History of Seminole High School
Seminole High School – A Tradition of Excellence
By Bill Wantland & Fred Gipson
Chapter 1 – The Beginning
Over the years many people have commented on the impact people from Seminole have had in virtually every area of life, both within Oklahoma and beyond. This situation did not come about by luck or happenstance, but can be attributed to the development of a highly unusual school system that uniquely prepared students for leadership roles in life.
It all began on May 20, 1931 , less than five years after the start of the great Seminole Oil Boom. On that date, Dr. John G. Mitchell was elected Superintendent of the Seminole public school system. This was possible only because of the operation of Oklahoma politics. In 1930, W. H. “Alfalfa Bill” Murray, former Attorney General of the Chickasaw Nation and principal author of the Oklahoma Constitution, decided to run for Governor of Oklahoma. He put pressure on leaders in education and business to back him. Dr. Mitchell was President of Central State College in Edmond, and C. W. Wantland was Dean of Men and Head Football Coach at the College. Wantland told Bill Murray that he did not think it appropriate for those in public college administration to take any active role in partisan politics. Dr. Mitchell agreed, and neither man supported Murray.
When Bill Murray was elected in November of 1930, he began an effort to remove both Dr. Mitchell and Dean Wantland. The Governor described Dr. Mitchell as “a cog in the educational machine”, which was “most dangerous to the public school system”. He was successful in getting both men fired, which was a blow to Central State, but would be a great benefit to Seminole. C. W. Wantland never returned to education after his firing, but went into the oil business, founding the Wantland Oil Reclaiming Company, with its major plant located in Seminole. That oil company continued its operations in Seminole until the early 1980’s, when large tank farms were abandoned, ending the necessity for reclaiming stored oil.
Dr. Mitchell, however, had been involved in education all his adult life, having come to Oklahoma from Tennessee to be a part of the Creek Nation Indian School system headquartered at Eufaula. At the time of his firing, he was the highest paid President of any college or university in the State. He was paid $5,000.00 a year as President, while the President of the University of Oklahoma was making only $3,800.00, as the second highest paid President.
Dr. Mitchell served 12 years as President of Central State, and over the years, was credited with numerous improvements at the College, including the recruitment oftop notch faculty, and new facilities for the campus. Never shy about his accomplishments, Dr. Mitchell showered the press with news releases documenting those accomplishments.
The firing of a successful President and one of Oklahoma’s top football coaches did not sit well with either the staff of Central State College or the citizens of Edmond. While Coach Wantland went into the oil business, Dr. Mitchell determined to find a way to remain in the education field. From highest paid educator to an unemployed one was quite a shock. How was he to pay for his fine cigars (a habit he shared with Coach Wantland) and big black Packard automobile?
The firings were in all the State newspapers and the School Board and civic leaders of Seminole were aware of the Governor’s action. At that time, Seminole was without a Superintendent of schools, and the School Board was in the process of finding a top educator to fill the position. There are different versions of what happened next, but the favorite version is the one told by Robert Mitchell, great nephew of Dr. Mitchell, and son of Mitchell’s nephew, H. B. Mitchell.
Robert recalls his father telling him about the hiring of Dr. Mitchell by the Seminole School Board. George K. Killingsworth, President of the Board, called Dr. Mitchell, and inquired of him as any interest he might have in taking the job of Superintendent in Seminole. Without saying “yes” or “no”, Dr. Mitchell agreed to come to Seminole and meet with the Board of Education and certain civic leaders.
During the meeting, Dr. Mitchell informed the Board that he could not consider coming to Seminole unless he was paid at least the same salary as he had been earning at Edmond. Even if the Board paid him $5,000.00 a year, he was not sure he would come to Seminole. Many members of the Board were upset about paying so much money, and commented that there “was no way we can pay a Superintendent more than the Presidents of OU or Oklahoma A & M are being paid”.
Dr. Mitchell had come to the meeting with his nephew, Harlan B. Mitchell, serving as his driver. When it appeared that the School Board could not meet his demands, the two left and climbed into Dr. Mitchell’s Packard to return to Edmond. As Harlan began driving them home, he asked his uncle how he could afford to turn down the offer of a job since he did not have one, nor did he have any other prospect for one. Dr. Mitchell, chewing on his cigar, told his nephew to do the driving and he would do the thinking. As they approached Shawnee from Seminole, a car overtook them, honking and motioning them to pull over to the side of the road. George Killingsworth, and several Seminole oilmen (never identified) were in the car. They told Dr. Mitchell they would pay him more than he had been paid at Central State. With his cigar in his mouth, he turned to Harlan and said, “nephew, turn the car around and we can now go to work”. The Seminole School system now had the highest paid educator in the entire State of Oklahoma.
Dr. Mitchell immediately went to work. The first move he made was one that had a significant impact on the quality of education in Seminole for over thirty years. He contacted certain key faculty at Central State and convinced them to join him at Seminole. O. D. Johns, Elsie Coover, Louise Welsh, Leota Stegall, Mauttie Hoffineister, Elsie Hole and others with graduate degrees agreed to join with Dr. Mitchell in moving to Seminole. At that time, the State law allowed any high school to add a 13th and 14th grade, in effect, a junior college, as part of its regular education.
Superintendent Mitchell prevailed upon the School Board to take advantage of this law and create “Seminole Junior College”. It was argued that educational opportunities would be expanded by having faculty qualified to teach at both the high school and college level. To further this goal, Dr. Mitchell then required all teachers at the High School to either have at least a Master’s degree, or to be working toward one.
He then outlined his academic agenda to both the Board and the general public. He criticized “the modem system of education” by saying “there are twice too many courses and if the study requirements were cut in half and the time doubled on those courses which remain, it would be better for the pupil”. He went on to state that the “fallacy of the modem system is shown by the great increase of crime among the younger generation” . This same theme has been repeated in recent days.
After putting his key faculty in place and outlining his intended changes in curriculum, he began emphasizing those activities he wanted Seminole High School to excel in. His intention was for the school to become competitive Statewide. In discussions with School Board members and administrative staff, such as O. D. Johns, Principal of the High School, he indicated that there were certain activities that were to receive special attention. He recognized that a strong football program would serve him well with many of the civic leaders who had recruited him to Seminole. In the field of athletics, he also wanted to stress tennis, which he considered to be important because it would give “his girls” an opportunity to participate. This was rather remarkable, considering it was almost 50 years before Title IX. The next area he wanted to stress was speech and debate. Whether this was to provide a job for his nephew, Harlan, or because he had a genuine interest in debate is unknown. However, Dr. Mitchell’s style of public speaking was similar to that taught by H. B. Mitchell, a style which was highly successful in the forensic circles.
Dr. Mitchell’s public addresses would follow the theme that H. B. Mitchell later taught to hundreds of Seminole speech students. “In your introduction outline the text of your presentation (tell them what you are going to say); break down the text into a few points that will be easy to follow; and then briefly conclude by telling the audience what you just said.” For example, on August 14, 1931, Dr. Mitchell addressed the Seminole Chamber of Commerce. He declared “that the first three purposes of schools in America were first, to teach children to stay out of the poor house; second, stay out of the hospital; and third, to stay out of jail”. Not a very exciting message, but in the context of the beginning days of the Depression, it probably played well with the local Chamber of Commerce. While the teachers probably cringed at his remarks, they also recognized that he was a political figure as well as an educator.
Dr. Mitchell loved to brag about his football program, which was extremely successful. For example, in 1933, when Frank Crider, an All-American at au, was hired as football coach, having been previously coach at Altus, Dr. Mitchell proclaimed that “his team never had its goal line crossed” and “last year his men walked off with the Conference championship with no defeats to their credit”. Crider is “one of the finest athletes this State has ever produced”. Such remarks would even put David Boren to shame. It only took a few years for the speech and debate program to become a powerhouse in the State. Dr. Mitchell took great delight in feeding accounts of success to the Seminole Producer. On November 30, 1933, he told the paper that “five Seminole High School boy orators will leave for Winfield, Kansas, to participate in the greatest debate tournament held west of the Mississippi. The lucky lads are Jim Pinck Griffin, Wayne Grisso, LeRoy Williams, Oliver Altman, and Fred Harber”. A little over a year later, Seminole High School won the State Debate championship.
Dr. Mitchell was known to be a strict disciplinarian and not all of his policies were well received. One that met opposition from both students and parents was one that prohibited students from attending out-of-town football games. The controversy caused Dr. Mitchell to issue a public appeal to “parents and children to aid him in obtaining closer harmony among the student and faculty members and asking the aid of parents in insuring punctuality and obedience to school discipline”. However, he was a good politician, and recognized his policy in this one area would not work. The prohibition was then removed.
Cecil Sullivan, Charles Johnston, Ralph Pippin and Garland Merrill all had experience as students under the administration of Dr. Mitchell. They were asked to add their own observations to this work.
They said: “Superintendent John G. Mitchell, as stated in the 1941 Chieftain Annual, was without a doubt the greatest aid to the progress of the: educational system Seminole could have enjoyed. Though born in Tennessee and married to Elsie Gold of Gordonville, Tennessee, he was Oklahoma’s gain. “Dr. Mitchell, as Superintendent, along with O. D. Johns as Principal, made a great team, beginning in 1931. Some of the graduates in the early 1940’s made the following comments about him:
He was quite a guy. He was fair, strong on discipline and never made empty threats. Some students found him untouchable, but most found him to be very understanding. He demanded both loyalty and dedication from his teachers and staff, emphasizing all teachers were to have at least a Master’s degree or working on one. He was a great educator and administrator of a school system. Academics came first, and sports etc. later. He was an active civic leader and worker. He and his wife were always a gentleman and a lady. He was punctual in all activities. By discipline he meant no chewing gum, no smoking, no talking and dallying in the halls, stay off the grass. When he walked on the stage for assemblies you could hear a pin drop it was so quiet. He was accepted by the community, especially by the parents of students. No favoritism, except to those who excelled. Seminole under his supervision was a better city because he came our way.
“The Big Chief on October 1, 1937, gave this direct quote from Dr. Mitchell’s statements at assembly:
‘Football should give the boys courage, make them good leaders respectful of others, build them up physically and aid in building the proper kind of citizens.’ He also urged the pupils to work now in preparation for the future.”
While Dr. Mitchell retired in 1948, his policies continued to have an impact of the Seminole School system for a number of years thereafter. During the 1940’s and 1950’s, Seminole High School was ranked among the top high schools in the Nation, and in the 1950’s, two former students of Seminole High School became Rhodes Scholars, Oliver Johns and David Boren. While there are many other accounts of the results of his administration, it is evident that Dr. Mitchell was a strong force in shaping the academic and extra-curricular programs at Seminole High School. Not all of the information we would like to have about the early days is available, but we have enough information to pose this question for your consideration:
Did the placement of a significant number of college faculty members into a public high school, along with administrators with college experience, have an impact on the students that was significantly different from other high schools? If you believe it did, is there evidence to support your conclusion? Obviously, many former students believe they were the beneficiaries of a unique educational experience that impacted the lives of hundreds of students who walked the the halls of Seminole High School.
In the next chapter, a number of accounts of Seminole High School graduates will be provided to document this thesis. Come to the Hall of Fame ceremony in 2006 and read Chapter 2, which will be interesting and exciting.
Chapter One recounted Dr. John G. Mitchell’s intention to make Seminole High School a top academic center of learning with additional emphasis on football, tennis, speech and debate. Because Dr. Mitchell brought with him from Central State University a number of college professors with advanced degrees, Seminole High School was the top academic high school in Oklahoma. To succeed in football, tennis and debate, Dr. Mitchell realized that his coaches needed to excel just like his faculty members, and for years to come, with outstanding leadership, Seminole won championship after championship.
In 1931, Dr. Mitchell hired, without any concern for nepotism, his driver and nephew, Harland (later almost always referred to as H.B.), as the speech and debate coach. H.B. had been an accomplished debater in college and knew how to develop a debate program. Within a short period of time, H.B.’s students were winning tournaments and receiving recognition. H.B. made certain that his student’s victories were reported to the Seminole Producer just like the victories of all Chieftain teams. In researching the early days, there are numerous references in the Producer of the accomplishments of the SHS debaters.
In 1935, H.B.’s team of Louise Webb and Opal Wright won the Conference Championship in debate, and, in April of that year, went to the University of Oklahoma in Norman for the Oklahoma State Debate and Speech Tournament. They won five of six debates to qualify for the State Finals. In that debate, they were pitted against the top team from Central High School in Oklahoma City, and won, unanimously, SHS’s first State Championship in debate. In May of 1935, the girls, accompanied by Coach Mitchell and a chaperone, journeyed to Kent, Ohio, to participate in the national tournament. Although they did not win, they began a tradition of national competition that ultimately resulted in a number of national championships for Seminole High School and Seminole Junior College.
Three years later, in 1938, Seminole’s debate team repeated its winning ways when Keith Marshall and Joe Harold Sterling won the state championship. They reached the finals of the National Tournament and debated against the high school team from Elgin, Illinois. The debate, which lasted more than an hour, was broadcast live on the NBC radio network. Can you imagine a high school debate being broadcast on one of the major TV channels, or, for that matter, over one of the cable networks ? Dr. John G. Mitchell called an assembly in the high school auditorium and set up boom boxes so the entire student body could hear the debate. Unfortunately we lost. However, for the next thirty years, Seminole High debaters were recognized nationally, and H.B. Mitchell was recognized as the outstanding debate coach in the United States. In fact, the National Forensic League’s Harland B. Mitchell Trophy is awarded each year to the national champion debate team.
At this time, Seminole Junior College was located in the high school building and shared the same faculty with the high school. Under Oklahoma law then in effect, high schools were allowed to add a 13th and 14th grades, creating a junior college program within the high school structure. The Seminole speech and debate programs were run as a single entity for both high school and college students, with high school students sometimes competing at the junior college level.
In 1940, Bonnie Lee Fortner (now Parks) and Mary Ben Russell (now Marshall) won the Junior College State Debate Championship, and, individually, Bonnie Lee won the State Championship for Women’s Extemporaneous Speaking. They attended the national tournament and placed third in debate. In 1941, Mary Ben Russell, now paired with Maxine Benson, won the state championship for a second time. Maxine won individual championships in After Dinner Speaking and Women’s Extemporaneous Speaking. Also in1941, Roy Graham won the State Championship for Men’s Oratory.
The winning ways continued. In 1942, State Championships were won by Jack Goodwin and Laurel McIntyre (Debate), Jack Goodwin (Men’s Extemporaneous Speaking), Vinita Dronberger (Women’s Dramatic Reading), and Phyllis Fisher (Women’s Radio Speaking). In 1944, State Championships were won by Bob Bates and George Mizer (Debate) and Barbara Brown (Women’s Extemporaneous Speaking). In 1945, George Frank Tate won the State Championship in Standard Oratory, and, in 1946, State Championships were won by Doris Faye Stuart (Women’s Extemporaneous Speaking) and Joe Snider (Men’s Extemporaneous Speaking). Joe went on to win the National Championship in Extemporaneous Speaking, marking Seminole High’s first national trophy for the Speech and Debate program.
In 1947, Seminole made a complete sweep of Oklahoma State Debate Tournament. Tommy Kelton, Don McNeil, and Bob Ryle won the state high school championship, while Jack Harber and Robert Morgan won the Men’s Division for Seminole Junior College. Not to be outdone, the women’s team of Doris Faye Stuart and Eloise Phillips won the Women’s Division State Championship. Doris Faye Stuart won two individual championships, and single, individual championships were won by Eloise Phillips, Don Richardson, Loretta Franklin, and Robert Morgan.
In 1948, Jack Harber and Leolin Russell won the Junior College State Debate Championship in the Men’s Division, while Dorothy Compton and Loretta Franklin won the Women’s Division. Dorothy Compton also won individual state championships in Extemporaneous Speaking and in Oratory. Jack, Leolin, and Dorothy traveled to the national tournament where Jack and Leolin finished as national runners-up in debate, and Dorothy finished as national runner-up in Impromptu Speaking.
In 1949, Seminole Junior College won the state debate championship with the team of Dorothy Compton and Pat Reeves. Dorothy and Pat placed second at the national tournament. Dorothy won individual championships in both Impromptu Speaking and After Dinner Speaking, and placed second in Extemporaneous Speaking. Pat Sullivan was the champion in Men’s Radio Speaking and placed fourth in Extemporaneous Speaking. Pat Sullivan and Phillip Green were the State Debate Champions in 1950.
In 1951, the SHS Debate team of Jimmy Cobb, Frank Mitchell, Oliver Johns, and Bill Wantland won the National Forensic League Oklahoma State Championship and placed 2nd in the national tournament. Ronnie Chase won the state championship in Original Oratory and placed 2nd in the national tournament in Poetry. Frank Mitchell placed 4th in the national tournament in Extemporaneous Speaking. It should be noted that there were two state tournaments in Oklahoma during this period, one sponsored by the National Forensic League (NFL) (which also sponsored the national tournament), and the other sponsored by the State of Oklahoma Education system.
Domination by Seminole High School and Seminole Junior College continued in 1952. Jimmy Cobb, Frank Mitchell, Don Smith, and Dobie Langenkamp won the NFL State Debate Championship, while Jimmy Cobb and Frank Mitchell won the Oklahoma Education system’s State Debate Championship. John Donovan won the NFL State Championship in Men’s Extemporaneous Speaking. Jimmy Cobb and Frank Mitchell place 2nd in Debate in the NFL National Tournament. Meanwhile, Tommy Kelton and Bill Wantland won the Junior College State Debate Championship and went on to win the National Debate Tournament. This was the 1st Debate National Championship won by SHS. Tommy Kelton also won nationals in both Extemporaneous Speaking and in Impromptu Speaking, while Bill Wantland placed 3rd in Impromptu Speaking.
Individual State Championships in Extemporaneous Speaking were won by Sidney Trawick (1955), Robert Mitchell (1956), and Larry Wright (1960). At the national level in Extemporaneous Speaking, Sidney Trawick placed 4th in 1955 and Robert Mitchell placed 2nd in 1956.
In the 25 years from 1935 to 1960, Seminole High School participated in 18 national championships, placing in the national tournament 24 times, and winning 9 national championships. During the same time period, SHS won 21 team state championships in Debate, and 28 individual state championships.
In 1960, H.B. Mitchell was honored as the “Nation’s Outstanding Debate Coach” by the National Forensic League. The NFL was vigorously supported by a number of U.S. Presidents, including Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, and by Vice-President Hubert Humphrey, all of whom participated in forensics.
To honor the 3-decade’s worth of accomplishments of the SHS Debate program, the National Forensic League National Debate trophy is known as the “H.B. Mitchell National Trophy”.
As former SHS debaters, we have attempted to identify those attributes that set H.B. apart from his competitors. He was an imposing figure, and the moment he entered a classroom, he demanded attention and respect. One of his students said that his eyes and appearance were much like a golden eagle. He was highly competitive, and he expected his students to win. This required study and commitment on the part of all his debaters. Summer reading on such issues as universal health care, the Electoral College, or admission of China to the U.N. was required if you wanted to debate for H.B. He was not satisfied with a few hours of practice in the afternoon and, while not required, it was expected that you would return to the high school in the evening and work on your delivery.
We adopted the H.B. method, whether by express instruction from H.B. or from watching the upper classmen prepare. H.B.’s debaters were required to forcefully deliver a presentation that contained a beginning, three or four main points, and a closing. A judge, or anyone listening, could easily outline and remember the argument being made by an SHS debater.
Seminole High School continued to win a number of State and National awards after 1960, but the first quarter century of championships marks the “golden age” of forensics at SHS. Truly, the tradition of excellence continues.