J.W. McKinney, principal at South Central, stands beside his photo and one of his dad, who also served as principal at the Washington County school in the ‘70s. This school and its community are family, McKinney says.

By MARINA WATERS

Staff Writer

[email protected]

Most birthday parties include cake, activities and family and friends. And South Central Elementary School’s 80th birthday party will be no different.

The school has scheduled a birthday celebration for Thursday, Oct. 3, from 5 to 9 p.m. at the school and will include nostalgic South Central Fall Festival games, a dunk tank, inflatables, birthday cake and barbecue with fixings. A bluegrass band, which is sponsored by Above and Beyond Quality Structures, will also be performing.

South Central School has been a staple in the community for 80 years.

“You gotta have a party when a big birthday like that comes up,” said J.W. McKinney, the head principal at South Central Elementary School. “I mean, it’s important, just like the 50th birthday. I remember the 50th birthday as a kid and it was a big deal. Eighty is a big deal and I think 100 is a big deal. It’s important just to have those milestones for a school and a community.”

The school was built in 1939 when three small community schools — Mt. Carmel, Enon, Liberty and Philadelphia — consolidated into South Central Elementary School. Since then, a second portion was finished in 1998 and, most recently, the school was re-roofed over the summer, which also inspired the newly painted blue and white walls throughout the halls.

But come time for the celebration, the focus won’t be on the building — it’ll be on the people who make up the South Central community.

“The community is the school, the school is the community,” McKinney said. “We play baseball and softball on the ruritan’s fields. We partner with the ruritan and they have their craft fair in our building, things like that. We all kind of have to work together. It’s 30 minutes to Johnson City; it’s 25 minutes to Greeneville. We’re kind of out here on our own a little bit. So without that community atmosphere, we don’t get the things done we need to get done for any of us.”

It’s about history, but it’s also about family ties.

When asked why it’s important to look back on South Central’s history, McKinney said he felt the celebration and the rich tradition is mostly about family for the South Central Wildcats.

“For me, it’s less about history and more about family,” McKinney said. “It’s a generational family school. You’re probably looking at fifth-generation students at this point.”

South Central has preserved its history throughout the years with plaques and this old gym floor cut out that proudly keeps watch over the Wildcat gym.

To honor those family connections, the event will also include a memory walk with hundreds of photos and yearbooks throughout the years for South Central Wildcats, both former and current, to browse through for familiar faces.

“They can go back and see their grandparents and their great-grandparents were part of the same school they’re at,” McKinney said. “One of our teachers was homecoming queen here once upon a time. And we were able to go back and find her aunt that was the homecoming queen before her.”

Having a family connection to South Central is something the head principal understands completely. But instead of looking through boxes of photos and yearbooks so old some of the photo captions were handwritten, McKinney only needs to look up to remember his deep South Central roots.

McKinney’s father, also named John Wesley McKinney, was the head principal of the school in the ‘70s. So when McKinney came to South Central as the principal last year, after serving as principal at Grandview, Ridgeview, and Boones Creek, he felt he had returned home.

“It’s already on the wall,” McKinney said, looking at the photo hanging in the doorway of his office. “One of the folks here took a picture of me from last year when I was added to the rural principal academy and found a picture of dad in the yearbook and put it in the same frame. It was very special.”

It’s those family ties that not only bridge generation gaps, but also brings the entire community together. And South Central, McKinney said, is a community that offers a closeness that can be hard to obtain in larger schools.

“When I was at Ridgeview and we were pushing 850 (students), it was hard to know every kid and really get to know them,” McKinney said. “I might know their names, but to really have that connection is super hard. I think we get to a point where schools are too big for the principal to be able to take a personal approach and really know the kid and the family. If I need to do a home visit or talk to somebody, I can do that here.”

McKinney said he’s hoping that small but mighty community joins the school in celebrating the anniversary milestone — and that South Central Wildcats of all generations feel that same connection McKinney feels each time he looks at that picture in his office.

“South Central is a family school,” he said. “The tradition here is imbedded in the parents because they were here. You’re kind of honoring your family by going back and looking at the school’s history.”