• 63°

The end of an era

As the 10 members of Marion Military Institute’s senior class prepare to embark on a new chapter in their lives, their graduation signals the end of an era.

The class marks the last handful of students that will earn a high school diploma from MMI. The school, which has included a mix of high school and college students since 1887, will cater exclusively to junior college students beginning with the 2009-10 school year. MMI President Col. Jim Benson says the change was necessitated when MMI became a state school in 2006, and it was determined that a town the size of Marion — population 6,009 according to the 2000 census — could not support two public high schools — MMI and Francis Marion.

“I think it’s a significant loss for the state of Alabama,” said Benson. “Marion has always been the premier military prep school, or high school, in Alabama. A state like Alabama needs a military academy in my judgment because it provides that structure and self-discipline and organizational skills and time management, and that’s going to be missing.”

MMI was given three years to close the high school, which allowed the 2006 students to graduate. The high school’s enrollment was more than 80 at the end of 2006-07, but that number dwindled the following year (approximately 40) and its final class includes 10 students — Hannah Blalock (Marion), Mary Catherine Edwards (Marion), Jaynell Hughes (Marion), Toyin Huntar (Lagos, Nigeria), Timmy Jones Jr. (Paulina, La.), Ben Lee (Marion), Erin Lockridge (Pinson), Erica Thurber (Marion), Marc Turner (Marion) and Ty Yeager (Franklin, Tenn.).

“It will make MMI a different type of school,” said Benson. “There’s a uniqueness about having high school kids and college freshmen and sophomores commingled in a company where these high school kids have these college mentors and role models.”

Because of the first letter of his last name, Yeager will technically be the school’s final high school graduate. He grew up in Franklin, Tenn., and spent his freshman year at Independence High School.

That summer, Yeager and his father drove to Alabama to visit his sick great-grandfather. The trip resulted in Yeager completing high school in a town 248 miles away from his family.

“I just kind of had a real good conversation with my dad in the car about future, what I want to do when I grow up. I told him I really want to be in the military,” said Yeager. “It was almost like clockwork. We were talking about that, and we look over and there’s a billboard talking about Marion Military Institute.”

When he enrolled, Yeager did not know he would be part of the last MMI high school class. He said with that knowledge, he would have opted for a “normal” high school closer to home.

Yeager’s case is not an anomaly. Most of MMI’s students have hailed from other states or — in the case of Yeager’s roommate, Huntar — other countries.

Camie Salter Jones was an exception to the rule. Jones, an MMI math teacher and 1987 graduate, grew up in nearby Sprott, which allowed her to attend as a day student. She does remember that her high school class included 30 day students, and the rest lived in the on-campus dormitory. She acknowledges that military schools carry the stereotype of being a last-resort option for troubled students, but that was not the reason she attended.

“I feel like I learned a lot more discipline and structure because I had a lot more responsibility than your average high school student,” said Jones. “It’ll be sad to see the high school go away, just because there’s so much tradition here. There are so many memories.”

When the school’s 10 seniors cross the stage on May 23, they will add the final memory for a school that has provided so many for its students. Benson and other administrators are pulling out the stops to ensure they are rewarded for finishing at MMI.

Prom was held off-campus at the Capital City Club in Montgomery, and the students took a field trip to Six Flags over Georgia. There are also plans for post-graduation reception and ceremonial flag-lowering in honor of the high school’s closing.

“This high school graduation is significant,” said Benson. “When you have a high school graduation for 100-plus years, and next year there won’t be one. It does have to be special. We’re trying to make this a special week for the high school cadets.”