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GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN: Stair Tech earned respect of perennial powers over the years

By Steve Williams

Stair Technological High School was a newcomer on the Knoxville prep football scene in 1937, but it earned the respect of longtime powers like Knoxville High, Central and Young before it closed in 1951.

Located in a big brick building at the intersection of Henley Street and Western Avenue, diagonally across from the L&N Depot, Stair Tech’s first teams were nicknamed the Engineers. The moniker could have come from the school’s close proximity to the nearby railroad, but most likely was based on the vocational classes it offered its students, or possibly it was a combination of the two.

In the later years of the school’s existence, Stair Tech teams were called the Tigers in the Knoxville newspapers. And fittingly so, as Stair Tech certainly earned its stripes in the 1949 season, notching its first win ever over Central High.

“Stair Tech was so far behind Knoxville High, Central and Young, but they were very competitive on the field,” recently recalled Ben Byrd, who covered high school football for The Knoxville Journal during that era. “Their teams were tough, physical and strong. And they would fight you until the last dog died. They were respected. They were tough.”

Byrd, in fact, covered the monumental win over Central and wrote “the once mighty Bobcats took a straight-out drubbing from the up and moving Stair Tech Tigers at Pruden Field. The count was six-love.”

In that game, Jim Bright and Glenn Keeton, “two speedy and splendid” halfbacks, led a 67-yard charge after the opening kickoff. Raymond Keeton, Glenn’s brother and one of the best T-formation quarterbacks in East Tennessee, sneaked it across the goal line for Coach Charlie Wildman’s Tigers.

Stair Tech had three fumbles in the second half, but led by Jesse Rouse and captain Charlie Tucker, “the Stair forwards quelled every Cat threat,” reported Byrd.

Stair’s lineup for the game against Central also included ends Alvin Bright and Ott Bratcher, tackle Ralph Helton, guard Charles Crigger, center Don Fitzpatrick and fullback Jim Vance.

Stair had shown evidence of having a good team in a 7-0 loss to Young in the defending city champions’ season-opening contest. After that game, Young Coach Bud McCall, impressed by the Tigers, had said, “They’re capable of defeating anyone. I’m might happy we were fortunate enough to fight them off.”

The “pint-sized” Rouse and the “barrel-chested” Tucker took defensive honors against the Yellowjackets.

After the win over Central, Stair Tech took on Knoxville High. The Tigers lost 25-0 but trailed only 6-0 at halftime. Sheer weight difference and fatigue reportedly took its toll on Stair against the perennial powerhouse, and Stair also lost the services of Rouse, who suffered a fractured leg in the second quarter.

As for the remainder of the season, Stair bounced back to beat Sparta, had 6-0 losses to Kingsport and Oak Ridge, then reeled off victories over Murfreesboro Central, Greeneville and Bradley Central before falling to rival Rule in the season finale by a surprising score of 39-0.

Tucker and Rouse led the squad in reaping post-season honors. Tucker, in fact, was voted a first-team tackle on The Journal’s All-Big Five squad, which honored top players from Knoxville High, Central, Young, Rule and Stair Tech.

During its 14 seasons, Stair Tech’s overall record was 47 wins, 83 losses and 8 ties.

In 1938, their second year of interscholastic competition, the Engineers, under Coach Wade Keever, posted a 7-1-1 record despite several injuries and several players being ruled ineligible by the TSSAA shortly after mid-season. That team didn’t face as rugged of a schedule overall as the ’49 team went against but did kick off its annual feud with Rule with a 19-0 victory.

“It seems Stair Tech had a pretty good rivalry with Rule,” recalled Byrd.

Stair’s 1938 worksheet also included two wins over Tennessee School for the Deaf, a 19-7 victory over Powell, a 6-6 tie with Sevierville and its lone loss, a 19-0 decision against Maryville.

Stair closed the ’38 season with a 27-0 win over Spring City at Caswell Park. Joe Adams, a hefty fullback, scored three touchdowns and Coffey, a reserve back, plunged over for the other. The Stair lineup for that contest, as printed in The Journal, also included ends Williams and Fields, tackles Lee and Smith, guards McCrary and Lundy, center Loy, quarterback Daniels and halfbacks Pack and Edmonds, plus subs Babelay, Harmon, J. Edmonds, White and Kelley.

In 1939, Stair (6-3-1) had a 26-0 win over Halls and defeated Knoxville High’s junior varsity team 26-6.

Taking on bigger challenges, Stair Tech was the season opening opponent against Knoxville High in 1941, 1942, 1943 and 1944, then kicked off the next four campaigns against Young.

The Tigers’ 1947 season (3-7-1) included a 6-6 tie against Central. In 1948, Stair had a 5-6 record, which included a 13-6 loss to Knoxville High in the 10th game.

Prior to the opening of Stair Tech, the school building housed Boyd Junior High, which most students in the city attended, said Byrd.

Stair Tech is a part of the heritage of present-day Fulton High School. When the decision was made to build new high schools in the four geographical areas of Knoxville in 1951, Thomas N. Johnston, principal of Stair Tech, was to become principal of the school in the north area. He chose the land at the corner of Broadway and Woodland Avenue, where Fulton High was built.

Johnston served as principal at Fulton — the city’s first comprehensive high school with both an academic and vocational curriculum – from 1951 to 1955.

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