Old Hickory Academy: 1970-1987

Casual Sunday conversations turned to action when, in the late 1960s, a small group of parents came together with a single goal – to provide quality education for their children in a private setting. Many parents were aware of the fine independent, non-parochial school systems throughout the state, though none existed in the Jackson area. Realizing opportunity, parents joined in 1968 to establish an independent school in Jackson that included primary education through a high school curriculum. Old Hickory Academy and the Fighting Generals emerged.

OHA leaders discuss plans for the new
campus on its Hollywood Drive location.
The founding parents formed a board of trustees and held countless meetings for prospective parents to outline the limitations of the current educational system and the benefits OHA could afford their children. One family at a time joined the effort, and Old Hickory Academy began its challenging journey to the first day of school in the fall of 1970.

Hiring teachers. Attracting students. Securing financing. Building a facility. Buying desks, books, and supplies. “Challenging” is understating the obstacles a new private institution must overcome in order to open its doors for the first day of classes. With every step, there were always a few who doubted the school could make it. Devoted parents, though, lead the way in making sure that Old Hickory Academy would not only make it, but prevail as a leading academic institution in West Tennessee.

The founders had ideas of grandeur: an excellent academic institution with competitive facilities, teachers, staff, athletics, and fine arts. None would have been possible, though, without the decision of 40 parents to personally sign their names to the bank note, which allowed land to be purchased and construction to begin. At this point, the school was a privately held corporation in which parents purchased stock worth $500, besides making yearly tuition payments.

OHA leaders break ground on the new campus.
With financing in place, parents devoted their attention to the direction of the school. Many ideas and suggestions converged, but through the early leadership a central theme emerged: quality education. The school at this point could have gone in many directions.

A group of parents concerned solely in the education of their children came to the forefront of this discussion and influenced the history of Old Hickory Academy and subsequently University School of Jackson to this day. The emphasis these parents placed on quality education made OHA into one of the foremost academic institutions in West Tennessee.

Property was purchased south of the interstate on Hollywood Drive, and construction began in 1969. Professionalism and appearances were relied on to establish Old Hickory Academy as a legitimate educational institution. An old house on the property was refurbished and converted into the school’s headquarters until the new building was constructed and functional.

Once again, parents came together. They provided hours of labor and needed supplies to keep the growing price of the new school as low as possible. A metal building was chosen as an efficient and cost-effective means of building until a better, more permanent, and substantial structure could be afforded in the future. Donations of supplies and labor were gladly accepted as parents of all backgrounds built risers, painted bathroom walls, hauled furniture, and worked to finish the new school building. During the first days of classes, fathers could be seen dangling from ladders to complete the final touches on the lighting and electrical work in classrooms.

Students decorate the gyms's front entrance.
The chemistry of the student body was eclectic as OHA attracted students throughout Madison County and its surrounding areas. One student, Lynn Lawrence East, transferred to OHA for her senior year of high school. “I wanted to go to Old Hickory,” she explains. “Everything was very new, very different, but it was not like I was moving to Siberia. I was excited. I saw this as a challenging opportunity. Everyone took this on as an opportunity. There was no one, core group of friends. We were all in this new venture together.”

The faculty and staff were comprised mostly of local talent. Many were young and recent graduates of Union University. A nucleus of respected public school teachers was recruited, which brought the necessary experience and credibility to the education offered within the first years of OHA. The board of trustees found a strong leader in Don Hopper, who was able to lead the relatively young staff of educators. Teachers such as “Miss” Nora Smith, who is described as a class-act elementary school educator, Anne Woodall, who is known for her influence in the direction and quality of the education within OHA, and many, many others had an incalculable effect on the education provided within Old Hickory Academy.

Several grade levels were combined in the first few years to maximize the school’s staff. Third and fourth graders, for example, would be taught in the same classrooms with teachers dividing their classes for instruction.

During that first year, there were many “firsts” for OHA and its Generals. The building was brand new and housed high-tech laboratories for the sciences. Every athletic team had new uniforms. The first Miss OHA Pageant was as professional as any in the state. If Old Hickory was to have an event, it would put on a show. Attention to detail was very important as the school attempted to secure itself as a first-class institution.

The OHA chorus performs in the school gym.

The school was a year away from joining the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA), but competed in any sport it could field a team. The first football game was played in Marvell, Arkansas, on a red-clay field. It was a daytime game because there were no field lights. Home games were played on L.L. Fonville Field at Lambuth University – Old Hickory didn’t have a field of its own yet. With only two seniors on the team, the young Generals did not fare all that well against their more experienced competition. Baseball had its first of many winning seasons that year. Beverly Williams, considered as an “icon of music and fine arts” in West Tennessee, directed the first drill team for girls. That first year, cheerleaders were doing pyramids – something many schools had not done yet. The first graduation of OHA’s seniors was held at Poplar Heights Baptist Church across the street from campus.

In the first few years, Old Hickory Academy defined itself as a leading educational institution with competitive athletics and fine arts. What the school did not have in either physical structure or capital was provided by parents, students, and staff.

At first, for example, OHA did not have a cafeteria, so mothers volunteered and sold Stewart’s pre-packaged sandwiches, which were considered quite fancy at the time. On Fridays, the mothers would cook hot lunches in their homes and bring them to an older building on the property to serve students. The sandwiches, drinks, and other snacks sold raised money for the daily operations of the school.

Academically, Old Hickory Academy sought the most comprehensive course program it could. A common philosophy of the school’s academics was that if OHA could provide a rigorous honors program, then every other course would follow and be strengthened as well. Within a few years’ time, OHA offered Advanced Placement courses and a tough honors program. Over the years, OHA gradually increased the scope of its Advanced Placement curriculum. With this emphasis on college preparatory coursework, Old Hickory Academy was able to claim a one hundred percent college attendance rate from its graduating seniors for years. Today, University School of Jackson continues this tradition as it prides itself in a one hundred percent acceptance rate of each graduating class into colleges across the country.

Before the beginning of the second school year, the board of trustees approved the purchase of property south and east of its existing campus. OHA saved the land destined to be a subdivision and secured what was needed for its athletic fields. A stadium was completed and enthusiasm mounted as the Generals joined TSSAA. Leaders of the school recruited John Hooper – a renowned football coach from Brownsville High School – as head football coach. The school’s increased competitiveness on the athletic field directly impacted the classroom. With OHA’s athletics, student-athletes from around the area saw the school as a viable option for their education.

Sally Ford, a longtime English
teacher, is now remembered
through the school announcement's:
"Ms. Sally's Quote of the Day."

In Old Hickory Academy’s third year, the institution changed from a corporation with privately held stock to a non-profit organization. The parents who held stock agreed to donate their funds to the now non-profit Old Hickory Academy – an altruistic show of confidence in their previous investment.

During the fall of that year, OHA held its first Holiday Merchandise Mart, chaired by Mona Hicks. Reluctant at first to take on the project, Hicks ensured the event’s success through hours of planning and assistance from every mother in the school. Seventy-five merchant booths were rented in the basement of the Civic Center, which brought in enough revenue to cover the advertising costs for the event. Revenue the first year was largely produced through the mothers’ efforts in their bake shop and arts and crafts booth. An instant hit was Mary Francis Campbell’s Christmas mice – hand-sewn creatures – that led people to line up for them year after year. After the first year’s success and net profit of $1,700, the Old Hickory Academy Holiday Merchandise Mart became a staple of pre-Christmas shopping in the Jackson area.

In the early years of Old Hickory, everyone knew everyone else and contributed to the success of the school in some way. The years that followed built on that first year’s successes.

Emily Shipper worked at OHA
and USJ from 1970 to 2004.

Within those first few years, The Wizard of Oz was performed as the first theatrical production. Elementary students through high school seniors participated. For years to come, parents manufactured sets, sewed costumes, and donated props. In 1982, Margaret Harrison raised the level of OHA performances with her first production of Li’l Abner. Her legacy remains as University School continues to perform a major musical in the spring every year.

While the school could put on a show, the budget remained tight as OHA’s leadership continued to fund its academics, fine arts, and athletics, while also paying off its debts. Year by year, fewer people doubted the success of Old Hickory Academy. Countless obstacles had been overcome, and OHA settled into a familiar routine with quality education, competitive athletics, and stunning fine arts programs.

By the mid 1980s, OHA leadership evaluated the school and determined that building expansions were necessary to handle the needs of its growing enrollment. Old Hickory Academy had plans to develop a program for three- and four-year-olds as well. With a strong academic program in place for kindergarten through twelfth grade, OHA leadership began the necessary steps during the 1986-1987 school year to secure financing for the project.