Oral History of Kenneth (Ken) Senter


Interviewed by Keith McDaniel

January 16, 2017


MR. MCDANIEL: This is Keith McDaniel, and today is January the 16th, 2017, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in our country. I am at my studio here in Oak Ridge with Mr. Ken Senter. Ken, thank you for taking time to come in and talk with me.
MR. SENTER: My pleasure.
MR. MCDANIEL: Now, you and I met, I guess it was two and a half, three years ago, something like that, when we did “1776” together.
MR. SENTER: What a moment, yeah.
MR. MCDANIEL: At the Oak Ridge Playhouse. As a history teacher, you expressed then that that was kind of a dream come true for you.
MR. SENTER: Absolutely. An English major as an undergraduate, and then I wound up teaching history. I show that film every year to my AP [Advanced Placement] U.S. history students and then it came to town, and one of my students said, "You have to try out." The only thing is I had to shave my mustache.
MR. MCDANIEL: You've left it off, haven't you?
MR. SENTER: It was worth it. Yeah, my wife had never seen me without it.
MR. SENTER: She said she preferred it this way.
MR. MCDANIEL: Oh, okay. Well, we'll get to that, but let's start like where I start with everybody. Tell me where you were born and raised. Something about your family.
MR. SENTER: Okay. My mother and father were southerners, but my dad went into the Air Force and they traveled extensively and lived in Turkey for a time where he served the Air Force, served the country there. When he came back, he got into insurance and moved around the country quite a bit. It was kind of a high pressure job. They sent him to branches of an old company called Service Review Insurance that were failing, and it was his job in one year to turn them around.
MR. MCDANIEL: Oh, really?
MR. SENTER: I was born up in Flint, Michigan. We lived up there. My sister was born two years earlier in Detroit.
MR. MCDANIEL: Where were they originally from? You said they were from the south.
MR. SENTER: My father's from southeastern Kentucky, and my mother's from southwestern Virginia.
MR. SENTER: He was sick as a child with rheumatic fever and had to move out to Arizona for his health.
MR. SENTER: I'm fortunate to be here because that killed a lot of young people back in the day.
MR. MCDANIEL: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.
MR. SENTER: He survived and lived a full life. He's still alive and doing well.
MR. MCDANIEL: Okay, but you were born in Flint.
MR. SENTER: Flint, Michigan, right. Two months old they put me on a pillow in my mother's lap and took me to Washington state to save another branch of that insurance company. We actually lived in all the four corners of the United States. Washington, Arizona, some Southern California, Florida, and then up in New York where I finished up through the third and fourth grades.
MR. SENTER: Then it was just I think too much pressure on him. Only recently has he told me he just couldn't fire people. He did not like to fire people, so he got out of management. Then we located here because my mother's brother, Benny Mullins, lived here and had started a factory and just a family connection like that. My dad decided to work as just an insurance inspector rather than a manager, and we wound up here in Oak Ridge and been here since the fifth grade.
MR. MCDANIEL: You moved here in the fifth grade?
MR. MCDANIEL: You just decided, you all were looking for a place to settle?
MR. SENTER: Right.
MR. MCDANIEL: Your uncle was here already.
MR. SENTER: Right, and a couple of aunts.
MR. MCDANIEL: I guess they probably encouraged your mother and father.
MR. SENTER: Yeah, they told us the schools were good.
MR. MCDANIEL: The weather's not bad.
MR. SENTER: That's true. Up in New York, my sister was about to go into a junior high school, where there was a police guard in every hallway.
MR. MCDANIEL: Is that right?
MR. SENTER: My parents said, “Let's go back to the South,” and we were raised here then.
MR. MCDANIEL: No, so what year was that when you came here?
MR. SENTER: It was about 1976.
MR. MCDANIEL: Okay, so you were in fifth grade.
MR. MCDANIEL: Okay. You said your dad, he became an insurance…
MR. SENTER: Safety inspector, and ultimately an auditor. He worked in insurance for the rest of his career.
MR. MCDANIEL: Oh, did he? Now, your sister, you say, she was older than you?
MR. SENTER: Two years older, yes.
MR. MCDANIEL: Two years older. Okay. You just have the one sibling?
MR. MCDANIEL: Okay. All right. I guess when you all came here you ... Was that still middle school or was it still junior high?
MR. SENTER: We were junior highers, yeah. Fifth, sixth grade. We were in Willow Brook Elementary for me, and then seventh, eighth, and ninth at Robertsville Middle School, Junior High.
MR. MCDANIEL: Right. Robertsville Junior High back then. Well, so this was the mid ‘70s?
MR. SENTER: Yes, sir.
MR. MCDANIEL: Did you have long hair?
MR. SENTER: Actually, I did. It went down over my ears. That's hard to believe that's true, but my mother wisely said, you know, “We've changed him around so much.” My dad wanted to cut it, and she said, “Just leave him alone because you've changed his life so much just let this go for a while.” I guess I cut it some, but in high school I wanted to go in the Navy, and I just burr cut it, and I kept it really short ever since.
MR. MCDANIEL: Did you?
MR. MCDANIEL: Wow. What was it like? What was Oak Ridge like as a young person in the late ‘70s?
MR. SENTER: It was a great place. Again, the schools were good schools. I didn't know much about Jefferson, but Robertsville had great caring teachers. You know, one of them now has moved up to be the School Board chair person, Keys Fillauer was my middle school history teacher.
MR. MCDANIEL: I interviewed Keys not too long ago. Did his oral history.
MR. SENTER: Yeah. Great man with a great wit. You know, it's an attractive thing to make education appealing that way. He and Lynn Burkey were a great team for civics we had there in junior high at that time. So I guess my life sort of centered around school, but I did grow up working on my uncle's farms. He owned a lot of property in Anderson County, in addition to running Oak Ridge Tool and Engineering.
MR. MCDANIEL: Yeah, that's what I was about to say. The company that he ran was Oak Ridge Tool and Engineering.
MR. SENTER: Right, and he founded that with a partner who subsequently died, so he wound up running the whole company and did quite well. It's still a strong industry in the community and supports a lot of families.
MR. MCDANIEL: Yeah, sure.
MR. SENTER: I had a lot of experiences I would have never had otherwise. I learned how to drive a bulldozer and a tractor and horses before I could really drive a truck or a car on the road.
MR. SENTER: You know, you get a lot of training and work ethic working for a man like that. A self-made man who to start his company, he worked seven years 20 hours a day.
MR. MCDANIEL: Is that right?
MR. SENTER: You got to believe you can never work hard enough to satisfy him, but you tried because you wanted to satisfy him. You got to learn a lot of neat things about cattle and just being outdoors. So that was a big part of my experience was feeling ... I lived in the city with a great school and comfortable middle class life, but I also got to be out on a farm.
MR. MCDANIEL: Yeah, yeah. Wow. You said that Fillauer, Keys Fillauer and Lynn ...
MR. SENTER: Burkey.
MR. MCDANIEL: Burkey. They did the civics. The civics program.
MR. SENTER: Well, I guess they were my U.S. history teachers. I'd like to back up a minute because I don't think I ... civics was more a ninth grade class.
MR. SENTER: I think I had them for like eighth grade U.S. history, but they were a team. They taught the history and the civics together, and they were a great comedic act.
MR. MCDANIEL: Oh, were they?
MR. SENTER: Good friends. You could tell they enjoyed their lives. That's what I could say about all my teachers that I knew. A lot of them didn't even have families, but they were hyper-dedicated to the teaching profession. They loved each other like a family. You can tell they enjoyed what they did. You can tell it was everything to them.
MR. MCDANIEL: I guess that had an impact on you later in life when you chose your profession?
MR. SENTER: Absolutely. I went off to get an English degree at Tennessee Tech University. I had a scholarship to go into the Navy.
MR. MCDANIEL: Let's get there in a minute. I want to talk to you about your high school days before we get there. I like to go chronologically otherwise I'll get lost. You finished at Robertsville.
MR. SENTER: That's correct.
MR. MCDANIEL: I guess seventh, eighth, and ninth because it was junior high then you moved on to the high school.
MR. SENTER: Right, and combined studies.
MR. MCDANIEL: Tell me about your high school experience.
MR. SENTER: Well, I was a very quiet young man. Maybe because I moved around so much, and I made friends and they were gone within one year, so I just kind of stayed to myself. Liked to read a lot, but these teachers weren't satisfied to let a person just sit. They got me into Combined Studies which was then even an advanced class for sophomores, you know, English and history.
MR. MCDANIEL: Explain that to me. Tell me about the Combined Studies.
MR. SENTER: I think back then six or even eight teachers at a time shared a group of advanced sophomores, so it built on sort of the civics community idea, and you moved up and became the Combined Studies class learning about western civilization and world literature. You know, and the great teachers were still there who had founded the whole program. Catherine Ledgerwood, you know, she was quite old at that time when I was a student, but a very strong force.
MR. MCDANIEL: I just this afternoon I interviewed Connie Battle.
MR. SENTER: I see.
MR. MCDANIEL: Connie mentioned Catherine Ledgerwood about taking kids to Europe.
MR. SENTER: Oh, yes.
MR. MCDANIEL: On trips.
MR. SENTER: Yes, they did.
MR. MCDANIEL: Connie went with two of those trips. It's funny that you would mention Catherine Ledgerwood.
MR. SENTER: Gene Pickel was the main history teacher and a very strong influence on my life. You know, I think certainly half the AP teachers in the south east were directly trained by Gene Pickel.
MR. SENTER: I had him as a teacher, and then later I had him as a trainer, but as a teacher he was a tireless person. A great booming laugh. You could never be unattached or not engaged. One time he even came up, and I was just sitting on a heat exchange thing waiting for class to start. He came up and pulled a hair out of my arm, and I didn't react at all, and he said, "You are a stoic."
MR. MCDANIEL: Is that right?
MR. SENTER: Yeah, but I remember that to this day that he was trying to chip away at my shell. Certainly, because of his enthusiasm for his job and enthusiasm for history certainly was there when I wanted to make a career choice. I didn't do too well-
MR. MCDANIEL: Gene Pickel, just as an aside, Gene Pickel was in my very first documentary that I ever made.
MR. SENTER: Wow. A worthy candidate.
MR. MCDANIEL: A worthy candidate. Yes.
MR. SENTER: He went on to get the first ever Lifetime Achievement Award from the College Board.
MR. MCDANIEL: Is that right?
MR. SENTER: He deserved it because he made it his mission to go around and encourage teachers in this AP program.
MR. MCDANIEL: Sure, sure.
MR. SENTER: I'm not kidding. All over the South and, I mean, he went to Turkey. The College Board sent him a lot of places even around the world to be a spokesperson for the AP program.
MR. MCDANIEL: Wow, wow. Who else when you were in high school? You said you were kind of shy and kind of introverted.
MR. SENTER: Right. I had a few friends. You know, we went camping and fishing and hunting together. You know the Oak Ridge area is a great place to have access to the outdoors, as you well know. I stayed out of trouble when a lot of my friends got into bad habits.
MR. SENTER: You know, we went out usually just fishing or camping or something all times of the year. All weathers. Those friends were real close, and I always like those memories.
MR. MCDANIEL: Did you participate in any kind of extra-curricular activities at school?
MR. SENTER: Sure. I was in National Honor Society and a lot of my activities weren't with school, they were with my church. I grew up going to Central Baptist Church here in Oak Ridge, but I can say I was in the first boats of rowers ever in Oak Ridge.
MR. SENTER: Stephen Spooner who, I just not long before he died I had a chance to speak to him again because he and his wife were walking out at the lake when my wife and I were there biking, so I was honored to get to talk to him right before he passed away.
MR. SENTER: He was a pioneer that started all this up. We bought the first boats, and it was kind of an Explorer post really at that time, but a lot of my friends and I jumped in there and a great athletic endeavor to get you in shape. I was not in much physical shape as far as athletics before then. I didn't play sports, but I loved rowing. It was a great group of guys, and we were again out there in all weathers and stuff.
MR. MCDANIEL: You were one of Oak Ridge's very first rowers.
MR. SENTER: Yes, that's true. Somebody…
MR. MCDANIEL: What year was that? Do you remember?
MR. SENTER: I gave up ... 1983, must have been. I stopped rowing to get a job in 1984, the year I graduated, so it was 1982, 1983 when they started.
MR. MCDANIEL: Started.
MR. SENTER: Yeah, and Mark Fuller, a young man that I rowed with got drafted by the U.S. Naval Academy right out of my boat.
MR. SENTER: He had a career start there, yeah. It was a quality program. Mr. Spooner had rowed, I'm sure as a collegiate athlete somewhere. He knew what to do.
MR. MCDANIEL: He knew what to do?
MR. SENTER: Yeah, and look at what it's become. It's become a huge economic boost and a beautiful sight to see, out there at the lake.
MR. MCDANIEL: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. What other things about high school in Oak Ridge do you remember?
MR. SENTER: Well, it was an interesting combat with mathematics. I took calculus and stuff, and as far as sifting down to get my career path, it was not going to be with math. I struggled badly. I worked when I took my higher math classes at Jackson Square Pharmacy, so that's another historical tidbit. I worked with Jim McMahon, Sr. The guy who started the only independent pharmacy in Oak Ridge.
MR. MCDANIEL: Sure, sure.
MR. SENTER: World War II veteran and a great hero, really. I use a lot of what he did in World War II in my classes as examples because he has an astounding story.
MR. MCDANIEL: What did you do there?
MR. SENTER: I was a guy that stocked the counter, ran the cash register, delivered drugs to the hospitals and nursing homes around town.
MR. SENTER: Stocked the tobacco and the candy, so that was a little business background I got from Jim McMahon, Senior and Junior. Both of them trained me.
MR. SENTER: Just took me under their wing a little bit, but I had to give up rowing to get that job, but it allowed me to buy a car, but it didn't allow me to ...I worked 30 hours a week, so I didn't study a lot. I don't tell this to many people. Now it's going to probably get out, but I didn't study much, and didn't succeed in math and things. Everybody around me was being told to be an engineer and do this and that, so I originally pursued engineering, but I should have just listened to my heart and realized I don't have the mind for this.
MR. SENTER: I don't have the focus, that kind of focus.
MR. SENTER: Other than that, high school was a great place to be, for the first time in my life, continuously in one place and forming an identity. For a long time I was Lori's brother because my sister had gone ahead through there, but then I made a name for myself.
MR. MCDANIEL: What kind of personality did she have? Was she outgoing?
MR. SENTER: Much more than I, yes. Much more than I, and had a lot more friends.
MR. MCDANIEL: A lot of times, and I find this with my children and other parents that we talk to, have two kids and their personalities are completely different. You know, one may be a little more serious. One may be more fun loving.