Autry Technology Center celebrates its 50th anniversary today with a manufacturing day and public reception.

For Autry Tech EMT instructor John Ridge, this anniversary is as much a celebration of family history as it is a milestone for the school. Ridge, a 2006 graduate of Enid High School, is grandson of Autry Tech co-founder and first superintendent Jewel “J.W.” Ridge.

Growing up, Ridge said he always was aware of his grandfather’s legacy in founding and leading the technology center.

Ridge said the technology center had its genesis in the friendship of his grandfather and Otwa “O.T.” Autry — a friendship made stronger during service in the Korean War.

“My grandfather said it all started in a foxhole,” Ridge said. “My grandfather and O.T. Autry had a plan here in Enid, and while they were over there they continued that discussion about starting a vocational school.”

Autry had served as an artillery officer with the 45th Infantry Division during World War II, and after the war he and J.W. Ridge both held teaching positions with Enid Public Schools. When the Korean War started both men deployed with the 45th to Korea.

Autry rose to the rank of brigadier general, while J.W. Ridge finished his service as a major. When the war concluded, the two men returned to Enid and resumed their careers in education.

Autry became superintendent of Enid Public Schools, and J.W. Ridge became the principal at what was then Waller Junior High School, now Waller Middle School.

But, they retained their desire to start a vocational training school — an educational format just then beginning to crop up on the East Coast.

Ridge said in the early 1960s his grandfather, along with his grandmother, mother and two aunts, started driving the southeastern United States during the summer months, touring new vocational training schools.

“They went to Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, North and South Carolina,” Ridge said. “After each stop the family would discuss their findings on the way to the next stop.”

Armed with these first-hand observations, J.W. Ridge was hired by Autry to develop classes and oversee construction of a new vocational school in Enid — work that began in 1963.

The school opened in 1967 as O.T. Autry Area Vocational Technical Center with J.W. Ridge as the first superintendent, a position he retained until his retirement in 1986.

Ridge said he’s always been proud of his grandfather’s role in starting Autry Tech, but he had no intention to teach there when he went to play football at Northwestern Oklahoma State University.

He studied health and sport science, thinking he’d become a teacher after graduation. But, another childhood dream kept pulling him in another direction.

“I always had a desire to be a firefighter,” Ridge said, “so I moved back to Enid in 2011 and enrolled in their EMT program, because that was the first step to becoming a firefighter.”

He graduated from the EMT training program in 2012, moved on to the paramedic program and started working for Life EMS.

It was in his role as an EMT that he met his wife, Samantha, an emergency room nurse at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center. The couple married and settled down to start a family in Enid.

“A position opened at Enid Fire Department, and it was the perfect opportunity,” Ridge said.

Ridge started as a firefighter with EFD in 2015, and soon had the opportunity to return to the school his grandfather started, this time as an instructor.

He taught his first class as an EMT instructor at Autry Tech in January 2016, and continues to teach EMT and firefighter trainees today.

Ridge said he and other industry experts are able to teach at Autry Tech and other CareerTech schools today in large part because of Autry and his grandfather.

At the time Autry and J.W. Ridge formed the school, Oklahoma still required teacher certification to instruct at technology centers. They made it a priority, Ridge said, to enable people who had worked in various industries to teach, so students could learn from their hands-on experience.

“Oklahoma’s governor at the time, Dewey Bartlett, was good friends with my grandpa and Superintendent Autry,” Ridge said in an Autry Tech press release. “The three men worked to change legislation to allow those with alternative certification for experts to be able to teach.”

“Being able to teach at Autry really brings everything full-circle,” Ridge said, “because if it weren’t for my grandfather, I wouldn’t be able to teach there today.”

Ridge said it’s “a tremendous honor” to be able to carry on his family’s legacy at Autry Tech.

“Whenever I drive on the campus or walk in the building, there is a sense of pride,” Ridge said, “because I am following the footprints my grandfather left, not only at Autry but in the city of Enid.”

As the community celebrates Autry Tech’s 50th anniversary, Ridge said he’s honored to see the lasting impact of his grandfather’s work.

“He was an extraordinary man, and did a lot of great things for Enid,” Ridge said. “Even to this day his impact still reaches far and wide. It’s really neat to still see that impact and see how much he’s still remembered. It’s really an honor.”

Autry Tech will host a public reception today, Friday, Oct. 6, 2017, to celebrate 50 years of vocational and technical education. The reception will be 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. in front of Autry Tech and will include a free lunch catered by the Autry Tech culinary program and a slideshow featuring highlights of the center’s last half-century.

Story provided by:  Enid News & Eagle

Written by:  James Neal