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Western Military Academy

Sarah Solomon
Civic Memorial High School, Bethalto

The early history of Alton, Illinois, began when settlers moved west to find land. At that time this area was perceived to be an area where settlers could improve their situations. The early settlers were poor, and there was no public school system to educate their children; therefore, they relied on private schools for even the simplest education. Governor John Reynolds, who was the first to pursue higher education in Madison County, came to the Alton area in 1807. His pursuit led to the first four educational institutions in this area: Shurtleff College, Monticello Seminary, Ursuline Academy of the Holy Family, and Western Military Academy. All of those no longer exist. The Western Military Academy began in 1879 as the Wyman Institute before it became a military school. Western Military Academy went on to become, undisputedly, a fine military school in a very select group until its end in 1971. When such a prestigious establishment closes, people often want to learn who founded it and why, general information about it, and when and why it went out of existence.

Edward Wyman founded Western Military Academy, or the Wyman Institute, as it was known before Wyman's death. Edward Wyman was, at that time, one of the most notable educators in the area. His prominent reputation as instructor and disciplinarian was attributed to more than fifty years of experience in the educational field. After battling ill health, Wyman searched to find the most suitable site for his school. This location encompassed forty acres of what had been formerly known as "Rural Park" in Upper Alton. When Wyman founded his institution he had his own views of what it should offer to its students: a training broad enough to prepare cadets for any American scientific school, college, or university; a generous and well-balanced

Founded in 1879 as the Wyman Institute, the Western Military Academy served students until 1971.

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ILLINOIS HISTORY/ DECEMBER 1998 15


development, whatever the cadet's ultimate course might be; and sufficient military instruction to prepare them to become officers of the militia in time of peace, and to organize and discipline volunteers in case of war. As a result, a cadet's life on campus was not typically easy, but regimented and challenging.

Life at Western began each morning by about 6:15 A.M., which allowed cadets approximately fifteen to thirty minutes to shower, dress, make beds, and be ready to march to breakfast. Following breakfast, cadets attended school from about 8:00 a.m. until 3:30 P.M., with a break to march to lunch. After school those cadets involved in sports practiced until generally 5:00 P.M. Students marched to dinner, enjoyed allotted free time afterwards, and then had study hall until 8:00 or 9:00 P.M., followed by bedtime at 9:15 P.M. On Saturday mornings cadets had military classes and training and a rare five-mile hike, then usually football, basketball, soccer, or baseball games. On Saturday nights cadets could go to Upper Alton, or possibly, with an overnight leave granted, stay with their parents or relatives. Dances were sometimes held with the Monticello Ladies' Seminary on weekends. On Sunday morning, cadets were not required to go to breakfast, but without a waiver from their parents, cadets had to attend church and Sunday school. As a result of the regimented schedules cadets followed, they grew more structured and more focused. They learned what they needed to do in order to reach their goals. There is an aphorism that says, "Western started and ended World War II." This stems from the fact that Butch O'Hare, the first American pilot killed in World War II, and Colonel Paul Tibbets, Jr., the commander of the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb to end the war, both graduated from Western. The academy, without any doubt, was an excellent military and educational institution while it lasted.

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Pictured here is the Administration Building at Western Military Academy in 1909.

Western Military Academy supplied the demand for civilian and military leadership with men of outstanding ability for more than seventy-five years. Its enrollment peaked in the early 1960s with 330 cadets. Nonetheless, following the graduation class of 1971, Western closed its doors forever. It is believed that during the Vietnam War, parents did not want their children going to the military schools. The military itself was hurt by all the opposition to the war, and military schools found it difficult to survive. Another possible reason for the closing of Western Military Academy might stem from the academy's for-profit status. Had Western become or been a not-for-profit institution, some say it would still be open today. Whatever the reason, the Western campus was bought by the Mississippi Valley Christian School, which was established in 1974. The only remaining buildings are the C barracks, the administration building, and the gymnasium (part of the former field house).

Western Military Academy met a need for education for the early settlers and fulfilled this need for more than three-quarters of a century. Western Military Academy alumni now keep in contact through a newsletter that is mailed to nearly four hundred subscribers. In 1998 an All-Class Muster was held in St. Louis, Missouri, to bring together all alumni. The former academy remains in Upper Alton on Seminary Road, four blocks from College Avenue. Though Western Military Academy has ceased to exist, its dedication to education will long remain a memory intact within the community. [From L. M. Castle, History of Madison County, Illinois; W. T. Norton, ed., Centennial History of Madison County, Illinois, and Its People 1812 to 1912; student historian's interview with Richard Rook, Sept. 22, 1998.]

16 ILLINOIS HISTORY/ DECEMBER 1998


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