John R Kirk,
eldest son of George W & Mary Jane (Reid) Kirk, was born January 23, 1851 in
Bureau County, IL, but was raised on a farm near Eagleville, Harrison
County, MO. John received his primary education at a local rural school,
then attended Bethany High School where he graduated in 1870. The next
fall, he began his long teaching career at his old school in Eagleville.
In 1873, Kirk
enrolled at the First District Normal School in Kirksville and attended
irregularly, alternating his own education with teaching in rural schools.
During his terms as a student, he also worked as secretary to President
Baldwin to pay for his education and to support himself and his young
family. He completed the Bachelor of Arts & Didactics and graduated as
valedictorian of his class in 1878.
For the next
sixteen years, Kirk served as superintendent of schools at Moulton, IA and
Bethany, MO, and as principal and teacher in the Kansas City & Westport, MO
schools. In 1880, he received the Master of Arts & Didactics, a degree
awarded to Normal graduates who completed two years teaching experience plus
a specified reading program. He also read law and was admitted to the Iowa
Bar in 1884 and the Missouri Bar in 1885. He actively practiced that
profession for less than a year, including the few months he spent as
Bethany City Attorney while he was the Superintendent of Schools.
elected State Superintendent of Schools in 1894 and served two terms,
1895-1998, but lost his bid for reelection for a third. He left office
January 1, 1899 and was immediately appointed Inspector of High Schools for
the University of Missouri. Six months later he was offered the Presidency
of The First District Normal School, his alma mater at Kirksville.
He accepted and took office that July.
Kirk and Rebecca Idella Burns, a teacher from Fort Dodge, IA, married July
15, 1875, while he was a Normal student. By the time he returned to
Kirksville as President, they were the parents of six, Robert, Elsie
Lucretia, Todd, Victor, and 5-year old twins Mary Elizabeth and Laura
Pauline. All the children graduated from the Normal and pursued teaching
Over the next
twenty-six years, Kirk expanded the programs of the Normal School and led
the movement to change its status from Normal to full-fledged Teachers
College. He also became one of the country’s leaders in teacher education
and an innovator and expert in rural education and the training of teachers
for the rural schools. He was an active member and officer of numerous
professional organizations including the Missouri Teachers Association,
National Educational Association, Commission on Accredited Schools and
Colleges of the North Central Association, and the American Association of
Teachers Colleges. His many honors over the years included honorary LLDs
from two Missouri colleges.
retiring from the Presidency in 1925, Kirk returned to the classroom for two
more earned degrees. He received a Bachelor of Science in Education from
Northeast in 1926 and the following fall, enrolled as a graduate student at
George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville. He was awarded his
Masters of Education in 1930, at age 79.
John died at
home in Kirksville November 7, 1937 and was buried at Maple Hills Cemetery
in Kirksville. The Kirk Memorial Building, funded primarily by donations
collected in a joint campus, alumni and community effort, was built in his
honor and completed in 1940. It stands at the south end of the main
Quadrangle, next door to Kirk Auditorium (now Kirk Building). Other campus
memorials to him include Kirk Academy, Kirk Society and his portrait in the