By Steve Hunley
Earl Hoffmeister passed away last week at 90. Many readers likely knew Earl Hoffmeister personally, as did I. I was one of those who was actually taught by Hoffmeister. Quite a few years ago, I was a student in Earl Hoffmeister’s mechanical drawing/drafting class. It won’t surprise anyone who knew him to know of his love of sports, especially the World Series. One October day Mr. Hoffmeister brought a transistor radio to class and solemnly told us, “Now, if you all will be good, if you’ll behave, I’ve got a special treat for you.” Well, we were sufficiently quiet and doing our school work and Mr. Hoffmeister raised the radio antenna and we got to listen to the World Series. Of course, the “treat” was less for us than it was for Mr. Hoffmeister but we didn’t mind. He was not only a great teacher but a genuinely good human being.
Mr. Hoffmeister was interested in politics, but it never consumed him. When Mildred Doyle announced she would retire in 1976, Hoffmeister was urged to run for Superintendent of Knox County Schools. Miss Doyle was gifted with a brand new and rather ostentatious Cadillac by admirers inside the school system and seemed headed for a contented retirement until she suddenly and abruptly changed her mind. Miss Doyle announced she would run again, after all. Many expected Mr. Hoffmeister to withdraw, but he persisted in running, which was a mighty bold thing to do. Mildred Doyle had been superintendent since 1946 and was renowned for rewarding her friends and punishing her enemies. In fact, Miss Doyle had, over time, created something of a potent political machine out of the school system. County judges, officeholders and members of the Knox County Court (the forerunner of the current County Commission), all were wary of getting on Miss Doyle’s bad side.
Big as Earl Hoffmeister was, he was David challenging Goliath when he ran against Mildred Doyle in 1976. Hoffmeister pulled off an upset and won. He won not because Miss Doyle had accumulated enemies over time, although that helped; he won because of his personality and commitment to education. Earl was a genuinely friendly person and it was readily apparent he really liked people. Mr. Hoffmeister also cared about education and educators.
Hoffmeister, to supplement his salary as a teacher and principal, built homes in the summer months and became quite successful at it. Earl’s knowledge about construction was critical during a time when he either built or renovated virtually every school building inside Knox County during his time as superintendent. One former County Commissioner told me about being with Hoffmeister during a tour of Powell High School as it was being renovated. Something caught Mr. Hoffmeister’s eye and he summoned the construction manager. “I want this done right,” Hoffmeister said. Earl explained what he had noticed that had displeased him and added a gruff, ”And if it isn’t done right, you won’t be getting any more contracts to do anything for Knox County schools.”
Mr. Hoffmeister was easily reelected in 1980 and 1984 before facing a fierce challenge from County Commissioner Wanda Moody. Moody had been a vocal and incessant supporter Mildred Doyle and a critic of Hoffmeister and his administration before announcing she would run herself in 1988. Both campaigned hard, but Hoffmeister crushed Moody in the general election. Relations between the superintendent and the County Commission improved dramatically during his tenure and ultimately Hoffmeister opted not to run for a fifth term in 1992, although he could have been reelected without much effort.
Earl Hoffmeister was effective because of his personality and was one of those rare folks who has the ability to think fast on his feet and come up with an appropriate and genuinely funny quip. Some took Earl Hoffmeister’s demeanor for a lackadaisical style and presumed he was dependent upon subordinates to run the school system. For those who actually knew the situation, they realized Earl Hoffmeister, despite his cheery and friendly nature, possessed an impressive strength of will and a steely determination. Earl could be stubborn as an angry mule, but he also knew his school system intimately.
Earl Hoffmeister was also one of the primary reasons big business, Chamber of Commerce-types and professional education bureaucrats wanted to change the way we pick our superintendents. Earl Hoffmeister never pretended to be anything he was not; others would grumble about Earl having been a coach and accused him of being a “good ol’ boy.” Those folks reasoned Earl Hoffmeister could be reelected forever and they were right.
Yet, Earl could make his point about what he wanted for the school system in language anyone could understand and even make hostile commissioners laugh. Earl Hoffmeister was truly popular with the people of Knox County.
In the end, Earl Hoffmeister accomplished more than all of his successors combined. Earl passed away peacefully, surrounded by the people he loved the most, but not everyone who loved the former superintendent was with him when he passed away. They number in the thousands and we will all miss him more than we can say.