 graduates, 5 boys and 17 girls.

In 1910 W.E. Miller was chosen Knoxville City Schools Superintendent and departed Central High School to serve in that position until 1924. In 1926 he was prominently mentioned as a possible candidate for city manager of Knoxville but he chose not to enter the race. He had relocated to Memphis and become Principal of the Snowden School, a historic elementary and junior high school near Rhodes College. He held that position for the next 16 years

Nannie Lee Hicks described Mr. Miller in her History of Knox County Communities, "He was a man of very handsome appearance, much in demand as a speaker due to his eloquent manner."

After an illness of ten days, Walter Elsworth Miller passed away in Memphis on July 28, 1941. While he was in Knoxville, he was a member of several branches of Scottish Rite Masonry, a member of Rotary International, a Sunday School teacher in the Presbyterian Church and very active in Boy Scout work.

The spring following his death Prof. Miller was honored by a ceremony at Snowden School and his favorite tree, a water oak, was planted there in his memory. A newspaper article describing the occasion remarked, "He was devoted to children—and children will play beneath the shade of the water oak when it grows a little larger." Later that year an oil portrait of the dedicated educator was placed in the school.

J. Frank Davidson replaced Mr. Miller as the Principal of Central High School in 1911. His biography and more Central High School history will follow next month.

(Author’s Note: The author wishes to thank Patricia M. LaPointe, Curator of the Memphis Room at the Memphis Public Library and Jean Dobbins Payne, Martha Cruickshank, Barbara Collins and Audrey Ford for their assistance with the preparation of this article. The Heritage Committee of Fountain City Town Hall is seeking additional early Central High School incunabula for its collection. A CHS Timeline can be found elsewhere on this web site.)



The Centralite (1966)

The Centralite (1971) (Portraits of first six principals from 1906 to 1958)

N.L. Hicks, "Central High School and Her Ancestors," Centralite, Vol. 8, No. 1 (1940)

W.E. Miller,  "Early History of CHS," Central High School Sequoyah (1927)

Barbara Collins and Audrey Ford (CHS Librarians), "History of Central High School"  (C1980)

N.L. Hicks,  History of Fountain City  (2000)

J.C. Tumblin and C. Milton Hinshilwood,  Images of America, Fountain City  (Arcadia Press, 2004)

J.C. Tumblin, Central High School, Knoxville, Tennessee (1906-2006): A Century of Pride and Tradition (Coleman's Printing Co. , 2006)

David Babelay,  "1st CHS Class Marks 70th Year," Halls Shopper, February 1, 1978

Halls Shopper, July 15, 1980


Central High School Principals (1906-2006)

1906-1911 Walter E. Miller

1911-1918 J. Frank Davidson

1918-1919 E.E. Patton

1919-1947 Hassie K. Gresham

1947-1949 Leonard H. Brickey

1949-1959 Harvey G. Loy

1958-1982 Dan Y. Boring

1982-1992 Rex Stooksbury

1992-2002 Pat Mashburn

2002-Present Jon Miller