Some 73 students – including at least 10 from Chattanooga and the surrounding communities -- received their diplomas from Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tn., late Friday afternoon.
However, these students weren’t the only ones moving on and transitioning from this bucolic-appearing college located east of Interstate 75 and roughly halfway between Chattanooga and Knoxville.
As was announced on March 28, Hiwassee College itself is closing and experiencing its own end of an era.
This United Methodist Church-affiliated school of only 225 students cited as factors several growing marketplace trends, including substantially discounted or highly subsidized public education, changes in demographics, its rural location, and declining enrollment.
“(They) have combined to produce an unsustainable economic model,” the board of trustees announced at the time.
Because my wife, Laura, is a recently retired United Methodist minister and due to my longtime affiliation with the denomination, I felt a call to head up there to the graduation to say goodbye to the school – which dates way back to 1849.
It was indeed a sentimental moment, but also one of encouragement to see the students walk across the stage as happily as graduates anywhere and get their diplomas and persevere despite the external distraction of the closing.
Hiwassee College is not an easy place to get to, which might explain why it has had trouble attracting students in recent years. It is probably at least a 30-minute drive off the interstate, no matter which way you get there.
I ended up going a different way coming and going, and saw simply gorgeous farmland, old homes and barns both ways, despite the impatience that came from being used to getting to places right off the interstate highway.
After leaving my home in Hixson at 3:30 p.m., I arrived at the campus with less than five minutes to spare before the 5 p.m. graduation.
I had actually been to Hiwassee College twice before to do stories for the Knoxville News Sentinel when I lived in Knoxville. One was in 2010 when the school’s financial and enrollment problems and other issues were first in the news. Another was sports related, when I learned that one of the past or present coaches in attendance for the special announcement was none other than the father of country music superstar Kenny Chesney.
Despite my previous visits, I was not sure where graduation would be. I parked in a parking lot behind the Rudy Youell Physical Education Center and walked up the hill and luckily realized it was going to be in the auditorium/performing arts facility of the Barker Learning Center.
It was a packed room of more than 800 with a few standing in the back and side, but I luckily found an untaken aisle seat and sat down just as the excited graduates began walking in among the sounds of “Pomp and Circumstance.”
After the singing of the hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” and an invocation by the Rev. Jason Gaddis, graduating senior Ali Moore read a passage from Isaiah 43, which includes the part that says, “Do not dwell in the past.”
School President Dr. Robin Tricoli then talked briefly to the students and congratulated them amid Biblical references and lessons. “Always give more than you can, be generous and look for the good in others,” she told them.
She did not address the closing of the school, but the next speaker, school board of trustees chairman David Houseman – a member of First-Centenary United Methodist Church in Chattanooga – did generally.
“Our emotions today are a mixture of immense joy tinged with sadness,” he said. “Hiwassee College has had a long history of educating many who could not otherwise afford to attend college.
“Hiwassee graduates have many reasons to be proud.”
Also on the stage with him was another member of the board and fellow member of First-Centenary UMC – retired Girls Preparatory School educator Rickie Pierce.
After his brief words of encouragement, 1970 Hiwassee graduate and alumni board of governors president Brenda Malone spoke. She mentioned that the school is working with Monroe County officials to find a suitable place to store and display school memorabilia and archival information for alumni and others to be able to access and see.
“We do not want 170 years of history of the contributions of this college to be lost,” she said. “We want to keep the memory alive.”
Eric Wolfe, the Student Government Association president and a member of the baseball team that is continuing to inspire the college by moving on in the post-season beyond basically the closing of the school, then spoke.
In an also-uplifting moment, he outlined what one might find on a stroll around campus, with coaches taking care of their facilities with care and popular faculty members out and about walking pets or taking care of school matters.
He jokingly added that at a small private school like Hiwassee, one gets to know everyone – “and I mean everyone” – but he added that he was proud to have attended the school and for the guidance he received there.
“I’ve been so blessed with many mentors over the last few years,” he said.
He then told his fellow graduates to remember their blessings they received there and to cherish them. “Once a Tiger, always a Tiger! And that goes on forever,” he concluded.
The commencement speaker – Jim Henry, a 1965 graduate and former Cabinet member and deputy governor under Bill Haslam – then addressed the audience, initially telling the story of a man who was teased a lot as a child.
As Mr. Henry related, people would ask the youngster who his father was because he was born to an unmarried mother. He was becoming tired of being ridiculed, but he was also asked the same question one day at church by the pastor. But then the pastor realized how to answer his own question. “You are the child of God,” the minister told him.
That changed his life, and the young man went on to become Tennessee Gov. Ben Hooper (who served from 1911-15), Mr. Henry said.
Mr. Henry ended his brief talk with 10 pieces of advice to the graduates. They were to call your mother every day, remember that decisions have consequences, do what you love and love what you do, be a listener, smile and laugh, don’t marry anyone meaner than you are, don’t lock in, don’t be afraid to say you love someone, learn to learn, and never forget your roots – “especially here at Hiwassee College.”
Biology teacher Anne-Marie Hodge was then presented the Sarah G. Mozley Excellence in Learning and Teaching Award by Ms. Mozley, a member of the Class of 1969.
In the acceptance speech, Ms. Hodge told her students to continue to possess such qualities as staying indignant and cynical in their learning, and to continue to be accepting.
“Go out into the world and pay it forward,” she said.
After Allison McClain Moore was recognized as the valedictorian for her 4.0 grade point average, the graduates walked across the stage amid plenty of hollering and hooting like is found at any graduation.
Ashley Renee Wallace from Knoxville, who received a bachelor of science degree in dental hygiene, became the last student in the history of the school to receive a diploma at Hiwassee’s graduation exercises.
As the graduates piled out of the front of the building to meet supportive family and friends, I went up to one, who turned out to be Cameron H. Alday from nearby Tunnel Hill, Ga.
A baseball player who attended Hiwassee for three years after transferring from Truett McConnell University in Georgia, he admitted he was feeling plenty of mixed emotions.
“I’ve come to grow and love this place,” he said, adding that he hopes to get into baseball coaching. “It reminds me of home. It is just sad to see how everything has gone. I’m sad but happy at the same time.”
Also outside, I spotted the Rev. Al Bowles, the former senior pastor at First-Centenary UMC and a former Chattanooga (now Scenic South) District superintendent, who was there with his wife, Chris.
Although he never went there, he was also a little sad at the passing of an era due to his service as a former chairman of the school’s board of trustees and the fact a nephew had been positively impacted as a student there.
“It’s a bittersweet moment,” he said. “We celebrate with all the excitement that’s here, but then you get a little sadness when you know it’s not going to be here next year.”
I then began walking around to take a few pictures of the buildings, while all the graduates and their families were treated at the Rymer facilities to a meal evidently as good as that at any other college with deeper resources.
However, after I went around to the front of the Barker Learning Center, I spotted school president Dr. Tricoli talking to a reporter from Knoxville television station WATE Channel 6.
I went up to the armed security guard standing nearby and told him what I wanted, and then she gladly came over and answered a few questions after he asked her.
She admitted that the day was bittersweet knowing the school is closing. “My greatest hope is that this does not happen to any other institution, that they are able to achieve an economic model that’s sustainable,” she said.
She added that lack of a strong enrollment had been the biggest detriment to the school being able to continue operating, and that school officials saw the situation was not likely to improve anytime soon.
“We knew that over the next 5½ years, there’s going to be a declining pool of students to come to the college, and we were not able to attract that group,” she said.
However, she did take the time to salute those who had stood behind the school. “We’re enormously grateful to all those who have supported Hiwassee College through the years and were deeply dedicated to it,” she said.
One person inside the hall at the time graduation ended could be overheard criticizing Dr. Tricoli to those around him over the closing. And one employee I talked with briefly after meeting her family also was not happy with how the school ended up closing. The latter did not want to say anything since she is still an employee.
So it is obviously still not a completely harmonious situation, and not everyone has moved emotionally past the closing announcement, although the graduation ceremonies seemed to have been done with class and tact.
Before heading to my car, I briefly walked around taking pictures and saw an obvious contrast. Some buildings were still maintained well, while a couple – Brock Hall and Hardwick-Johnston Library – were boarded up and awaiting apparent demolition, based on one sign.
Another building, Brunner Hall, was also closed with vegetation growing up in front of it. The swimming pool next to the Rudy Youell building was not being used, and the tennis courts had grass growing in the cracks.
The water in one sink in the men’s bathroom at the Barker Learning Center was also barely a trickle.
But there were also plenty of signs that the school had tried hard amid the limited resources to maintain its physical plant, including freshly cut grass on the entire 88 acres and a baseball field as well manicured as at an SEC stadium.
The Buckner Memorial United Methodist Church sitting up on a hill is also a real eye-catcher.
School officials have not publicly announced what will become of the grounds and buildings after the dental hygiene program finishes classes this summer, although the latter will become affiliated with Tennessee Wesleyan University in Athens.
The buildings are handsome and the grounds are spacious, so the potential seems limitless. That could include another college or school locating there or adding it as a satellite campus, or some other use, which, for my sake, will hopefully not be an industrial park or a subdivision.
But what is known is that many United Methodists and others believe what has taken place there over the years has been a sight of beauty as well in terms of Christian outreach and education.
As Rev. Bowles said, “Hiwassee College has done a yeoman’s piece of work for 170 years and graduated some really good people.”
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Among the Hiwassee College graduates from the Chattanooga area receiving bachelor’s degrees and holding the distinction of being the last graduates are Cameron Hunter Alday (Tunnel Hill, Ga.), Jess Tyler Hisey (Flintstone, Ga.), Benjamin Joel Snider (Chattanooga), Angela Marissa Davis (Meigs County, Tn.), Jordann Ryanna Dempsey (Cleveland, Tn.), and Madison Nale Sutton (Dayton, Tn.).
Area associate degree recipients are Makaylah Jazmone Blanks Willis (Chattanooga), Justin C. Brown (Chattanooga), Aldo Frias Jr. (Chattanooga), and Courtney Autumn Jones (Chattanooga).
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To hear Hiwassee College president Dr. Robin Tricoli discuss the closing and graduation, listen here.