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Weekly 150

Dr. James Alton (J.A.) Barksdale

International Man of Intrigue

Posted 11/6/19

The name, Dr. J.A. Barksdale, was a name I’ve seen over the years in one context or another. So while scratching my head and looking for an interesting topic I came across his name. It must …

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Weekly 150

Dr. James Alton (J.A.) Barksdale

International Man of Intrigue


The name, Dr. J.A. Barksdale, was a name I’ve seen over the years in one context or another. So while scratching my head and looking for an interesting topic I came across his name. It must have been a sign; I stopped and read a few highlighted passages.

To my surprise, he may have been one of the most interesting or well traveled individuals from McKenzie. He was known as a man of deep moral and ethical conviction, he lived by the principles he taught.

James Alton (J.A.) Barksdale was born November 19, 1904 to James Monroe and Judith Esch Barksdale. Judith was James’ second marriage. His first wife, Delia Hedgecock died in the same year of her son, Clarence.

The Barksdales moved to Carroll County around 1878. James Monroe worked his entire life as a farmer. He was known as a kind, considerate and generous man, who never raised his voice in anger. James Monroe and his wife lost their lives in a fire in June of 1933.

J.A. graduated from McKenzie High School and earned his Bachelor of Science degree from Bethel College. In 1928, he married Eleanor Herrin.

He later earned a Master’s Degree from the University of Colorado, a doctorate from the University of Tennessee and an honorary doctorate from Bethel College.

During the majority of his advanced collegiate course work, Dr. Barksdale was a teacher and administrator at the secondary school level. He also served as a professor and administrator at the university level.

He served as a superintendent of schools, state commission, dean of a college, advisor in Turkey during the Kennedy administration, and president of Bethel College to name a few of his accomplishments.

He was appointed Commissioner of Education under Governor Gordon Browning. As commissioner, Dr. Barksdale testified before the House of Representatives’ select committee to investigate the education, training and loan guaranty programs under the GI Bill. The committee investigation focused on the $14 billion spent on helping veterans. Committee Chairman Olin Teague stated they would “make some recommendations to Congress so to what we think should be done to take any of the what we might call bugs out of this program where we may not have gotten our money’s worth to the taxpayer or to the veteran.”

According to transcripts from the proceedings, Dr. Barksdale was brought in to testify because members of the committee thought they would benefit from his “advice and suggestions concerning the evolution of the policy of the state department of education pertaining to allowing the school to do live work.”

Live projects are defined as projects that can be worked on in real-time and with a defined deadline. These projects provide a hands-on experience on any ongoing work in a company. A live project can be called as an internship or training because a student can gain real work expertise before getting a full-time job.

In his testimony, Dr. Barksdale explained how he put a clearer definition of the work allowed as live projects and how the State of Tennessee was working to prevent abuses of federal funds:

“Live projects not permitted to be worked on if they are not school property or property of the veterans who is enrolled in the school or property of the veteran’s immediate family. The veteran must show that he or members of his immediate family has owned this property for 30 days prior to being accepted by the school. If its is necessary to accept live projects for repair other than as stated above in order to have a well-balanced training program, the attached form must be completed and retained by the school. If complaints are received by this office that school is abusing the privilege, it will result in withdrawal of the approval after investigation shows that the complaints are justified.”

A few committee members worked to trip him up on certain incidents that occurred in Nashville, but he was unphased by the line of questions.

In the 1960s, he worked for the federal government overseas in Asia serving as a “Consultant in Education” in Turkey and Jordan.

After his work with the government, Dr. Barksdale and his wife Eleanor returned to McKenzie. Although he was looking to retire, he took on the position of Professor of Education at Bethel College.

With a stellar career and an impressive resume, Dr. Barksdale remained humble about his accomplishments. It was noted never said, “when I was Commissioner of Education or Dean of Tennessee Tech.” He was at ease with the governor or with the person who plowed his garden. As a teacher he was at his best, having the rare ability of holding one’s attention completely. College students praised his ability. Dr. Barksdale was in great demand as a speaker and church leader.

Dr. Barksdale died November 10, 1980 at the age of 75 in Paris, Tenn. He is buried alongside his wife at Shiloh Church Cemetery in McKenzie.

With Dr. Barksdale’s impressive resume, it would be easier to read and understand in bullet points versus continues text:

1925-1935 — Teacher, principal, Charlotte High School (Dickson County, Tenn.)

1935-1941 — Principal Central High Schools, Ashland City, Tenn.

1941-1943 — E.W. Grove High School, Paris, Tenn.

1943-1946 — Tennessee High School, Bristol,Tenn.

1946-1949 — Superintendent Public Schools, Union City, Tenn.

1949-1950 — Director Tennessee Department Personnel (Governor Gordon Browning Administration)

1950-1953 — Tennessee Commissioner Education (Governor Gordon Browning Administration)

1951-1957 — President Cumberland Presbyterian Board Education

1953-1955 — Acting Associate Professor Education University of Tennessee College Education, Knoxville

1955-1960 — Dean Tennessee Polytechnic Institute

1960-1962 — Adviser higher education United States Overseas Mission International Cooperation Administration, Ankara, Turkey (President John F. Kennedy Administration)

1963-1965 — Chief education adviser Agency for International Development, American Embassy, Amman, Jordan (President Lyndon B. Johnson Administration)

1965-1980 — Professor of History Bethel College

1967 — Visiting professor Memphis State University

1969 — Interim-president Bethel College

1967-1968 — Consultant Henry County Board Education.

Jason R. Martin

B.S. • M.A.Ed • MLS

Councilman, Ward II

Executive Chairman, McKenzie 150th Celebration

E: jmartin@mckenziebanner.com  P: 731.352.3323

Jason Martin is a life-long resident of McKenzie. He graduated from McKenzie High School in 2000; earned a Bachelor of Science in History from Bethel College in 2004; a Masters in Education from Bethel University in 2009 and a Masters in History and Humanities from Fort Hays State University in 2011.

weekly 150


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