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By Sam Perry
There were twelve of them and they stood with their backs against the wall, listening intently to words coming from a slender man dressed in a green uniform. They did not appear fearful, but their faces betrayed a common sense of bewilderment and apprehension that had been theirs ever since they had arrived at this strange place in southern Kentucky. It was late November and the brilliant skies of Indian Summer had been replaced by the ominous gray clouds that heralded the approach of winter. For the twelve, this, in itself, was unsettling. They were not accustomed to it. They were westerners and hailed from a land of blue skies, open forests, and low humidity. Some were products of the urban jungles of the west’s largest cities. Others had spent their young lives tilling the fields, herding cattle, and felling ponderosa pines in the great forests of the West. Some were mere days away from having been thrown into their hometown jails. Others were looking for a new start in life by learning how to read and do basic mathematics, perhaps to even learn a trade that would provide a living wage for themselves and their families. Fate, and, for some, a stern lecture from a presiding judge, had thrown them together in this remote part of Kentucky called McCreary County. It would be up to them to make the best of it. Or, leave.
Timmy Shunk and Steve Voorhees were seventeen years old. They were natives of Salt Lake City, Utah. Barney Vigil was nineteen and hailed from a small village in northern New Mexico. Charles Moody was seventeen. He and his friend, Jerry Sherril, age eighteen, were from Portland, Oregon. Phillip Rivas, at twenty-one, was the oldest of the group. He called Toppenish, Washington home. Merril Anderson, seventeen, was from Provo, Utah. Eldon Tom was seventeen and was a member of the Shasta Indian Nation. He and David Norris, also seventeen, were from Toledo, Oregon. Lloyd Hutchinson was nineteen and from Evanston, Wyoming. Roy Potter was also nineteen and from Brooking, Oregon. Pat Romero, seventeen, called Clovis, New Mexico home.
Aldin Earl Haught was a thirty-seven year old veteran of the U.S. Navy and had served honorably in the Pacific Theater during World War II. When he had been offered an opportunity to relocate to his native Appalachian region, he had jumped at the chance to reconnect with his West Virginia kin and pick up where he had left off before moving to the southwestern United States as an employee of the U.S. Forest Service. Now, in spite of the boost in pay the transfer had brought him, he was having second thoughts. Had he made the right decision in abandoning his home in New Mexico for a new one in Pine Knot, Kentucky? Time would tell.
Aldin Earl Haught and the twelve young men who stood before him were steering a fragile vessel through uncharted waters. Both had been assured that the destination would be well worth the sacrifices they would need to make along the way. For the young men, it would mean opening the door to a new life of economic security. For Haught, it would be the satisfaction of knowing he had made the world a better place by lending a helping hand to those who needed it.
Both Haught and the young men were participants in a grand experiment that had its origins in the Great Depression, but that had been modified to meet more modern requirements and avail itself of recent advances in education and youth management techniques. Haught was the first Director of the new Pine Knot Civilian Conservation Center. The twelve young men who stood before him were its first enrollees. Upon their shoulders rested the future of the Center and, indeed, of the program for which it was built.
Although managed by the U.S. Forest Service, the Pine Knot Civilian Conservation Center was part of a new Federal initiative called Job Corps. Conceived during the Kennedy administration and brought to fruition during the Johnson administration, Job Corps sought to uplift the lives of young people who had been turned off by school and turned down by society. It did that by outsourcing its programs to Federal agencies, primarily the Forest Service and National Park Service. In return for free labor on lands managed by them, these two agencies agreed to implement vocational training and remedial education for students enrolled in their Centers. All of this would be done under the watchful eye of R. Sargent Shriver, head of the Office of Economic Opportunity
Construction of the Pine Knot center began in 1964 and a former high school principal from Nashville, Georgia named Joe B. Ferguson was brought to McCreary County for the purpose of recruiting teachers, dormitory supervisors, and vocational instructors to serve at the new facility. Ferguson was extremely successful and by the summer of 1965, the Center had become almost fully staffed. More than half of its new employees were residents of McCreary County.
Cognizant of the old adage that one cannot pass on that which it does not know, the Office of Economic Opportunity began implementing programs of instruction for the new staff of the Pine Knot center. In training sessions at the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University, and the University of California Berkeley, teachers, dorm supervisors, and vocational instructors learned new techniques of education, training, and discipline. Old concepts learned at teacher training institutes were to be discarded and replaced by innovative methods that had proven effective in raising grade levels dramatically and quickly. Harsh disciplinary measures would give way to frequent counseling sessions, psychological evaluations, and behavior that would result in mutual respect between those with authority and those without. Hands-on learning, sometimes with expensive equipment, would replace hours of bookwork and lectures.
Throughout the summer and early fall of 1965, the training of staff continued. When the first students arrived at the Center in November, they were met by a cadre of men and women who had been reprogrammed themselves and who were ready to take on a new challenge, one that had the potential to transform American society. They were ready to implement a new way of learning.
Aldin Earl Haught did not remain at the Pine Knot center for long, however. The sun-lit mesas and sage-scented air of New Mexico called out too loudly to him and he returned to resume his duties on the Santa Fe National Forest. Some of the original twelve enrollees did not adjust either and returned to their former ways of life. But, most of them did not. They remained at the Center and learned to read, balance a checkbook, drive defensively, and shop wisely. They also learned how to lay a straight row of bricks, rebuild a carburetor, frame a building, install a septic system, cater a meal, replace a circuit breaker, and read a blueprint. They had arrived at the Pine Knot center with little more than the clothes on their backs, but with an overpowering desire to look beyond the boundaries set for them by an indifferent society. When they eventually left, some with high school equivalency diplomas, they entered a world filled with new economic potential, made possible by the foresight of the Federal government and the generosity of the citizens of McCreary County.