Some names remain so tied to the University of Tennessee that the natural assumption is that they are alumni. Some changed the university forever. Some discovered their passions that would carry them to fame and fortune. For some, the university provided a brief stop during their educational journeys. And yet upon inspection, they do not have a diploma from the University of Tennessee. Here are a few of UT’s favorite adopted sons and daughters.
Andy Holt was born in 1904 in West Tennessee and came from a family of educators. He left an indelible mark as a legendary University of Tennessee president who transformed the university by turning it into a statewide system of higher education.
He earned a bachelor’s degree at Emory University in Atlanta and a doctoral degree at Columbia University in New York in 1937. His dissertation addressed the struggle for public support of education in Tennessee, where he subsequently became executive secretary for the Tennessee Education Association (TEA).
At TEA, Holt successfully campaigned for greater support for education, enlisting teachers and developing effective relationships with the governor and commissioner of education. That work resulted in a teacher retirement plan and a statewide sales tax to help finance public education.
In 1950, Holt began his 20-year UT career, first as executive assistant to the president, then as vice president from 1953 to 1959, and finally as president until 1970 when he retired.
Holt is credited with establishing the faculty retirement system and improving fundraising with the UT Development Council.
Under Holt, enrollment tripled; faculty and staff doubled; eight new buildings were added to the Knoxville campus; funding increased 400 percent; the Martin campus added graduate programs; the Space Institute was established in Tullahoma; the formerly private University of Chattanooga became part of the new UT System; and a distinguished science program was initiated in cooperation with Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
He also fought to include African Americans in state delegations to NEA conventions and later persuaded UT trustees to integrate undergraduate education, admitting the first African American students in 1961.
Holt was renowned as a prolific charismatic public speaker, creating in commencement ceremonies the “Holt pledge for new graduates” to “Brag on my alma mater at every opportunity as immodestly as a grandfather brags on his grandson.”
Holt died in 1987.
It’s been 32 years since Knoxville-born Diana Dale Dickey was a UT Knoxville student. She majored in theater from 1979 to 1984 before leaving prior to graduation to pursue acting full time, but she remains committed to giving back to the University.
“I wanted nothing more than to pursue my dream of acting, which I learned here at the University of Tennessee,” she told the December 2015 graduating class at commencement where she received an honorary master’s degree in fine arts.
“Studying here gave me my life,” Dickey told the new graduates in Knoxville, “so anything I can do to inspire and keep people’s dreams going—that’s what I want to do.”
She described her journey to success as years of hard work, including odd jobs—waitress, receptionist, driver for a tofu sandwich truck, products sales clerk in grocery stores, custodian, and performing as Barney the dinosaur and Shrek the giant at children’s parties.
Dickey found her niche on stage and screen playing harsh characters that have earned her the title of “reigning queen of Southern gothic” in TV roles such as True Blood, Breaking Bad, Justified, My Name is Earl and Christy.
She has returned to UT Knoxville’s Clarence Brown Theater to star in Steel Magnolias (1990), Our Country’s Good (1994), The Rainmaker (2001), A Streetcar Named Desire (2009) and Sweeney Todd (2012).
“I often think of UT as standing for ‘Utter Tenacity,’ ” Dickey told 2015 graduates. “Tenacity is a big thing you’ve got to have out there, no matter what it is you are going after. Stay persistent.”
John C. Thornton has been chief executive officer of Thunder Enterprises since he founded the company in 1991—the first of many successful business ventures he established.
Thunder Enterprises, a Chattanooga-based investment and real estate development firm, builds homes and communities in Tennessee, Wyoming, Montana, North Carolina and Hawaii. In 1992, Thornton founded and began serving as chairman of Thunder Air, a developer of high-end homes and master-planned communities.
He also served as chief executive officer and chairman of the board of American Rug Craftsmen—the nation’s largest producer of decorative floor mats—from 1984 to May 1993, when he sold the company to Mohawk Industries.
Thornton’s prolific entrepreneurial leadership earned him induction into UT Chattanooga’s Entrepreneurial Hall of Fame. He has served as a trustee on the board of the University of Tennessee and as a board member of several UT-affiliated enterprises.
Yet, Thornton’s alma mater is Tennessee Wesleyan College, which named him its most distinguished alumnus in 1994.
The reason he often is assumed to be a UT alumnus may be associated with his unprecedented $1 million gift in 1995 to fund the Thornton Athletics Student Life Center on the Knoxville campus. That year at homecoming, he was invited to “run through the T” along with Vol football players before the start of the game.
At 4 feet 11 inches, Leslie Jordan stands tall for comedy.
The former jockey studied at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where an elective class in theater decided, his future. In 1982, he caught the bus for Hollywood where he has found continued acting success—first in commercials before branching out into television, theater and film. He won a 2006 Emmy for best guest actor in a comedy series with his portrayal of Beverley Leslie on Will and Grace.
Jordan played newspaper editor Mr. Blackly in the 2011 movie The Help and most recently appeared in American Horror Story: Roanoke after having previously appeared in American Horror Story: Coven. Other TV shows in which he has appeared include Ugly Betty, Hearts Afire, Nash Bridges, Boston Legal, Reba, Sordid Lives and Star Trek: Voyager.
He often returns to his hometown of Chattanooga and recently served as master of ceremonies for Chattanooga Cares, which raises money for HIV education, prevention and support.
As was posted on his Facebook page before Chattanooga Cares, “I am a gay man who buried an entire phone directory to AIDS. We must remain vigilant. It is my ministry.”
Lawyer. Senator. Amabassador. Jim Sasser has accomplished much, but being a University of Tennessee graduate does not make the list.
Sasser began his collegiate career at the University of Tennessee, attending from 1954 to 1955 before he transferred to Vanderbilt University.
Though Sasser managed Albert Gore Sr.’s unsuccessful reelection campaign in 1970, his own campaigns later bore better fruit. Sasser won his U.S. Senate race in 1976, defeating incumbent Bill Brock, who had previously defeated Gore. Sasser handily won reelection in 1982 and 1988 but lost to Bill Frist in 1994. As senator, Sasser served as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee from1989 until he relinquished his seat to Frist.
Sasser then served as U.S. ambassador to China from 1996 to 1999 under President Bill Clinton. During that historic time, China continued opening to the West, though it wasn’t without trouble. He traveled with Chinese president Jiang Semin on his historic visit to the United States. Then shortly before Sasser left China, NATO troops mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, sparking violent protests in Beijing. Sasser was trapped inside the besieged embassy for four days.
Charles Joseph “Cormac” McCarthy, Jr.
Despite two stints of studying at the University of Tennessee, the writer known as Cormac McCarthy never completed a degree. Instead, he completed 10 novels, many to critical acclaim.
Born in Providence, Rhode Island, McCarthy moved with his family to Knoxville when he was 4. He graduated from Knoxville Catholic High School in 1951 and completed one year at UT Knoxville before he joined the U.S. Air Force. After four years of military service, during which he discovered a love of literature, he re-enrolled at UT, majoring in English from 1957 to 1960. Two of his short stories that first appeared in the university’s literary journal, The Phoenix, received awards and acclaim that launched his writing career.
His first novel, The Orchard Keeper, published in 1965, won the William Faulkner Award. His novels Child of God and Suttree continued his exploration of East Tennessee and Appalachian themes.
His novel All the Pretty Horses won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1992. It was part of a triology in which he left Appalachia behind for the southwestern United States.
A 2003 visit to El Paso with his young son inspired his 2006 post-apocalyptic novel The Road. It won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.