Wilbur H. Palmer Vocational-Technical Center Celebrates 21 years
by Laurie Jasper
It isn’t every day that one has the pleasure of discussing a town landmark with the very person the building is named after, yet that was the case recently as I met with Wilbur “Webb” Palmer about the 21st anniversary of the opening of the Wilbur Palmer Vocational-Technical Center at Alvirne High School, which opened in September, 1992 and was dedicated in January, 1993. There is no question that it was Webb Palmer’s vision, tenacity and perseverance that made Alvirne’s state of the art vocational center a reality, and it is impossible to write about one without also learning more about the other.
Webb was born in Derry and graduated from Pinkerton Academy in 1953. He enrolled in the two-year Associate’s Degree program at the University of New Hampshire’s Thompson School, after being told by his high school principal that he’d never make it through college. However, after completing the two-year program he went on to earn his bachelor’s degree at UNH. Webb enrolled in the Army ROTC program and was commissioned for active duty as a second Lieutenant in the Army following his graduation. Months prior to completing his Army duties, he received a telegram from the Superintendent of Schools in Colebrook. One of his UNH professors, Phil Barton, recommended Webb for a teaching position in Colebrook and he was hired via telephone. Webb taught at Colebrook for three years and met his wife, Marge, an English teacher, there.
In 1963 Webb was hired to teach math and science at Hudson’s junior high school, the Dr. H. O. Smith School. Because of space problems, the junior high was moved to Alvirne. When Alvirne’s agriculture teacher left to take a position at UNH, Webb was hired as his replacement. “So, in the fall of 1966, it was just 35 students and me,” Webb said.
Webb began to expand the programs offered. “When I took over, the farm was in debt over $10,000. I decided the 100 acres of pines across the street could use a selective cutting, so I contacted the county forester. That helped get us out of debt,” recalled Webb.
Also about this time, Alvirne Principal Chester J. Steckevicz asked Webb to teach a general science class made up of some of the more disruptive students. Webb knew after one or two classes that it just wasn’t going to work. However, he asked the class if they would be interested in forestry. Webb wrote a grant for environmental science and obtained the money to expand.
In 1972, while reading the Sunday paper, Webb saw a used greenhouse for sale for $500. This had been on his wish list, but the cost was prohibitive. He contacted the NH Department of Education and they assisted in purchasing the green house for Alvirne, which is still there today.
In the early 1980s, the Alvirne Trustees paid for a larger green house, three more classrooms and an office, and Webb was promoted from department chairman of vocational agriculture and home economics to half-time vocational director.
After several years, Webb was successful in having Alvirne named a state vocational center. He then had to prove the need for the programs he wished to offer to construct a new center. “Our school farm was a great tool to keep students from dropping out of school and gave them many practical experiences with animals and equipment. I told the administration we needed more farms, not the traditional ‘farm’ but farms like a bank, restaurant, child-care, store. Many thought I was crazy. But, I knew students could be successful with these hands-on experiences,” Webb said.
Webb wrote a grant to the State Department of Education, legislation was written and the bill to provide $6.3 million for construction of the vocational center passed in Concord. Webb had become a very familiar face around the State House. However, during discussions with the Hudson Planning Board, it was determined that additional work required by the planning board would add $600,000 to the total. Still not dissuaded, Webb convinced the State of New Hampshire to purchase the vocational buildings constructed previously, to say the entire construction was state funded. Webb had seen this accomplished in Portsmouth. The state agreed to pay $400,000 and the Alvirne Trustees made up the balance.
Construction of the new facility began in April, 1991.
While Webb and the school administration prepared to present the school budget, a group of community members was working on another project. Former and current students, parents and staff obtained enough signatures to place their request to name the new facility after Wilbur Palmer on the school warrant. The article passed with a unanimous vote. “I was shocked. One day I was told to come to the school, and as I drove in there was a large sheet with “Wilbur Palmer Vocational-Technical Center” painted on it, hanging from the construction. I couldn’t believe it. It is such an honor,” said Webb.
Karen Worthen, Career and Technical Education Director at the Wilbur Palmer Vocational-Technical Center, has worked at Alvirne for 30 years, and interned with Webb while obtaining her graduate degree in school administration in 1998. “Webb’s vision and work ethic are unbelievable. One of the biggest things I learned from him was that every single decision he made was good for the students. And, he was always so supportive of his staff,” Karen said. “We have wonderful students. Our programs prepare the students to enter the workforce or to advance in post secondary education. Our curriculum is aligned with industry and post secondary education. We have articulation agreements in some areas for dual enrollment credit. Our students receive good, solid foundations. We have four teams going to FFA Nationals. Alvirne is always well represented by our students,” continued Karen. Judy King is the Business and Community Liaison for the CTE program. She shared that labor trends and demands in the southern NH area provide direction on curriculum, but that many of the original offerings from 21 years ago continue to be a part of the program. Classes include: marketing, finance, accounting, digital communications, heavy duty mechanics, building trades, veterinary science, forest technology, horticulture, landscaping, agriculture production management on the 40 acre farm, health science and technology, early childhood education, culinary arts, drafting and design. Alvirne’s Checkers Restaurant opened 21 years ago and the school store boasts its own Hallmark franchise.
Webb retired in 2001 after 38 years of teaching in Hudson, and his retirement party honored a man who truly loved his career. ‘I had the greatest job a man could have. My students were such great kids. They were good with their hands and their brains. It was simple; treat your students the way you want to be treated, with respect. Let them learn by example. If you want them to work, grab a shovel and start working yourself,” Webb said.
Webb is an Alvirne Trustee and has been on the Board of Trustees for Eastern States Exposition (the Big E) for 25 years, among other activities. Webb is also working on a book about his life, including many stories about his career in education. If our chat is any indication, it will be a local best seller!
Webb and Marge Palmer just celebrated their 52nd wedding anniversary. They have a son, David and a daughter, Melissa, as well as four granddaughters. Webb Palmer is certainly one of Hudson’s living legends and the Wilbur H. Palmer Vocational-Technical Center is an incredible asset to Hudson and the State of New Hampshire.