The bugle and the marching up the hill were part of this old river town.
Starting in 1882, Lexington residents who lived close to Wentworth Military Academy heard both. But that all ends soon when the flag comes down a final time.
And people will wonder if it had to be that way.
On April 7, a letter went out to cadets, parents, employees and alumni informing them that Wentworth would close after the 2017 graduation. “Declining revenue,” the letter said.
Nobody outside Wentworth’s top circle saw it coming. Sure, Wentworth, like all military schools, was subject to cultural winds. But it had faced those gusts before and always managed to keep going.
On its stately, red-brick campus in Lexington, about 40 miles east of Kansas City, Wentworth is the oldest military school west of the Mississippi River. It was started 137 years ago during the period after the Civil War, and its graduates have gone off to fight the wars since. Enrollment jumped during the world wars, plummeted after Vietnam and tried to hold its ground in the post- 9/11 world.
Enrollment for the high school and junior college increased for a while. Funding, too. Wentworth was one of five military colleges in the country to participate in the Army’s early commissioning program. The curriculum had been modernized with cybersecurity and homeland security programs.
In 2015, though, the Higher Learning Commission placed Wentworth on probation for concerns relating to the college’s finances. Enrollment, too, trended down. According to an IRS filing, Wentworth posted a $1 million loss for the year ending May 31, 2016.
This year, Wentworth had 220 cadets boarding at the school and 300 commuter students.
“I thought things had stabilized,” said former president William Sellers, who left in 2013. “I had no idea this was coming.”
He took the closing as a personal loss. He was the fifth member of his family to head the school. His middle name is Wentworth. His great-grandfather ran the place 58 years before his grandfather and great uncle, both highly decorated during World War I, took over. His father also served as president.
So after more than a century of family leadership, how did Sellers, one of many Sellers children spread over four generations to grow up in the president’s home, learn that Wentworth would close?
“Facebook,” he said.
Lexington Mayor Jerry Brown, who served as superintendent of Wentworth in the 1990s, said the city has been frustrated by the abrupt halt and a lack of explanation as to what happened.
But for him now, the bigger concern is what will happen to the students. And what about the grounds? What will become of the school’s cannons, statues and the tall stone monument to 14 graduates who died during World War I?
Lexington values this legacy. Brown thinks a town that for nearly a century and a half hosted cadets from all over the country and welcomed them into their homes for holiday meals deserves a better answer than a three-paragraph letter.
“But getting that has been difficult,” Brown said in an interview in his office. “We don’t know what went wrong or what’s going to happen to the property, and they’re (Wentworth officials) not talking.”
Brown hurriedly organized a group to explore possibilities. Ideally, that would be a boarding school with a military component. Talks are underway with Metropolitan Community College-Blue River to establish an immediate role — and perhaps a permanent one. Brown also has spoken to the Army and Air Force.
“We want to continue the early commission program,” Brown said. “That would almost mirror what Wentworth is today.”
A Wentworth officer who identified himself as a colonel in charge of cadets on Tuesday asked a reporter and photographer for The Star to leave the campus. He referred questions to the Kansas City law firm Husch Blackwell.
At the time of the April 7 announcement that Wentworth would close, Husch Blackwell attorney Allan Hallquist blamed declining revenue and rising expenses. School officials, Hallquist said, opted to close with dignity rather than operate at a deficit. He said an anonymous alumnus had been covering the school’s losses.
But Brown and others wonder why the rest of the alumni weren’t told of the dire straits. Why wasn’t a last-ditch fundraising campaign mounted? Why wasn’t the city told — maybe something could have been done to save the place that was so loved by a community.
“People were shocked and heartbroken,” said resident Jim Garner.
He grew up near Wentworth and heard the bugle. His father worked there, his brother went there and his sister was crowned queen of the military ball.
“Now a bank is just going to get the keys,” Garner said.
Brown’s biggest fear?
“Broken glass,” he said. “The place just rotting away.”
Robert Altman and Marlin Perkins
Wentworth will be the second military school in Missouri to close this century. Kemper Military School in Boonville shut down in 2002. Now, only the Missouri Military Academy in Mexico, Mo., remains.
But Ray Rottman, executive director of the Association of Military Colleges & Schools of the United States, said it would be wrong to think that military schools are a dying breed.
The number has ebbed and flowed over the years but is about the same now as 10 years ago, Rottman said. Still, private schools of all kinds face constant challenges, so he is not surprised to hear of one closing.
“But I was surprised at Wentworth,” Rottman said from his office in Virginia.
Wentworth President Mike Lierman called Rottman before the April 7 announcement.
“It was one of five in the country that had the ROTC’s early commissioning program so grads could enter the Army as second lieutenants,” Rottman said. “And it’s been around for so long.
“I know this has to be so painful to Lexington. It’s a big part of that town.”
In addition to a few generals, a former member of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and two Medal of Honor recipients, Wentworth alumni include former U.S. Congressman Ike Skelton, Wal-Mart co-founder Bud Walton, film director Robert Altman and TV zoologist Marlin Perkins.
By 1880, the railroad had hurt commerce on the Missouri River, but Lexington had already become known as the “Athens of the West” because of three colleges for women.
Stephen Wentworth actually started his “male academy” because he figured young men needed a fair shake. Two years later, in 1882, he converted the school to a military academy. For the next 58 years, Wentworth was headed by Sanford Sellers, who oversaw the building of the campus, built the school’s national reputation and added the junior college in 1923.
In the mid-1920s, he turned leadership over to two of his sons, Sanford Sellers Jr. and James M. Sellers, both of whom graduated from Wentworth and received medals for fighting in World War I.
James Sellers, who had been shot through the groin during fighting in France, added an aviator training program during World War II. His son, James Sellers Jr., an Army officer, became the third generation to serve as superintendent and led the school through the hard times post-Vietnam.
William Sellers was the last of the family to hold the position. After graduating from Wentworth, he had gone to Harvard University, where he played football and earned a degree in history. He arrived as superintendent in 2008 during what would become known as the Great Recession. Enrollment was down, and times were hard.
“I knew there was talk of closing, and I told the board that if it closed, I wanted to be sitting in that chair,” said Sellers, who plans to attend the final graduation. “I’m very proud of my family’s role in Wentworth. And Lexington is our hometown and a very special place.”
In a town where the “Battle of the Hemp Bales” was fought during the Civil War and where a cannon ball remains lodged in the county courthouse, Mayor Brown wants to talk about the future.
He organized the Lexington Transition Commission, more loosely called the “gang of six,” to find a new use for the Wentworth campus. They’re on a tight schedule.
“We’re trying to swing a deal to save summer school and (have) a longer-range plan before fall,” Brown said.
The initial push is for Metropolitan Community College-Blue River, in Independence, to establish a permanent presence on the campus. Lafayette County is in the college district. A facility in Lexington would be handy for nearby towns of Higginsville, Concordia, Orrick and Santa Fe.
Blue River President Michael Banks on Thursday confirmed talks were underway to assist current Wentworth students. As for a permanent role, Banks did not reject the idea, saying only that it had been discussed.
Garner, who grew up in Lexington and is one of the “gang of six,” hopes for a military presence to carry on the town’s tradition. He fondly remembers reveille in the morning and taps at night, young cadets marching up the hill to cadence.
“My honey heard me comin’ on my left right on left. I saw Jody runnin’ on his left right on left. I chased after Jody and I ran him down. Poor ol’ boy doesn’t feel good now...”
For now, Lexington is a town coming to terms that all that is ending.
And in a town known for history, Wentworth will take its place on the pages.
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182