Knoxville High’s influential principal

Jim Tumblin
History and Mysteries

“A firm, steady, stable and human person.” When W.E. Evans was honored at his retirement in 1955, those were the words his former students chose to describe their principal.

Having served one of Knoxville’s longest careers in public education, Evans retired in 1955 at the compulsory retirement age of 70. He served 33 years as principal of Knoxville High School, and after that school closed, moved to East High as principal for four more years.

William E. Evans was born in Ashland, Ohio, on April 4, 1885, the son of the Rev. Amos and Lillie “Ernst” Evans. When asked where he grew up, he once said, “All over Ohio, since my father was a Methodist minister.” He attended Ohio State University, graduated from Oberlin College (Oberlin, Ohio) and received postgraduate education at the University of Chicago and the University of Tennessee. He soon became a teacher and coach at Woodstock (Ill.) High School before coming to Knoxville.

Beginning in 1913, only three years after the school was born, he taught chemistry and mathematics for five years and then became principal of Knoxville High School in 1918. The school enrolled 646 (grades 8-10) when it opened in the fall of 1910. There were 800 students when he became principal and 2,300 in 1950-51 when the school board decided it was too large and created smaller regional high schools at Fulton, East, West and South.

Only four other principals had preceded Evans at KHS: W.J. Barton (1910-1912), H.M. Woods (1913), Samuel Hixson (1914-1916) and E.E. Patton (1916-1918).

Evans’ students regarded him as both an inspiration and a role model. Evans gave this earnest advice to each incoming freshman class:

Shown with his wife, Helen Stewart Evans, near the time of his retirement, Principal William E. Evans served Knoxville High School from 1918 to 1951. His character-building influence helped more than 16,000 KHS graduates to achieve successful careers and dedicated community service.  Photograph courtesy of the McClung Historical Collection, Knoxville Journal Archive
Shown with his wife, Helen Stewart Evans, near the time of his retirement, Principal William E. Evans served Knoxville High School from 1918 to 1951. His character-building influence helped more than 16,000 KHS graduates to achieve successful careers and dedicated community service. Photograph courtesy of the McClung Historical Collection, Knoxville Journal Archive
  • Study at home,
  • Be attentive in class,
  • Be honest,
  • Have an ideal.

Community spirit was a hallmark of Evans’ leadership. In his long career he never resorted to corporal punishment, but rather used the “heart-to-heart conference method” with his students, and he extended the method to their parents when necessary.

His handling of an impending problem in the 1930s is typical of his keen understanding of youth. The Theta Kappa Omega fraternity was organized at the school. Evans knew secret organizations did not belong in high schools. Instead of using threats and anger, he organized groups of other kinds – debating teams and Hi-Y, home economics, art, photography, hiking, future teachers and other clubs. These met the diverse interests of his pupils, and the secret fraternity died a natural death after dwindling in membership for two years.

One of his science teachers observed, “He met and resolved disciplinary and other problems before they got too far along. He gave students so much of good to do that they had little time to think of doing wrong.”

The Knoxville High School Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) battalion was the pride of the school. Founded after World War I, the unit was frequently inspected and received high ratings. There was keen competition for officer positions in the four companies and the band each year. These ROTC-trained officers and men made a considerable contribution in many theaters during World War II.

For example, all four of Evans’ sons made their contribution to the war effort as all of them were pilots or crew members in the Air Force.

High school changed dramatically during his years as principal. It changed from strictly academic schools to become comprehensive and specialized.

At Knoxville High School, a three-piece orchestra expanded to over 70 pieces, small choral groups grew to huge concert organizations and competition between schools grew from debating teams only to football, basketball, track and other sports.

The Knoxville High Trojans football team claimed the state championship in 1930 and the national championship in 1932. Always a power, the “Blue and White” set a record by capturing the state football championship again in 1942, 1943 and 1944. And the Trojans won the state basketball championship in 1939, 1941 and 1951.

Evans’ progressive ideas on education and character building surely equaled or surpassed other principals of his time. He turned out graduates who went on to attend Harvard, Yale and MIT and to become leaders themselves in various fields.

Many prominent Knoxvillians and executives throughout the country were positively influenced under his tutelage.

Until a week before his death, Evans was in apparent good health. He suffered a heart attack and entered Fort Sanders Presbyterian Hospital on Saturday, Nov. 30, 1957, and passed away of a second attack late Tuesday night, Dec. 3, 1957.

He was survived by his wife, Helen Stewart Evans, and four sons, Col. William Stewart Evans, Col. Richard E. Evans, John A. Evans and Tom H. Evans. Dr. John H. McKinnon officiated at his services at First Presbyterian Church preceding his interment at Highland Memorial Cemetery.

In touching the lives of more than 16,000 students who attended the school during his years of service, William E. Evans made a contribution to his community and the nation matched by very few – well done, good and faithful servant.

4 thoughts on “Knoxville High’s influential principal”

  1. Is there any way that I can share this article on Facebook so I can share it with my kids? William E. Evans was their great grandfather. I get my Facebook printed every year into a book and I’d love for this piece of family history to be included. Thank you for writing it!
    Debbie (Evans) Ragland

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