Kemper Military School

Kemper Military School & College was a private military school located in Boonville, Missouri. Founded in 1844, Kemper filed for bankruptcy and closed in 2002. Known as the "West Point of the West," the school's motto was "Nunquam Non Paratus" (Never Not Prepared).

The 46-acre campus played a key role in Boonville’s identity as a popular 19th-Century Missouri river town. Boonville has more than 400 antebellum and other architectural sites on the National Register of Historic Places, including Kemper. It's core historic buildings are included in Historic District A.[1][2][3]:5-7

Type Military, Private
Motto Nunquam Non Paratus
Established 1844
Founder Frederick T. Kemper
Closed 2002

Coordinates: 38°58′17″N 92°44′49″W / 38.97141702°N 92.74689317°W / 38.97141702; -92.74689317


Early years under Frederick T. Kemper

On June 3, 1844, Frederick T. Kemper (1816–1881) gave his first lesson at the “Boonville Boarding School”, an all-male school designed to educate the sons of the frontier West. It started as a one-room schoolhouse on the corner of Spring and Main streets, and opened with five students. By the fall of 1844, it had 50 students. Its first year being a success, Mr. Kemper had the south wing of the long-time administration building constructed in 1845, and utilized the site as both a boarding school and as classroom space. Operating the school essentially by himself, Kemper changed the school's name quite regularly. From 1844 through 1899, it was known variously as the Boonville Boarding School, Male Collegiate Institute, Kemper Family School, Kemper & Taylor Institute, and the Kemper School.

In 1856, the school closed when Professor Kemper accepted a teaching and administrative position at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. However, in 1861 he returned to Boonville and reopened the school as the “Kemper & Taylor Institute” in partnership with his wife’s brother, Edwin H. Taylor. It was one of only a few schools in the state to remain open during the Civil War, partly due to Professor Kemper's willingness to accept female students for the first time. Kemper prudently chose to keep a guarded neutrality throughout the war. However, it was widely known that his brother was Confederate General James L. Kemper, who gained fame as a primary participant in Pickett's Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg, and later became governor of Virginia. Kemper graduates fought on both sides during the war, and many participated in the local Battle of Boonville. After the war, Taylor left and the school again became all-male. Kemper continued to run the school, known again as "Kemper Family School", until his death in 1881.

Transition to a military school

Following the death of Kemper, Thomas A. Johnston, a former student, was named as the president and placed in control of the school. Under Johnston’s leadership, the school significantly changed. Although Frederick Kemper was the founder of the school, Colonel Johnston guided the school through its largest period of growth and established its national reputation. He was known as the "Builder of the School", and oversaw the transition to a military school. During the 1880s, no fewer than five other schools in Missouri added formal military training to their operation. Kemper students had been required to wear West Point style grey uniforms to promote a "feeling of equality" among the students since at least the early 1870s and possibly earlier. Kemper's 1873 school catalogue also indicated that the school had hired a "Drill Master" to oversee the military side of the operations, but Johnston wanted to go a step further. By the mid-1880s, Johnston became "carried away with the idea . . . that military training for boys and future citizens had great educational value", according to Colonel A.M. Hitch's Centennial History of Kemper. "He adopted a military training program and structure in 1885, employing as military instructor a recent graduate of Virginia Military Institute, and from that day to this, the military feature has been a prominent one in Kemper life." The school officially changed its name to Kemper Military School in 1899, and began to advertise itself as "The West Point of the West".

In the 1890s, Kemper's most-famous alumnus, Will Rogers, attended the school. Rogers went on to gain worldwide fame as an actor, humorist, political commentator and performer until his untimely death in a plane crash in 1935.

Era of growth

The period from 1900 through 1925 saw the expansion of the campus. The major growth in the physical plant began in 1904 when "B" barracks was enlarged, then "Math Hall" was built in 1906 (originally as a gymnasium), "A" Barracks (or Harvey Barracks) was erected in 1909, "D" Barracks in 1917, and the Johnston Field House and the indoor pool were constructed in 1924.

There was a corresponding growth in enrollment. During F.T. Kemper’s era, the school usually had around 50 students. By 1900, enrollment was around 100, and by 1915, it was up to 150. During World War I, enrollment soared, peaking at 502 students in 1918 – almost more than the school could handle. During the 1920s, enrollment remained strong, in the mid-300s.

As time moved on, many longstanding traditions were established. The Kemperite was first published in 1912. Kemper’s Standard of Honor was introduced in 1915. A formal ROTC program was begun in 1916, and in 1923, a junior college was added. By that time, the annual football game with rival Wentworth Military Academy and College in Lexington, Missouri had become a huge event on Thanksgiving, with both corps of cadets boarding trains and sometimes meeting on a neutral field in Sedalia or Marshall, Missouri. The Kansas City and St. Louis newspapers referred to the gridiron battle as the “Little Army-Navy Game”, and gave front page coverage to the outcome.

From the Great Depression to post World War II prosperity

In 1928, Colonel Johnston announced his retirement and selected Colonel Arthur M. Hitch, his son-in-law who had been Principal since 1907, to lead the school. Colonel Hitch ably guided the school through the severe financial crisis of the Great Depression, when enrollment plummeted, and into World War II, during which the school operated year-round with over 500 students. During Colonel Hitch's presidency, the new stadium and football fields were constructed in 1937, Academic Hall was built in 1939, and Science Hall was added in 1941. Colonel A.M. Hitch retired in 1948 and selected the son of Colonel T. A. Johnston, Colonel Harris Johnston, as the new superintendent. Johnston served for eight years, until 1956.


Kemper Military School survived the Mexican-American War, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War. But it didn't survive the 21st Century.

In 1956, the school went nonprofit, and the leadership of the school passed from the "Old Guard" and became much less stable. In the first 112 years of Kemper’s history only four men had led the school. After 1956, no Superintendent served for more than a few years. Major General Joseph P. Cleland became superintendent in 1956, the Reverend Sam West in 1959, Frederick J. Marston in 1962, Colonel James P. Kelly in 1964, Dr. Joseph B. Black in 1969, Colonel Carroll S. Meek in 1973, Wilbur Windsor in 1974, General William H. Blakefield in 1976, General Lloyd P. Rhiddlehoover in 1980, Colonel Frank Duggins in 1984, Colonel Roger Harms in 1985, Charles W. Stewart in 1993, and Edward Ridgley in 1999.

The unstable management had a particularly negative effect in the early 1970s, when many military schools struggled because of double digit inflation and anti-military backlash caused by the Vietnam War. Enrollment, which peaked at 544 students in the mid-1960s, bottomed out when just 89 cadets showed up in 1976. The school piled up debt, but was able to keep its doors open. The school employed different tactics to get enrollment up, including admitting female cadets in the 1970s, reviving junior college football in the 1980s, and instituting more liberal admissions policies. Kemper seemed to be on the upswing for brief periods during both the 1980s and the 1990s.

In 2000, Kemper shut down the junior college and its expensive athletic program. The junior college football team, in particular, was a big money loser for the school, but achieved great on-field success and actually produced a number of NFL players, including Jamal Williams, long-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle for the San Diego Chargers, and future Green Bay Packers Torrance Marshall, the MVP of the 2001 Orange Bowl for the National Champion Oklahoma Sooners. For many years, Kemper was also one of six military junior colleges that participated in the Army's two-year Early Commissioning Program (ECP), an Army ROTC program through which a qualified student could earn a commission as a second lieutenant after only two years of college. At one time, ECP was Kemper's signature program, but it had to be cut with the rest of the junior college. Ridgley tried to rebuild Kemper through the high school, but by 2002, enrollment was down to 124 students and the school could no longer pay its bills. On May 31, 2002, 158 years after Frederick T. Kemper taught his first class at the Boonville Boarding School, the flag was lowered for the final time and the Kemper Military School was closed.

School records

After Kemper closed in 2002, the City of Boonville donated the schools records to the State Historical Society of Missouri-Columbia Research Center. Access to student records is restricted due to privacy laws. Former students who are in need of a copy of their transcript should contact manuscript specialist John Konzal at the State Historical Society of Missouri-Columbia Research Center.

As of 2013 a small building was being used by State Fair Community College for people pursuing an associate degree. State Fair plans to remodel and use the large building facing Third Street, labeled Kemper Military School, as its main campus as student area. As of January 2014 remodeling was underway for the college.

Current status of school and grounds

In 2003, the contents of the school were auctioned, and the school was sold as a parcel. The Kemper facilities were purchased by the City of Boonville and named "Frederick T. Kemper Park". The park contains 46 acres (190,000 m2)s and 10 buildings on the former Kemper campus. The city has plans to retain ownership of the T.A. Johnston Field House and of 30 acres (120,000 m2)s of open space. Johnston Field House is currently home to the Boonslick Heartland YMCA and contains a cardio theater, weight room, aerobics room, 25-yard (23 m) indoor pool, indoor batting cage, office space and five basketball courts. The park also contains a regulation football field, soccer fields, a lake and three baseball fields. The city hopes to repair and put into use the five tennis courts. Additional development will be deferred until a master plan is developed after the best use of the space has been determined. The remainder of the core campus is being marketed by Boonville's Industrial Development Authority. The campus is on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 2005 a group associated with the Utah-based World Wide Association of Specialty Programs and Schools made an offer to buy the campus to open a new school for adolescents needing help with discipline, responsibility and leadership skills. Boonville City Council rejected the proposal.[4]

On April 6, 2010, a tower connected to the old administration building collapsed to the ground, damaging at least one wall of the administration building as well as the roof. The City of Boonville has attempted to salvage as many bricks and ornaments as possible but has no plans to rebuild the tower.[5]

Movies filmed at Kemper

At one time, Kemper was asked to be the location to shoot the movie National Lampoon's Animal House. Kemper turned down the offer. In 1981, the makers of Taps made an offer to shoot the movie at Kemper. The president at the time, General Blakefield, declined the request, despite the financial opportunity it presented for Kemper, stating that "it portrayed the military school student as a radical."

Since the campus has a 19th-century feel, it has been used as the setting for a number of movies. The motion pictures Combat Academy (a very low-quality takeoff on Police Academy) and Child's Play 3 were filmed at the school with cadets and instructors serving as extras. The school depicted in Child's Play 3 was reputedly modeled after Kemper itself.

In September and October 2007, Kemper's abandoned campus was used for location shots for the movie Saving Grace, which is about a little girl's trip back to Boonville in the summer of 1951, the year of the great Missouri River flood. Many downtown Boonville buildings were also used for filming, with Kemper the setting for an asylum. The movie, released in 2008, was directed by Connie Stevens and stars Penelope Ann Miller, Tatum O'Neal, Joel Gretsch, Piper Laurie and Michael Biehn.

Names of Kemper through the Years

Presidents/Superintendents of Kemper

Notable alumni








  1. Template:Source=web
  2. National Park Service (2010-07-09). "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service.
  3. Linda Harper and James C. Higbie (May 1980). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory Nomination Form: Historic Resources of Booneville, Missouri" (PDF). Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Retrieved 2016-11-01.]
  4. Template:Source=web
  5. Template:Web=source
  6. Ron Smith at
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