I t’s been 75 years since the school opened in Memphis, and over the years it has never fielded a football team or packed the bleachers for a basketball tournament. Its students have never pulled all-nighters in the library before mid-terms, or mingled with their classmates in fraternity or sorority houses. They’ve never fought for seats in a crowded cafeteria, or winced at the prices of books sold in the student center, or scribbled autographs in their friends’ yearbooks.
What this school does have in common with other institutions of higher learning in Memphis, however, is a traditional graduation ceremony, held in the auditorium of its campus at Poplar and Bellevue. “It’s fun to watch their faces light up when we hand them that diploma,” says Skip Redmond, president of the William R. Moore College of Technology. Those graduates have a reason to smile. In these challenging economic times, while other colleges and universities across America struggle to find jobs for the young men and women who have spent two to four (and longer) years on their campuses, Moore Tech, as it’s perhaps better known these days, quietly posts an eye-popping job placement rate of 95 percent.
It’s a remarkable accomplishment for any school, even more so considering this establishment was founded by a rather eccentric merchant who lamented that he was “the most despised man in Memphis.” In fact, the beginnings of Moore Tech involve an unusual bequest, a missing will, and a family named Blood.
“He did the best he could.”
William R. Moore — a newspaper reporter would later insist the “R” stood for “rambunctious” — was by all accounts a remarkable gentleman. He was born in 1830 in Alabama to a family that was considered somewhat aristocratic; Moore’s father claimed he could trace his ancestry back to Oliver Cromwell. But when the father died just six months after Moore’s birth, the destitute family took up farming in the tiny community of Beech Grove in Middle Tennessee.
Moore never went to school. At the age of 12 he clerked in a county store and must have quickly developed a knack for business, for in his teens he moved to Nashville and began working for that city’s largest dry goods store. In those days, a “dry goods” store meant all kinds of merchandise, including hardware, clothing, fabric, clocks, sewing machines, stoves, silverware, just about everything except groceries.
The ambitious lad then moved to New York City, where he quickly prospered in the retail business, and by 1859, when he decided he had made enough money, he came to Memphis, at the time the fastest-growing city in the South.
But the newcomer quickly became what he considered “this city’s most insulted resident.” It didn’t endear him to Memphians that as a civil war loomed, Moore not only opposed secession but openly supported Abraham Lincoln. Historian Paul Coppock noted, “He was publicly abused, vilified, and held in contempt.” His own church even threw him out.
When the war began, Moore not only managed to remain in business, but soon realized a way to build his fortune. Suspecting that Confederate money would be worthless when — not if , in his mind — the South lost the war, he didn’t save it. Instead, he bought downtown property with it, and when the war ended, Moore was not only a wealthy landowner, he was one of the richest men in the city.
Memphians must have been a forgiving lot, because Moore was elected to Congress in 1880 and his supporters even urged him to run for governor. But he declined, focusing instead on civic and business ventures here. Among other endeavors, during the yellow fever epidemic of 1878, Moore organized a sanitation committee to improve our city’s drinking water system, and as a result (though nobody knew this at the time), eradicated the breeding grounds for the deadly mosquitoes.
The William R. Moore Company prospered, opening a branch office in Atlanta and building an eight-story headquarters and warehouse in downtown Memphis (still standing today as the Toyota Center). He had unusual notions about business. Among other things, he was resolutely opposed to alcohol, claiming that even a sip would give anyone a “muddled brain.” In the company handbook, he made clear that employees caught with a beer or bottle would be fired. After all, “occasional drinking leads to habitual drinking, and habitual drinking leads inevitably to both financial insolvency and the drunkard’s grave.”
At the age of 58, he married a woman with the memorable name of Charlotte Blood, and newspaper accounts describe the couple living in the “Blood Residence” on Union, near present-day Methodist Hospital. Despite his wealth and success, Moore began to obsess about his legacy. When he retired in 1902, he wanted people to remember him — not for his business acumen — but for building one of the finest schools in the South. According to an old Press-Scimitar article, “from then until his death his time was largely filled with dreaming and planning for his college.” His attorney told reporters that in the months before his death, Moore changed his will at least a dozen times, but never wavered about starting the school.
Moore died in 1909, and following his wishes, a charter for the school was drawn up. He was buried in a massive stone vault that stands outside the Forest Hill Mausoleum. Topped by a larger-than-life statue, the monument carries a humble epitaph: “He Did the Best He Could.” He divided his fortune, with half going to his wife, and the remainder — some $500,000 — going to the new school.
But construction of the school was delayed. A board of trustees, drawn up from a veritable who’s who of local business leaders, decided that half a million dollars — though a decidedly large sum in those days — still wasn’t enough to build the kind of school Moore envisioned. And his wife wasn’t giving up her share. So plans for the school were put on hold until 1919, when Charlotte Blood Moore died in Chicago, where she had been living in a hotel. Then came another delay, when attorneys couldn’t locate Moore’s original will. When it finally turned up, once again the board decided they still didn’t have enough money for the school. So they invested the funds, and they must have been keen investors; within a dozen years or so, they had more than doubled the original endowment.
The trustees pondered various locations for the school, at one time considering the empty Pink Palace mansion built, but never occupied, by grocery store magnate Clarence Saunders. They eventually settled on a parcel of land at Poplar and Bellevue, and on April 11, 1939, the new William R. Moore School of Technology opened to the public.
“He wanted boys to get training.”
The new school, built in an art-deco style of red brick and polished granite, included classrooms, workshops, and even a museum. A spacious room for mechanical drawing and drafting took up the entire third floor, and wings along the sides of the U-shaped building held labs and shops for the wide-ranging technical training program. These were extensive; in the 1940s, students could concentrate on drafting, electricity, machine shop, internal combustion engines (both automobile and aircraft versions), welding, carpentry, metalworking, and even furniture making and repair.
From the beginning, this was hands-on work, not just education gleaned from reading a book or taking notes in class. Perhaps because of his own lack of a formal education, Moore had specified that he wanted no emphasis on the liberal arts. Instead, as the school’s first president told reporters, “Moore didn’t say anything about wanting academic subjects taught. He wanted boys to get training that would enable them to make a good living.”
Regardless of the field of study, a student’s work often involved full-scale projects. Forget about the simple little bookends students at Central or Messick were making in their shop classes. Moore students worked on real automobiles, machined parts for airplane engines, sawed and sanded full-size furniture, and one year even built a full-scale two-story playhouse, complete with electric lights and working brick fireplace.
“Students getting instruction in the shops of the William R. Moore School,” said the 1940 bulletin, “will be well-prepared to go directly into positions of responsibility in industrial plants.”
“We can move on a dime.”
A keen-eyed visitor to Moore Tech, as the school is called today, may notice a tiny brass tag nailed to a post in an upstairs classroom, reading “Built by Students of William R. Moore School of Technology.” That, and a half-dozen battered wooden workbenches here and there in the building, are all that remain of the school’s old furniture shop. Over the years, many of the old programs were phased out, because there was no demand for them in the modern world.
Not too many years ago, one of the most popular courses at the school was computer repair. “An important factor of this school,” says John Malmo, chairman of the board since 1998, “has been how flexible we can be in terms of our curriculum. Computer repair was a very big program, but fewer and fewer people wanted to get into it, because nobody was repairing computers anymore. They were just throwing them in the garbage. So we discontinued those programs.”
Moore Tech, then and now, remains a privately funded institution. “We can move on a dime, because we’re not government,” says Malmo. “If we want to change a program, we can do it next week, and as Memphis’ industrial needs change, we can change right with them.”
Other courses or classes discarded over the years included car painting, body and fender repair, and furniture design. Instead, the school now focuses on six key areas: Machine Technology; Property Maintenance; Industrial Electricity / Plant Maintenance; Air Conditioning, Refrigeration, and Heating; Welding; and Plumbing.
The Mid-South is home to a number of other vocational technology and trade schools, such Vatterott College and Southwest Tennessee Community College. Moore Tech, however, is one of just three private, nonprofit vocational colleges in the United States. (The others are Rankin College in St. Louis, and Dunwoody College in Minneapolis.) The little campus, still in the same location at 1200 Poplar, has a current enrollment of 260 students, making it one of the smallest schools or colleges in the Mid-South, but even so the school has reached capacity.
“We’re completely outgrown our welding shop,” says Skip Redmond. “But we’ve received a U.S. Department of Labor grant that has allowed us to purchase the former Bellevue Bedding Company, just down the street, and we plan to move our welding operation there. That will also free up space in the existing building for other programs.”
Though privately funded, Moore Tech has recently taken advantage of other Department of Labor grants, as well as donations from local businesses.
“That has been Skip’s major accomplishment since he’s been here,” says Malmo. “His ability to go outside and take advantage of the school’s history and reputation and turn it into meaningful dollars that have allowed us to make major capital improvements.”
Among them: The school recently purchased more than $600,000 worth of state-of-the-art CNC (computer numerical control) machine-tooling equipment, with a Department of Labor grant adding an additional $300,000 worth of equipment and remodeling.
“When I first came here, all we had was a CNC machine built in 1997, with a little computer screen on it,” says Redmond. “But thanks to grants and donations, we have the latest equipment. Over in the welding department, we are now going to offer a robotic welding course. The new ‘pulse’ MIGs are the latest things in welding, and one of the things I did was go to NexAir and ask them to donate a pulse MIG machine.”
Every six months, the board of Moore Tech meets with advisors from local industries to determine exactly what their needs are. “Keeping up with the latest technology is key,” says Redmond. “Memphis is the second-largest medical technology manufacturer in the country. We have Smith & Nephew, Richards Medical, and Wright Medical Technology here, and those industries are desperately looking for employees. In fact, there are at least 200 jobs open right now in machining technology. So our main objective is to make sure that our competencies are what the employees are looking for.”
Judging by the numbers, they certainly are. Moore Tech just released its latest job placement figures. In an uncertain economy, the school manages to place 95 percent of its graduates in jobs in their fields within six months of graduation.
The numbers vary a bit, depending on the field of study:
Machining Technology: 100%
Property Maintenance: 100%
Air Conditioning, Refrigeration, and Heating: 94%
Industrial Electricity / Plant Maintenance: 92%
(The school has no job placement numbers on its plumbing program, a three-year program that started just two years ago. Its first students will graduate in 2015.)
The classwork can be very specific. Depending on the field, Moore Tech offers classes such as Electric Motor Controls, Precision Medical Machining, and even Storm Drains and the Effects of Temperature Change. Those are in addition to the general education courses that include Business Concepts, Technical Writing, and Math for Technicians.
“A willing workforce.”
But prospective students shouldn’t think that anyone who walks into the doors at 1200 Poplar will stroll out with a job offer. The graduation rate — though better than most — needs improvement, ranging from 93 percent for Industrial Electricity to 67 percent for Property Maintenance. The average for all programs is still a very respectable 81 percent.
To boost their chances of finding and — just as important — keeping a job, the faculty teaches students how to become good employees. “We not only need a skilled workforce,” says Malmo, “but we need a willing workforce.” As a result, one of Moore Tech’s stated principles is to help its students “develop the skills, knowledge, and desirable habits and attitudes essential to securing a job, holding a job, and gaining advancement in industrial organizations.”
“One of the things we do to mirror industry standards,” says Redmond, “is random drug testing of our students. Our policy is not to kick them out of school, but they must find and document some treatment, and they have 90 days to get their system cleaned out.”
Don Smith, the school’s president from 1998 to 2012, mentions, “Another thing we implemented is we do a 100 percent background check on all of our employees and students. It’s all about making sure they will be good employees.”
Another lure for students is the relatively low cost of tuition. This varies, depending on whether a student is working towards a two-year Associate Degree in Applied Technology, a one-year diploma, or a certificate in a specific field, but the maximum cost is around $14,000. Moore offers no student loans and no financial aid programs, but it helps many students apply for federal Pell Grants. The school also offers scholarships through the Optimist Club and the Pyramid Peak Foundation.
“That cost isn’t high, and when they walk across the stage to get their diploma, they don’t owe anybody a dime,” says Redmond. “Either the Pell Grant has paid for it, or it has come out of their own pocket.”
One of the reasons Larry Maclin chose Moore Tech, after graduating from Central High School, was the low cost. “It was cheap,” he says. “I paid my entire tuition off by working while I was going to school. It was the most reasonable tuition out there, and I was blessed to find a good-paying job after I graduated, so it definitely paid off.”
Maclin earned a degree in the Air Conditioning, Refrigeration, and Heating program. “Everybody needs heat and air — especially AC in Memphis.” He’s currently employed as a maintenance technician at a Memphis apartment complex. “The counselors worked with me on just about everything,” he says. “They didn’t help me with my grades, because I did that part myself, but I have nothing but positive things to say about the school.”
Tracy Jackson went to Moore Tech after working at various jobs for more than 20 years after high school. “When I saw how Mr. Moore had used his own money and invested it into the community, that really impressed me,” he says. Jackson earned a diploma in Industrial Electricity and now works in plant maintenance at Nike. “They helped me find the job here,” he recalls. “I didn’t even know they had sent my resume over, but Nike called and asked me to come in for an interview. Just last night I had to rewire a motor, and I knew how to do it because I had already done it at Moore Tech.”
“We decided to gamble.”
So what’s the catch? Why is Moore Tech still such a little-known name in Memphis?
Part of it is the perception that a “trade school” isn’t a good thing. But that attitude is evolving, say many educators, especially as students majoring in liberal arts and business find themselves struggling to find a job. “The biggest change I’ve seen,” says Malmo, “is the recognition, outside of the world of vocational education, of the importance of vocational education.”
That recognition is growing. A recent NPR segment titled “Economists Say Millennials Should Consider Careers in Trades,” noted that this country needs more skilled tradespeople: “The baby-boom workers are retiring and leaving lots of openings for millennials. There are 600,000 jobs for electricians in the country today, and about half of those will open up over the next decade.”
Changing attitudes towards “blue collar work” hasn’t been easy for Moore Tech and other schools like it. In fact, as recently as 2005, the school was in danger of closing, after ten years of steadily declining enrollment. “I asked the trustees to spend the entire day here, to decide whether we could continue to operate the college,” says Malmo. “If things kept going down, we would be eating into our trust fund, and pretty soon it would be gone.” They discussed closing the college and selling the property. The problem was, he says, “we had no top-of-mind awareness.”
But Malmo says, “We decided to gamble.” After all, he knew a thing or two about marketing. So the school committed to spending $200,000 in advertising the next year, $100,000 in 2007, and $50,000 in 2008. “And we would see, after each year, just what happened.” Readers have probably seen or heard some of Malmo’s TV and radio commercials for the school. “I wrote, directed, and starred in them myself,” he laughs. “And they worked. By the second year, our enrollment had doubled. We found out very quickly that we could raise the level of awareness.”
The advertising campaign also gave the school its new (though unofficial) name: “I couldn’t make 30-second TV spots trying to say ‘The William R. Moore College of Technology’ because it’s just too long. So the brand is Moore Tech.”
“A blessing in disguise.”
Last year, Governor Bill Haslam introduced Tennessee Promise, guaranteeing free tuition to any state residents who attend any of the state’s 40 two-year community or applied technology colleges. In Memphis, that list includes Southwest Tennessee Community College and the Tennessee College of Applied Technology. Moore Tech is not included — not yet, anyway. Redmond hopes to change that. “Right now, we’re working with our representatives in Congress to have Moore Tech included in Tennessee Promise.” It’s not just a simple matter of adding the school’s name to the list of schools. “It takes an act of the legislature,” he says, “but I’m hopeful we’ll succeed.”
If that happens, it means more opportunities for students like Larry Maclin, Tracy Jackson, and others who chose Moore Tech after considering other options.
“Moore Tech is a blessing in disguise, and I don’t think many people know about it, but word is getting out,” says Maclin, who graduated in 2012. “There weren’t many students my first year, but when I went to orientation the next year, that entire building was full. They must have had 200 to 300 people there.”
Like Maclin, Jackson has nothing but praise for the school. “They have some of the greatest teachers that I have ever met, and Skip Redmond is amazing. I bet Moore Tech will be one of the greatest schools in the nation by the time he gets through.”
For more information, visit williamrmoore.org.