By Dennis McCarthy
Jimmy Cheek had been on the job as chancellor of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, barely 20 weeks when Alumnus magazine sat down with him to talk. By then, we’d already seen Jimmy Cheek the chancellor, with his 70-hour work weeks, his administrative skills, and his rapport with trustees, faculty, students, alumni, and donors. Now we wanted to know more about Jimmy Cheek the man. Who’s behind that decisive voice and disarming smile? The conversation began with Jeannette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle, the reading assignment for freshmen this fall as part of UT Knoxville’s the Life of the Mind program.
I just finished reading The Glass Castle. It’s a true story about Jeannette Wall’s struggle to break out of her dysfunctional family life. Jeanette was the second of four children, growing up in wretched poverty, with a father who couldn’t hold down a job and a self-indulgent mother who ended up homeless after her husband died of alcoholism. The conditions of her home life were horrible, but Jeannette loved her family and remains loyal to them to this day. Jeannette’s father, an addicted gambler, would disappear for days at a time. Several times the family had to pack up and leave in the middle of the night—often with only the clothes on their backs—to dodge creditors. Hunger and poverty are miserable childhood companions, and yet Jeannette overcame them to become a valuable contributor to the world around her.
You ask yourself how people live under such conditions and emerge to go to college, get a degree, and create a successful life for themselves. Jeannette did it through a strong will and self-determination. It’s a remarkable story about a remarkable person. It’s my kind of book.
The Glass Castle is not only your kind of book, I get the feeling that Jeannette Walls is also your kind of person. Who are your heroes? Who, apart from your wife, Ileen, would you say has had the greatest influence on you?
That would have to be my uncle, Tyrus King. He and his wife had no children, and I was like a son to him. He was an optimist; and he believed in people. He treated everyone as an individual, not as a member of some group or class. My uncle was always encouraging. He helped people get through whatever circumstances in life confronted them. He certainly did that for me. He showed me that if you’re willing to work hard enough, you can fulfill your dreams.
My greatest hero, however, is Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln suffered enormous setbacks throughout his life, but he overcame them to become president. It was the most difficult time in our history. Lincoln led this country in a completely different direction, and he did it so he could save it. He struggled throughout his presidency, even with the greatest personal tragedy of his life, the loss of his son Willie, but he never gave up. He was a tremendous man, and I always wonder what might have happened if he could have continued his vision after the Civil War. I believe we would be a much better country if he had. We are a great country, of course, but I believe we would be even better if Lincoln had been able to serve another term and help put the country back together again.
In William Faulkner’s 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he said that the only stories worth telling are stories about the human heart in conflict with itself. The people who interest you, the stories you tell, seem to capture that spirit. How would you describe your personal philosophy?
I believe that life is short and we need to take full advantage of it. Families are very important to me. So is my personal faith. And I believe in helping people along the way. We can make a difference in people’s lives.
Your public persona clearly embodies that philosophy. As you think back over your life, do you have any regrets? Let me rephrase that—is there anything in your life you’d change if you had it to do over again?
I don’t have any real regrets. There are things that happened to me—or that I made happen—that I didn’t like at the time, but they were the usual setbacks that are a part of life.
If I had it to do over again I would probably have had more fun in my earlier years, especially in college. I was a grind in college. The night I graduated from high school I realized my future was before me and I was not prepared for it. I realized I had a chance to make a difference and I resolved to become a serious student.
In high school I was not focused on what I wanted to be and I could easily have been unsuccessful. Fortunately, I had three teachers—in agriculture, chemistry, and sociology—who taught me to believe in myself, to set hard goals, and to work to achieve them. A few years into college one of my best friends from high school asked me, “What happened to you?” I told her I had decided that becoming a good student was important for me. I wasn’t a bad student in high school—just sort of average—but without a direction, I was just spinning my wheels.
As a school boy growing up in Texas, you couldn’t have been thinking about becoming a university chancellor in Tennessee. What were you dreaming about?
I wanted to be a high school teacher. When I got to Texas A&M, however, the faculty encouraged me to take a graduate degree and to think about a career in academia. Toward the end of my senior year I had already accepted a fellowship at the University of Missouri to begin work on a Ph.D. I planned to study agricultural economics, with an emphasis in policy. I was student teaching at the time, however, and enjoyed it so much that I canceled my fellowship and took a job teaching high school in Beaumont, Texas.
Ileen and I got married and moved to Beaumont. She entered Lamar University as an undergraduate, and I enrolled in a master’s program at night while teaching during the day. I taught for four years then moved back to Texas A&M to work on a Ph.D. I loved high school teaching but had decided by then that I wanted to teach in college.
So you fulfilled your dream of being a high school teacher, and got even more than you wished for. What is your greatest wish today?
My greatest wish is that my children will live happy, productive lives. I hope to live a long time to enjoy my family. And I hope to successfully lead the University of Tennessee.
You never know how things will turn out, but I think they are going well so far. I want to make UT an even better university than it already is. That’s why I came here. It’s a challenge—my last frontier. When I retire, I hope people will say this administration has been a good run for the university, that we accomplished some things that otherwise might not have been accomplished, that we dreamed some dreams and saw many of them come true. As Dolly Parton told the graduating seniors this year, dream big dreams, then work as hard as you can to accomplish them.
You said earlier that your uncle believed in people. It’s clear that you believe in people, too. A few minutes ago I mentioned Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. Later in that speech, he said, “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
I believe in that. Let me tell you a story. When I was an assistant dean at the University of Florida, a young man came to my office one day asking to be admitted to our college. He had been in engineering for a long time and had more grades below 2.0 than any student I had ever seen. I looked at his record and told him there was no way I could admit him. He was persistent, though, and convinced me to put him on probation for a trial semester. But he would have to earn at least a 2.5 GPA.
He made the required grade point average and came back to see me the next semester. We agreed on the same deal for another term.
The next time, however, his grades were slightly below the standard. When he came back to see me to plead his case, I told him that we had a deal and he had not held up his end of the bargain. Then he told me a story. His wife had left him during the semester, he said, and had taken his three children to Miami. Each weekend he would drive to Miami, 350 miles away, to try to convince her to come back home. He said, “My wife relented and is home now. She gave me one last chance; you’ve got to give me one too.” I broke down and said, okay. After that, he did well and managed to graduate with a 2.2 average, despite his atrocious grades when he was in engineering.
After graduation, he called me to say he was going to law school. I told him his grades overall were so poor that he couldn’t get into any law school in the country. He told me he had already taken the LSAT and had done very well. He thought he could get in to the University of Miami if I would only write a letter on his behalf. I wrote the letter and he got in.
Three years later, I got a call from the Florida Bar, asking how my young friend had gotten readmitted so many times. They assumed he must have had a drug problem or something similar. They said he had passed the bar but they were reluctant to grant him a license until they found out what was really going on. I told them that his problem was solely his grades and that he was a fine person. He got his license.
My colleagues at other colleges would have thought I was crazy. But I thought the young man had been misadvised. He wasn’t cut out to be an engineer and shouldn’t have been strung along. Maybe I should not have admitted him, but I believed in him, and now he is a lawyer.
I have faith in people. That faith has sustained me. I’ve rarely been disappointed.