By TIM UNRUH
Normal dress for Mike Wagner is a plaid shirt, blue jeans and work boots, but this coming weekend is different.
Accompanying his long black & gray beard — trimmed and groomed — the diesel mechanic and businessman from Hays, has acquired more of an Ivy League wardrobe for the grand opening of St. John’s Military School Historical Museum.
For much of the three days packed with events — many of them aiming to raise money for the museum — the 1991 SJMS graduate will don suits and neckties to greet his beloved cadet-mates, former faculty and staff, and supporters, when they visit the old campus in north Salina.
They will pay homage to the school that closed in May 2019, also reminisce and celebrate their times and blessings gained from the 131-year-old institution.
“St. John’s gave me a way to use my own skills to better myself, when I didn’t even know I had them,” Wagner said.
Founded in 1887, the tradition-rich school for boys that opened 29 years after Salina’s founding, and 26 years after Kansas statehood, closed in May 2019 after the graduation of the 131st Corps.
Reasons cited were low enrollment, higher costs, and negative publicity.
The campus at 110 W. Otis Avenue in north Salina, was transferred to St. Francis Ministries, but use of Linger Hall, the rectangular building that borders N. Ninth Street and housed classrooms for decades, was dedicated to be used as the museum.
It is home to more than a century of memories. Uniforms, sabres, photographs and hundreds of other artifacts, decorate the attractive hall.
Outside are bronze busts of SJMS leaders and a portion of the Moving Vietnam Memorial Wall bearing the name of U.S. Air Force Capt. Dennis Pugh, of Saline County, who died in Laos March 19, 1970.
The Old Boys Association that dissolved in 2019, transitioned its leadership to the museum board. Linger Hall was remodeled with operating proceeds from the school, said Larry Britegam, a former member of the SJMS board of trustees, and a former board chairman.
He and three other board members, Dale Browning, Rob Exline, and Tom Pestinger, were directed to transition remaining assets from the school to the museum. The trustees also created an endowment with the Greater Salina Community Foundation, Britegam said, some of which will be used to maintain the museum going forward. He added that earnings from that fund will also provide two $5,000 scholarships a year, in memory of Tom Orton.
A member of the school’s Class of 1949, Orton, of Denver, created an endowment for the museum and the scholarship, Wagner said.
Roughly 100 guests have toured the museum, mostly from a Salina Area Chamber of Commerce First Look April 22, and members of the Salina Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 809, who took a look weeks earlier.
So far, said Kent Tretheway, the volunteer director and curator, first impressions have been stellar. A U.S. Air Force veteran, he’s a member of the SJMS Class of 1971.
“They’ve been pretty well amazed at what we’ve been able to accomplish in a short time, with the number of artifacts and other memorabilia we’ve been able to accumulate and put on display,” he said.
The museum celebrates the entire history of the school, Britegam said.
This week marks the first reunion since the school closed.
“Anybody who had any attachment to the school felt the hurt. It was so very important to so many people for 131 years,” said Britegam, who attended SJMS from September 1967 through May 1969.
“There’s no way one can articulate the depth of sadness of having to close, from the young men who attended the school for 131 years,” said Dale Browning, of Denver, a member of the SJMS class of 1955.
He served as a counselor, teacher, coach, and “maintenance guy,” who was interim president from 2007 to 2009 and headmaster in 2009, and served on the board of trustees since 1976.
Browning assisted in the acquisition of Linger Hall for the museum, and will take his initial tour this week.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “I couldn’t be prouder of the job they’ve done. I’m deeply grateful to Kent Tretheway for insuring the museum’s completion. He’s a devoted, committed person.”
Now the legacy of St. John’s Military School will be preserved for future generations, Browning said.
“The museum helps to continue the legacy of St. John’s and it’s importance to the history of Salina,” he said.
Wagner has other reasons for revelry Thursday through Sunday.
“Friday is the grand opening, my 48th birthday and our 30th class reunion,” he said. “I want this to bring the St. John’s community together along with the Salina community to perpetuate the history of SJMS.”
The president of the museum board of directors, Wagner and three other members of his class, will greet fellow duffers with a touch of outlandish dress that includes school colors, beginning at 9 a.m. Thursday for the Muleskinner four-person scramble golf tournament at Vandy’s Golf Course, (formerly Great Life), 1800 S. Marymount Road.
“We will unveil a new look for Salina golf,” he said. “It oughta be fun. I’ve never golfed a day in my life.”
His foursome includes Darren Johnson, Grapevine, Texas; Trevor Sullivan, Kansas City; and Aric Inglett, Winfield.
A slew of events on the campus that is now home to St. Francis Ministries, begin at 8 a.m. Friday morning with registration and a walk-through at the museum for SJMS alums and former faculty and staff.
The grand opening is 1 to 3 p.m. and the public is invited. Admission information and an itinerary are at sjmsmuseum.org.
A museum barbecue and social that includes reunions of the SJMS classes of 1961, 1971, 1981, 1991, 2001, and 2011, begins at 6:15 p.m. at the Quality Inn, 2110 W. Crawford Street.
A memorial service for two St. John’s Military School icons — Liz Duckers and Donna Vanier —is 9 a.m. Saturday in Armstrong Chapel on the campus. The public is invited.
Anticipating that the chapel will fill, organizers also seek to have the service live-streamed at the museum and possibly other locations, Tretheway said. Stay tuned to sjmsmuseum.org for updates on those endeavors.
A continental breakfast will follow at 9 a.m. in the museum.
Duckers was the wife of Keith Duckers, who was president/ superintendent of St. John’s from 1968 to 1993, also a former Salina mayor and city commissioner. Liz Duckers, a former reporter and columnist at the Salina Journal, was known for her gardens and landscaping on the SJMS grounds. She also edited and proofread “The Skirmisher” school newspaper, well after her retirement. The school made her an honorary colonel.
“Liz was a big part of the school for most of her adult working life,” Britegam said. “She was a teacher and a mother image. She and Keith committed their lives to helping kids. What better life is there?
“Keith was personally one of my early mentors. I have so much respect for what he did to help kids become better productive citizens.”
Donna and Jack Vanier were longtime SJMS benefactors. Examples are the Vanier Academic Center and Jack Vanier Hall on campus.
“They supported us with other projects and annual scholarships for years,” Britegam said. “Donna volunteered at the school for several years, was a board member, and did a lot of fund raising. The chapel was one of her pride and joys. She used to say ‘You can mess with any building, but do not mess with my chapel.’ ”
The memorial service is among the most important events, Browning said.
“(Duckers and Vanier) did so much for the school and also for Salina,” he said. “The service will renew our memories of two very fine ladies.”
The special weekend concludes with the Muleskinner Dinner beginning 6 p.m. Saturday at the Tony’s Pizza Events Center.
An official museum unveiling is a major reason to gather, Wagner said, and events are planned to help raise money for the completion of phase two of the museum project.
That includes building a brick walkway that takes visitors by the Muleskinner statue, Guernsey/Loy Memorial, Freedom tree, SJMS Veterans Memorials and flag pole. The walk will be lined with flag memorial markers and named pavers.
Museum leaders have a goal of raising enough money to complete phase two by the end of this year.
Moving the chapel and adding closer parking to the museum have also been mentioned as future projects, Wagner said.
“I have tremendous pride in this museum. That’s how I feel,” he said. “I’m excited.”
. . .
To visit St. John’s Military School Historical Museum after this weekend, call Kent Tretheway, director/curator, at (316) 371-9558. Donations are welcome.
To learn more about the grand opening and other events Thursday through Saturday, email [email protected], or visit sjmsmuseum.org to learn more, donate, buy event tickets online, or arrange other methods.