The Life of John McDougal Atherton

John McDougal Atherton was born in Larue County, Kentucky, on April 1, 1841. After attending school locally in Bardstown, he entered Georgetown College. He later attended the Louisville Law School. In 1873, he moved to Louisville, where he resided until his death in 1932. Atherton received many business honors. Among them, he was president of the Lincoln Savings Bank and Trust Company; vice president and director of the National Bank of Kentucky; and director of the Louisville Realty Company, the Louisville Gas and Electric Company, and the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company. Civic honors also came his way. He was a member of the state legislature from 1870 to 1871. He was also chairman of the City Government Committee, which studied municipal reform. However, Atherton's chief civic interest was in the field of education. He became a member of the Louisville Board of Education in 1884. He worked successfully toward abolishment of the old school trustee law, which resulted in the Louisville school system being put under the management of a Board of Education. He also served as chairman of the Board of Trade's committee that selected candidates for the city's first nonpartisan Board of Education in 1910. On December 30, 1921, after suspending a rule forbidding the naming of a school after a living person, the Louisville Board of Education decided to name the proposed new girls' high school on Morton Avenue at Rubel after Atherton. The board then sent the following message to him: "The Board of Education honored itself as well as you in naming the girls high school about to be built 'Atherton High school for Girls.' In wishing you a happy new year it desires to record itself appreciative of the years of hard and successful work which you have given to public school education in Louisville and the State of Kentucky."

Emma J. Woerner, the First Principal

Emma J. Woerner was a graduate of the old Female High School and the University of Kentucky, class of 1905. In that early time, the high schools of the city were offering courses so advanced that in many respects they were the equivalent of college courses. Woerner, therefore, was admitted to the University of Kentucky (UK) not as a freshman, but as a junior, and gained her diploma there in 1905. Six months after her graduation from the university, she began her teaching career in the primary grades in the Straight Creek Mining Company camp in Bell County near Pineville. In a short time, she had impressed the leaders in that area and many important people outside the area with the keenness of her insight and the accuracy of her judgment, particularly in field of education. In 1911, she was called back to her hometown of Louisville to become a member of the first faculty of the new Broadway Elementary School. She did not, however, restrict her talents to teaching. She gave generously of her time to social service. (The school buildings in those days were often the center of such activity.) She also interested herself in civic improvement and the general welfare of the city. Her leadership was always dynamic and her energy inexhaustible. In 1914, she became principal of the Albert S. Brandeis School and continued in that capacity until 1918, when she was made principal of the Eastern Departmental School, serving in that position until she was chosen to head the new Atherton High School for Girls in 1924.

The Beginning

The history of feminine education in Louisville dates back to the old Female High School, which (as early as 1873) occupied a site on First Street between Chestnut and Walnut Streets, where Ahrens Educational Resource Center now stands. After several changes, this school wound up at Fifth and Hill Streets. Because of limited building capacity and because the location was inconvenient for girls living in the expanding eastern section of the city, it was decided in the early 1920s to seek a new Girls High School location to serve the need for expansion and convenience of access. At first, the lot now occupied by the Kentucky Baptist Hospital was considered for the school, but its hilly nature made it unsuitable for a playground and outdoor physical education classes. Therefore, construction of a new Girls High School was started on the southside of Morton Avenue at Rubel. This new school opened its doors Monday morning, January 28, 1924, with a staff of 32 teachers, a dean, and 746 girls housed in 26 classrooms. There, under the leadership of Emma J. Woerner, the history of J. M. Atherton High school began. Originally called J. M. Atherton High School for Girls (until it became coeducational in 1950), Woerner saw to it that no boy entered its portals to distract the attention of the young ladies from the work at hand. She was assisted in conducting the affairs of the school that first year by a staff of 32 teachers, a dean of girls, and a clerk. The school was named in honor of John M. Atherton, chairman of the Educational Committee of the Louisville Board of Trade, who had rendered outstanding service to his community and who had, perhaps most importantly, played a leading role in obtaining the passage of a bill that took the public schools out of politics. Although the school began holding classes in a completed building on January 28, 1924, it was not until April 16 that the dedication exercises were held. Edward Gottschak, president of the Board of Education, presided and introduced Atherton and Byron W. Hartley, superintendent of schools, both of whom spoke briefly on the importance of education. Woerner read the following letter for the faculty and the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) of the Louisville Girls High School, which emphasized the common background and unity of purpose of the two schools.

To the Principal and Faculty of the Atherton High School for Girls: With that feeling of joy and pride which a parent feels in the first born, we are eager to be the first to send to you tonight, upon the occasion of your dedication, our message of congratulation and God-speed. We are happy in the thought that ours is the parent of a school so rich in promises for the future, one which already, in its brief existence, has proven itself so well prepared in every way to contribute its share toward carrying out the great program of secondary education. Though separated so far as situation is concerned, we still must always be essentially one--one in aim, in thought, in purpose; both alike Consecrated in our ideal, to produce the highest possible type of citizen, physically, mentally, morally and to send her forth as an active agent for good in carrying on the work of a great democracy. We look forward with pleasurable anticipation to the opportunities for cooperation and mutual helpfulness which lie before us in carrying on the great work to which we are alike dedicated.

Very sincerely,
The Faculty and Parent-Teacher Association of the Girls High School

From the start, Atherton girls were very active in cultural and social affairs far beyond the limits of the school curriculum. Besides the athletic activities, such as tennis, hockey, and hiking, they organized a school newspaper, called the Aerial, and formed a Student Council, both of which continue to the present day. Also, in that first year, the school was granted a charter in the National Honor Society, in which membership is still one of the most coveted prizes offered by the school. It stands for character, scholarship, leadership, and service. Many of these girls were also vitally interested in the affairs beyond the academic walls. They had a deep desire to serve the community in which they lived--particularly the unfortunate and the sick who needed help--and so, with the aid of Catherine L. Morat, the dean of the school, the Social Service Program was developed in the fall of 1926. Each girl who joined the organization pledged to give at least one afternoon a week. This program still exists at Atherton.

The Flood

The account of the refugee work centered at Atherton during the 1937 flood is history in itself. Under the guidance of Principal Woerner and Samuel V. Noe, then principal of Eastern Junior High School--together with the staffs of both schools--the entire organization swung into action after a radio call for school assistance on a Sunday afternoon, January 24. Within two hours, Atherton was ready for service, the building heated, food prepared, an emergency office force organized, and a vaccination clinic prepared to function. So much work on such short notice could never have been accomplished had it not been for the effective guidance of Woerner and Noe and the wholehearted efforts of the teachers and the custodial staffs of the two schools.

Noe and Dr. R. Glen Spurling collaborated in writing a vivid, sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic, account of what occurred in the busy days and nights from January 24 to February 14. Their narrative begins as follows:

"At 4 p.m., Mr. and Mrs. Smith and their dog arrived. They were vaccinated, (not the dog), provided with hot food, dry clothing, and given access to what comforts the building afforded. After this, a steady stream of refugees arrived from the water's edge. Some 200 had been cared for by 6 p.m. Sunday. A radio message asking for clothing, bedding and other supplies had been broadcast as soon as the building was opened and the response from the Highland area was magnificent. About 4 p.m., another radio message asking physicians and nurses in the Highland area to report to the Atherton School brought a great abundance of medical and nursing help. The facilities of the radio made it possible to establish an emergency organization quickly and to have the equipment necessary for carrying on the work."

"As soon as it was determined that the Atherton School would be open as a relief center, Dr. Spurling was dispatched by the Director of Health from the City Hall to help with the organization and Mr Dann Byck and Mr. Joe Dumesnil were asked by the Mayor's Committee to report there for duty. Those of us, however, who were dispatch from eh City Hall had no part in the first two hours of the work. That was done most effectively by Mr. Noe, Principal of the Eastern High school, Miss Woerner, Principal of the Atherton High School, and their corps of fellow workers. When we arrived about 4 p.m., the organization was already well under way."

Those in charge soon had the whole corps of workers organized into departments: (1) Office and Clerical Force, (2) Clothing and Supplies, (3) Dietetics, (4) Transportation, (5) Social Service, (6) Medical and Nursing Unit. Evelyn Rietze, in charge of dietetics, saw to it that, through all the long siege, no one went hungry. Ethel Lovell of Ahrens Trade High School, in charge of Social Service, made a perfect record in reuniting members of refugee families separated by transportation difficulties. Before the day was over, the Medical and Nursing Unit, under Dr. Spurling, had established a hospital for the ill and 26 cots were occupied by those in serious enough condition to need constant medical care.

But this was only the beginning. As the hours went by, one problem and crisis after another arose. Sunday at 11:40 p.m., the electrical current went off. The darkness, somewhat alleviated by candlelight, was only slightly inconvenient, but there was a real emergency in the basement. A running spring was threatening to put out the furnace and damage the boilers, because the pump that usually disposed of the water had stopped when the electrical current failed. A bucket brigade of 25 men proved inadequate in beating the rising flood. The fire went out, and the cold crept in. Noe appealed for help from Shelbyville and Springfield, and they responded with gasoline pumps, which saved the day. A pressing transportation problem was solved by the generosity of people in the Highlands who volunteered their cars and their services to carry refugees to the homes of still other people who had volunteered to house them.

Yet, just as the school was rapidly becoming a cleaning house, an inoculation center, and a hospital, another crisis developed. More than 1,000 African Americans from the central and western parts of the city were finding it difficult to locate homes in which to stay. They had to be housed, clothed, and fed. The Flood Headquarters at the Louisville City Hall was confronted with the gigantic task of providing for them. Noe and Dann Byck, after conferring with the other members of the staff, went to Flood Headquarters and presented an offer from Atherton to take over the responsibility for this group. By 8 p.m., 1,000 African Americans had been fed and inoculated. Then, as homes were gradually found for most of the unfortunate, Atherton became a hospital for those too ill to move and served in this capacity until February 14, when the few remaining patients were transferred to the City Hospital.

Noe later went on to become superintendent of the Louisville Public Schools during the early 1960s.

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