By Erin Chesnut
Photos by Steven Mantilla and Sam Thomas
The University of Tennessee System has a presence and an impact in all 95 counties across the state, and now a new campaign is making that presence visible to passersby through the “Everywhere You Look, UT” mural project.
“I think, oftentimes, when we think about higher education, we think about a campus or we think about a building. But having (a UT mural) in a rural area, in an agrarian community, on the side of a huge barn—it’s just a reminder that UT is not just on a campus, but it’s in the communities. It’s in our farms; it’s helping transportation. So I think the mural project is just a visual reminder that UT is everywhere,” UT Martin Chancellor Keith Carver says.
So far, two murals have been painted—one at each end of the state. The first can be seen on a water tower, owned by UT Interim President Randy Boyd, near the Knox Rail Salvage building just east of the Old City in Knoxville. The second was installed in June on the side of a grain bin owned by Robinson & Belew in Sharon—just seven miles south of UT Martin. At 46 feet high and 66 feet wide, the Sharon mural reminds thousands of travelers on U.S. 45E just how close the UT System is to their daily lives.
“Seventy percent of all the doctors and dentists in the state of Tennessee come from the Health Science Center in Memphis,” Boyd says. “You go to the University of Tennessee at Martin with five satellite campuses throughout rural West Tennessee. They’re the access point to higher education, to a better job and a better life for thousands and thousands of people in rural West Tennessee (who) wouldn’t have that opportunity otherwise.”
Boyd mentioned further impact through the UT Space Institute; UT Chattanooga in Southeast Tennessee; UT Knoxville; along with the UT Extension offices in all 95 counties.
“Everywhere you look, there’s UT,” he says.
Locating the second mural at Robinson & Belew was more than an advertisement opportunity—it was a chance for a long-established legacy family to share its UT pride with the region. Established by Bob Robinson and now operated by his grandson-in-law, Keith Fowler, the business has deep roots in both the Sharon community and at UT Martin. While Robinson & Belew was officially founded in 1950, Robinson’s serious business endeavors began many years before, in 1937, with a wagonload of strawberries.
After a long day in his strawberry field, the then 28-year-old Robinson loaded his wagon and headed for the buying station near Sharon. But, when he reached the station, they had stopped buying for the night. Rumor said a canning factory some distance away was still buying berries but only if they were capped. So Robinson rounded up every pair of hands he could find and capped a whole wagon of strawberries before hurrying to the factory and selling his load. He then used the payment to buy a neighbor’s strawberry field and do the same thing. The Robinson family had never had so much money in their lives.
Robinson may have started with a wagonload of unwanted strawberries, but his quick thinking and savvy investments grew to include sweet potato slips, coal, hogs, mill-ground corn and a variety of cash crops over the years. Today, the business he and his brother-in-law, A.L. Belew, and later his son, R.D. Robinson, built in Sharon is the busiest grain elevator in West Tennessee outside of Memphis. The towering bins hold 5.4 million bushels of corn, soybeans and wheat that are grown across the region and then shipped throughout the country and around the world.
Bob Robinson understood the value of education and sent his son, R.D. (Martin ’61), and his daughter, Betty (Martin ’72), to what is now UT Martin. R.D. married Dianne Palmer (Martin ’71) and later sent his own daughter, Linda, to school there years later. Linda and her husband, Keith Fowler, both graduated in 1985, and two of their three children also have UT Martin degrees—Chris in 2012 and Rachel in 2015.
“My father is a UT graduate in agriculture, and my mother worked at the UTM bookstore for 33 years, so UTM has always felt like home to me,” Keith Fowler says. “UTM means a lot to me and my family, and it plays a vital role in our community. So, when (the University of Tennessee) asked (to paint the mural), I thought it was something we definitely wanted to be a part of to help promote UT and UT Martin.”
Carver describes the Fowler family as synonymous with UT and UT Martin.
“They’re also just such a great part of the agricultural community, not just in Weakley County but all over the region,” he says. “You can have road signs, you can have billboards, but something like that on the side of a piece of personal property, I think to me really signifies, ‘We believe in this university. We’re personally invested in the UT product.’ And it’s really exciting to me.”
The family hopes the mural will help promote UT and UT Martin pride in the area and encourage local students to earn their degrees close to home. “Our family has a rich heritage through UT Martin, and we just feel like this is another way to just continue that tradition,” Linda says. “We’re from a small town, and kids think they have to go off (to school) today, but they are so fortunate to have such a great opportunity and a great university right here at our back door.”
The Robinson and Fowler families continue to give back to UT Martin through the R.D. and Dianne Robinson Agriculture Scholarship, established in 2017 to help students in Northwest Tennessee study agriculture and use their knowledge to increase the economic impact of the region. Betty Robinson Eddinger, daughter of Bob Robinson, knows her father would approve.
“My dad, one of his main goals was that everybody get an education, I think because he did not have one, and he had no chance to have one,” Eddinger says. “He wanted everyone to have an education, the best that they could be. And he sent several people to school to get those educations so that it would be a lasting impact on their lives.”