Editor’s Note: This article is the latest in a series of occasional 5 Questions features regarding the people and families of Johnson City shaping the city’s past, present and future as we celebrate the city’s 150th birthday. Look for more in the series over the next several weeks.
Tom Hager is the longest-serving school board member on the Johnson City Board of Education. In his 35-year tenure on the board, he’s witnessed a lot of changes in local public education.
Before being first elected, the Johnson City native and public defender investigator enjoyed success in local sports before serving as an Army veteran in Vietnam at the time of the Tet Offensive.
Hager recently spoke with the Johnson City Press to tell us more about himself, his time on the board and more.
What have been some of the most notable changes you've witnessed in your time on the board?
“Starting 35 years ago, probably (when) we had basically turned over all the school buildings in the city. If you hadn’t gotten a new one, you got one renovated, except for Towne Acres ... and then just the responsibilities that teachers have, particularly with all the testing they have to do now.
“And also, we can’t ever forget school safety. Years ago, we didn’t think a whole lot about it, and now it’s probably at the forefront.”
As a public defender investigator and as a Vietnam war veteran, what have you learned from experiences in those fields?
“I live day-to-day, and I learned in 1967 it’s best just to live one day at a time and take one day at a time.
“I try to do that, and I’ve always had interest in people; I started my career working with young people, and that continues today. The reasons I ran for the school board in 1983 was because of my interest in young people.”
Tell us about your history in local sports
“I played sports my whole life; I probably started playing baseball when I was 8 or 9 years old in what we call Stratton Field, which is now Dawn of Hope — I would call it ‘Dawn of Hope field’ — and progressed on up to high school. I played football, basketball and baseball.
“We were fortunate enough in 1962-63 to win state tournaments in baseball, and I had one of the first scholarships offered at ETSU in baseball. I played two years there and then I was drafted into the Army, so that interrupted my college time.”
Where do you see the board in 10 to 15 years?
“I’m sure technology’s just going to keep exploding, and that probably will have a greater impact, maybe, in the time period we’re talking about.
“Who knows what vouchers are going to do to public schools? That would be a great concern if I was going to be here then.
“(Also) testing. Where are they headed with testing, and how is the testing going to be done? And, some places in the country have had a shortage of teachers, particularly in two or three areas. Are people going to be interested in wanting to be teachers?
“You know, as a school board member, you (also) worry about school safety. You just don’t want some of this tragedy that’s happened across the country. You don’t want that to happen here, but I’m sure the people where it’s taken place didn’t want it there either.”
If historians looked at your time at the board, what would you hope sticks out most?
“Well, I would hope that we’ve become a better school system. I think we have. All the superintendents I’ve worked with have brought something to the table, and it was something that — when they were here— was something we needed.
“I hope that (for) people who’ve had children come through the system, it’s been a good experience for them, and I hope it’s been a good experience for the students.
“For me personally, you want to leave something better than it was when you started. I think that’s happened while I’ve been here, so I’m hoping that that’ll be something people will think about.”