By Dan Conaway
At 5 o’clock on a Sunday morning in 1969, the phone in the frat house rang.
For those of you not familiar with five o’clock on a Sunday morning in a frat house, just think of a graveyard, except that the residents of a graveyard are more likely to be up and about. If the phone rings, it’s a wrong number, bad news or somebody calling for bail money.
This call was for me. “This had better be good,” I thought, meaning that the news had better be so bad, the urgency so compelling, that my stumbling down the stairs to the beat of my head would be warranted.
“Wake up, son. This is Andy Holt, and we’re going fishing. I’ll pick you up in 15 minutes.”“Daniel? Or is it Danny or Dan?” asked the voice. “This is Andy Holt.”
Andy Holt. He had the physical profile of a 1952 Pontiac Chieftain hood ornament and the legendary profile of a tireless champion of both public education and educators. He had ears big enough, with a gentle breeze behind them, to push a boat down the Tennessee River and a vision big enough, with a gentle spirit behind it, to push a university to integrate, to start a space institute, to triple student enrollment and double faculty size. His voice was equal parts molasses and grits, his wit sharp enough to shave with, and his personality warm enough to take the chill out of anybody or any room. He was a speaker and storyteller so mythically gifted he could open both the minds and wallets of state and federal legislators. As in Dr. Andrew D. Holt. As in president of the University of Tennessee. On my frat house phone. Talking to me.
“Yeah, right,” I said, coughing through the bale of cotton behind my teeth. “Who the hell is this?”
“Wake up, son. This is Andy Holt, and we’re going fishing. I’ll pick you up in 15 minutes.”
Andy Holt made it his business to meet as many students as he could. He would host faculty and students at his house — weekly. He would ferry weary students up The Hill on his way to the office. And, if he already knew your family, he would make it a point to spend some time with you before you graduated. During his salad days as a teacher and administrator at West Tennessee State Teachers College, now the University of Memphis, he became a close friend of both my godfather and one of my uncles.
I didn’t know that, but Andy Holt did. So 15 minutes after I hung up the phone, found a pair of jeans in the third pile on the right and made it out onto the porch, he docked a battleship of a Buick out front, threw open the door, handed me a bacon sandwich and set sail for some pond somewhere in West Knoxville.
We sat on the bank of that pond and caught — give or take — 3 million bream. They were standing in line. We talked about my family, about football, about Vietnam, about girls, about raising chickens and changing majors and the Grateful Dead. We didn’t talk about Andy Holt. And we laughed. A lot.
Then, in what was already a remarkable morning, he did something remarkable.
He drove me back to the house, grabbed the big cooler full of fish and told me to wake everybody up and meet him in the kitchen. In the next hour, he taught the 20 or so zombies I was able to raise how to clean fish, how to tell a good story and how to make an impression that lasts a lifetime.
He wasn’t a university president, former national president of the National Education Association or a Columbia Ph.D. He was Andy from Milan, hanging with some buddies.
That magic morning, when he looked at any of us, he turned the 25,000 students on campus into one. And everyone in that kitchen supports the university to this day and always will.
And we tell the story.
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Dan Conaway graduated from UT Knoxville in 1971 with a BS in communications, a major in advertising, a strong like of Smoky Mountain Market cheese dogs and a strong dislike of three-draw plays and a punt. He lives in Memphis and is a communication strategy consultant and freelance writer.