BOWLING GREEN – Dr. Tom Matijasic, professor of history at Big Sandy Community and Technical College, participated in a panel discussion, entitled “From the New Deal to the Great Society,” during the Ohio Valley History Conference held on October 11 at Western Kentucky University.
Dr. Matijasic was invited to participate in the event after compiling an extensive white paper on President Lyndon Johnson’s visit to the region in 1964. Two other BSCTC professors – Dr. Doug Herman and Dr. Don Barlow – also chaired sessions. Dr. Herman led a session on “History, Memories and Archives,” and Dr. Barlow chaired a discussion on “Fascists and Nazis.”
“The enduring image of that visit is a photograph of Johnson crouching on the porch of an unemployed, Martin County sawmill worker,” Dr. Matijasic wrote. President Johnson declared the War on Poverty that day on the steps of Tom Fletcher’s home outside of Inez. “Of far greater importance was his visit to Paintsville where he visited the Mayo State Vocational School and made a short but substantive speech in front of the Johnson County Courthouse.”
Established in 1938 through a $56,000 appropriations from the state legislature signed by Governor A.B. “Happy” Chandler, Mayo State Vocational School was among the leaders in industrial and technical education, much as it is today. By the 1950s and early 1960s, the economic boom associated with the end of World War II and global competition with Soviet Union brought vocational education to the forefront as a national strategy.
George Ramey, the director of the Mayo State Vocational School, spearheaded the efforts of making vocational education a best practice across the nation. As a close advisor to Congressman Carl D. Perkins, Ramey and Perkins worked closely with the President John F. Kennedy’s administration to develop legislation to promote manpower training and vocational education.
Ramey continued to have the ear of Kennedy, having testified before a House subcommittee of Education and labor in support of Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s plan to create a youth service corps in 1961. The corps was a detailed program allowing for on-the-job training and public service for unemployed young people.
In 1962, William Batt and Lawrence O. Houstown Jr. of the U.S. Department of Commerce visited the Mayo campus and Ramey to seek the advice of developing the Accelerated Public Works legislation.
Matijasic said in his report that Batt and Houstown Jr. later wrote a letter to Congressman Perkins saying the “trip has undoubtedly influenced some of our long range planning in the whole manpower development field.”
The commitment the Mayo school had to its students was unwavering. In 1962, of its 279 students, 259 got jobs, eight went to the military, six got married and one died, Matijasic reported.
This level of success spawned the creation of the President’s Appalachian Regional Commission (PARC), which was led by Franklin Roosevelt Jr.
However, by 1963, a high number of unemployed miners spawned Kennedy to take action with a $1 million appropriation to help provide work relief to miners. He also informed newly-elected Governor Edward T. Breathitt that he planned to visit.
That visit never happened, and the future of the region – and its strong ties to workforce development seemed in jeopardy.
In all actuality, it became stronger.
One of the first pieces of legislation passed by President Johnson was the Vocational Education Act of 1963, which Perkins sponsored.
The American Vocational Association proclaimed the legislation “became the most comprehensive vocational education measure that had ever become law in the history of our nation.”
Johnson first coined the phrase “War on Poverty” in his 1964 State of the Union address. Months later, he took his program to the people, including the stop at Fletcher’s home.
“Fletcher worked 5 days last month and has a total annual income for his family of $400,” Johnson wrote in his diary. He later recalled that Fletcher, “regretted more than anything else that his two oldest children had already dropped out of school, and he was worried that the same fate would overtake the others. So was I.”
Matijasic said that political operatives may have persuaded Johnson to turn the opposite direction after he landed at the Bert T. Combs airport. Kennedy did not win either Johnson or Martin counties in the previous election, but he wanted to showcase the work at Mayo State Vocational School.
Johnson was not scheduled to speak at Mayo, but told about 2,000 well-wishers: “We want to commend you again on the fine work going on in this great institution.”
“While many people debate whether the War on Poverty was successful, you cannot argue in the faith the programs placed in federal aid to promote vocational education,” said Matijasic.
In 1984, Congress passed the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act, which is designed to provide individuals with academic and technical skills needed to succeed in a knowledge and skills-based economy.”
Matijasic concludes that the Mayo school was the cornerstone of bringing vocational education to the national conversation.
“We’re doing much of the same today by providing quality, technical education that puts students on a pathway to success,” he said.
In 2003, the Mayo school merged with Prestonsburg Community College to form Big Sandy Community and Technical College. This year, the college is celebrating three milestone anniversaries – 75 years of service at may, 50 years at Prestonsburg Community College and 10 years as Big Sandy Community and Technical College.