I have an apology to make.
It’s been a while since my last column in The Daily Beacon. A little over 36 years, in fact, since you’ve heard from me. I’ve been preoccupied.
Last time you saw this byline, I was an awkward kid about to graduate with vague notions of becoming a war correspondent. But there weren’t many wars at the time, at least none that suited me
So I’ve found ways to kill time. I’ve been a crowd-control operative, an Egyptian museum guide, a criminal-defense investigator, an assistant editor of a national fiction magazine, an associate editor of a national women’s magazine, the entertainment editor for a city magazine, a humor writer for a monthly laundromat poster, the host of a podcast talk show, a co-host of a live-audience radio show, a columnist, reporter and contributing editor for a couple of different weekly newspapers.
Of the seven newspapers or magazines of which I’ve been a staff contributor, The Daily Beacon is the only one that’s still in business. It’s been a tough 36 years for print journalism.
You just never know. Lately, I’m in charge of an organization called the Knoxville History Project. We take on research and writing jobs, large and small. I also give happy-hour talks and walking tours. A couple of weeks ago, I gave a Homecoming tour of UT’s campus.
It’s an interesting campus, by the way. As a student, I didn’t know that. I didn’t hear many stories about the campus. If there were traditions, they didn’t invite me. The Hill was the Hill, but The Rock was just a rock. Neyland’s end zones weren’t checkerboards. It was all artificial turf. UT was modern, and therefore — proudly — just the same as everywhere else.
I was a senior when I drove over to Chapel Hill to visit my sister at UNC. She’d been there only a few months, but she already knew the legends of the campus: Silent Sam, the Old Well, McCorkle Place, the Davie Poplar, the Bell Tower.
Chapel Hill fascinated me. I’d grown up around the UT campus, had relatives who attended and worked there. I didn’t know any stories except about football. I assumed there weren’t any.
There are. And stories play a role. Recent administrations have emphasized the drive to make UT a Top 25 Research University. As a reporter, I often heard that quest cited to me as a reason for sometimes-controversial development choices.
But there’s one thing Top 25 research universities have in common besides academic prestige. Like Chapel Hill, they tell their stories.
I did a quick review of the current Top 25 Research Universities. Every one of them cherishes century-old buildings. I thought I would find a couple of exceptions, but I didn’t. Even Caltech, in Pasadena, has a prominent administrative building older than Ayres Hall. Several leading universities have buildings two centuries old or more. Harvard’s Massachusetts Hall is almost 300 years old; it’s heavily used as an administrative and residential building. A sense of history reflects any institution’s sense of permanence and significance.
If UT were to join America’s top 25 research universities — and I hope we do — we’ll stand out in one regard: we’ll be the only one on the whole list that has saved no architectural remnant of our first 75 years.
If UT ever wants to do anything with its history, there’s still a lot to work with. Campus includes a Civil War battlefield; a unique Victorian-era park that was once a streetcar destination; an administration building that, as site of a siege by counterculture demonstrators, made national news; America’s oldest theater in the round; the home of a doomed aviator for whom an airport is named; a vivid setting for an Ingrid Bergman movie; an architecturally interesting landmark that hosted appearances by Frank Sinatra, Nina Simone, Gene Roddenberry, the Clash, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Carl Sandburg, Dick Gregory, John McCormack, Chick Webb and Tennessee Williams; a prehistoric Indian mound.
Even the Hill is more hallowed than I knew when I learned the alma mater. As startled construction workers discovered in the summer of 1826 when they dug the foundation for the first building on the Hill discovered with some surprise, it was a forgotten graveyard.
So let’s tell our stories. Need a practical purpose for history? Remembering where the bodies are buried can prevent unpleasant surprises. (Published in the Daily Beacon 11/15/17)