Knoxville grave marker of Mary Fleming
photo by John Shearer
Grave marker of former Chattanoogan Mary Meek
photo by John Shearer
Old newspaper clippings about UT alma mater writer
photo by John Shearer
Among the favorite songs of University of Tennessee alumni and supporters throughout the state are “Rocky Top,” “Tennessee Waltz” and one or two of the older football fight songs.
Also up there is the school’s “Alma Mater,” which is the only UT song with a strong connection to Chattanooga.
Mary Fleming Meek was living in Chattanooga at the time that her words and music won a $50 contest sponsored by the University of Tennessee in 1928 when she was in her late 50s.
Unfortunately, because she moved to Knoxville and died the next year, her story has apparently been mostly forgotten over the years.
But her song has not.
At UT, it is played not at the end of the game, as is popular at some schools, but at the conclusion of the Pride of the Southland Band’s halftime show at football games. When that time comes, fans are told to stand and gentlemen are asked to remove their hats.
And the UT supporters do, with many not going to the concession stand or restroom until after the “Alma Mater” is played. It is obviously treated with much reverence, as it is at such other schools as the University of Notre Dame and the military academies.
Often the words are flashed on one of the electronic screens around Neyland Stadium, and no doubt the most emotional part is when the fans and alumni sing the line, “So here’s to you old Tennessee.”
It is a song played and sung with much feeling, and the drum major even becomes like a gymnast by leaning back toward the ground in a salute.
When UT officials patrons first heard the song, they wanted to stand up and applaud – and did.
Somewhat surprisingly, Mrs. Meek did not actually attend the University of Tennessee. But, as she said following being announced as the winner, that was only because it was not a coed school and did not admit women until 1891 – when she would have been about ready to graduate.
However, her husband, John Meek, and son, J. Fleming Meek, did. Also, her father, Judge John Fleming, was a UT trustee, and her great-grandfather, John Mason, designed the now-razed early UT building on the Hill, Old College.
Mrs. Meek was born in October 1869, according to her grave marker, and grew up in Knoxville. After she married her husband, she followed him around in his career as a passenger agent and official with Southern Railway. His job first took him to Atlanta just a few years after the turn of the 20th century, but in 1914 they came to Chattanooga.
Southern Railway at that time had a very nice and new office where he could work – the Terminal Station complex that later became the Chattanooga Choo-Choo.
While he focused on train lines, she – like bandleader Glenn Miller of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” fame – focused on lines of the melodic quality.
A natural singer who also had a gift for composing music, she was also interested in the craft of writing and literature. While in Chattanooga she was involved in such groups as the Writers Club, the MacDowell Club and the Shakespeare Club. She was also chairman of the committee that selected the highly praised Austin pipe organ for the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium, which opened in 1924.
Mrs. Meek had also been appointed to represent the state of Tennessee at the Atlanta Exposition of 1895 and the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904. At Atlanta, she sang with the noted composer, Victor Herbert.
She apparently wrote and composed a number of songs. As a teenager in Knoxville, when not the soprano in the Second Presbyterian Church choir, she had written several love songs. Among them were “The Girl for Me,” “Devotedness” and “Spring and Swing Song.”
And about 1926, she had won $100 in a national contest for an advertising song.
So, when the contest for a new “Alma Mater” at UT came along in 1928, it was not her first “dog and pony show.” Little information seems to be readily available about how she found out about the contest down in Chattanooga, although perhaps some family or friends told her.
What is known is that she apparently blew away the contest judges and the 130 alumni gathered on Oct. 26, 1928, in the still-standing Farragut Hotel on Gay Street in downtown Knoxville with her rendition.
The judges named to pick the winners were George Nevin, a sacred song composer from Pennsylvania; Nathaniel Irving Hyatt, a composer from Converse College in South Carolina; and Harry Alan Russell, an organist and composer from New York. Coordinating the contest was Professor L.S. Mayer of UT, with the school’s music clubs sponsoring the event.
And the selection had to be approved by the alumni, who heartily did endorse it.
It must have been a scene not that much different from when the Von Trapp family singers won the music contest in “The Sound of Music.”
She was announced as the winner, and then sang the song for the audience gathered. Admittedly telling people beforehand she was emotional about singing it due to her love of UT, she received glowing reviews.
The Knoxville News Sentinel wrote that while she was surprised she won, the crowd was equally surprised to hear a rich voice filled with emotion. The reporter went on to write that her simple words of tribute “caught the hearts of her listeners.”
The Knoxville Journal captured the moment of the night with even more emotion when it wrote, “After she had finished, a hush fell over the crowd and then at once they rose to their feet and applauded Mrs. Meek and the new alma mater song.”
Among those apparently clapping was Vols football coach Robert Neyland, who was on hand to talk of the memorable victory over rival Alabama the Saturday before.
According to the news reports, 11 people entered the “Alma Mater” contest, but five submissions were eliminated because “either words or music were lacking.” Miss Frances Johnston, the assistant registrar at UT, was voted the second-place finisher.
Professor Mayer told the gathering that the winning song could not be officially established as the “Alma Mater” song of the school until, over time, “it is found to have actually captured the hearts of the UT students and alumni.”
It obviously did capture the hearts, based on the way it is treated several Saturdays a fall and apparently at graduations and other special events.
The contest had lasted a year to replace another song called “Here’s To Old U of T.”
A glance at the lyrics from 1928 and today shows a couple of discrepancies. First, in the refrain, the famous line today is, “So here’s to you old Tennessee.” But when the song first came out, it was apparently, “So here’s to you old U of T.” Whether it was changed because of the similarity to the other song is not known.
Also, the last line in the first verse today is “Rise glorious to the sight,” but originally it was “Rise glorious to the light.”
The song was called “On a Hallowed Hill” when she presented it, and the words had been taken from the Torch Night and Aloha Oe ceremonies at UT.
Although the contest was covered big in the Knoxville newspaper, it and Mrs. Meek’s prize received little attention in the Chattanooga paper, unless it was a few days after the event.
At the time that Mrs. Meek won, she and her husband lived in Apartment 53 of the Elizabeth Apartments at the corner of McCallie and Georgia avenues, just across McCallie from the Old Stone Church, of which only the steeple remains today.
They had previously lived in Apartment 55 of the building built by Coca-Cola bottler J.T. Lupton and named for his wife. The building, later renamed the Professional Building, was torn down in 1979 after a 1976 fire.
Whether the Meeks were acquainted with the Luptons and Mrs. Meek ever performed at the Lupton’s Lyndhurst mansion in Riverview, as happened on occasion with talented singers, is not known.
In early 1929, shortly after she won the contest, her husband’s position with Southern Railway transferred them back to her native Knoxville. Unfortunately, she apparently never got to hear the UT band play the song, because she died of cancer on June 9, 1929.
She was buried in historic Old Gray Cemetery in North Knoxville.
Her husband died in 1940 in Knoxville after retiring, while her attorney son died in 1957 after moving to Washington, D.C., during World War II.
But today, after nearly 90 years, her melodic song continues to live on and echoes off the walls of massive Neyland Stadium several fall Saturdays a year.