By John Shearer
MADISONVILLE, Tenn. (May 14, 2019) -- Inside a packed campus auditorium, some 73 students received their diplomas from Hiwassee College in Madisonville on May 10 in what was described as the largest graduation crowd in years.
However, these students weren’t the only ones in a state of transition. As was announced on March 28, Hiwassee College is experiencing its own end of an era, too, due to its closing after 170 years.
That fact brought an obvious tinge of sentimentality to the ceremonies held in the Barker Learning Center on campus – despite the excited feeling of achievement by the students and their families and friends.
“I’ve come to grow and love this place,” said Cameron H. Alday from Tunnel Hill, Georgia, after the nearly 90-minute ceremony was over. “It reminds me of home. It is just sad to see how everything has gone. I’m sad but happy at the same time.”
The Rev. Al Bowles, retired Holston Conference clergy from Chattanooga, had similar feelings. Although he is not an alumnus, he formerly served as chair of the school’s board of trustees and had a nephew attend the school. As a result, he felt a desire to be there with his wife, Chris, for the final graduation.
“It’s a bittersweet moment,” he said afterward. “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.”
In announcing the closing, this United Methodist Church-affiliated school of only 225 students cited as factors several growing marketplace trends. They included substantially discounted or highly subsidized public education, changes in demographics, the school’s rural location, and declining enrollment.
“(They) have combined to produce an unsustainable economic model,” the board of trustees announced at the time.
During the graduation, Hiwassee Board of Trustees Chair David Houseman from Chattanooga briefly addressed the closing.
“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.”
Later he added, “Hiwassee graduates have many reasons to be proud.”
Brenda Malone, 1970 Hiwassee graduate and alumni board of governors president, said the school is working with local government officials to find a suitable place to store and display school memorabilia and archival information for alumni and others.
“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.”
College President Robin Tricoli, who has served the school since 2010, did not address the closing directly during the graduation ceremonies. But in an interview afterward, she admitted that the day was bittersweet knowing the school is closing.
“My greatest hope is that this does not happen to any other institutions, 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 five and a half years, there’s going to be a declining pool of students to come to college, and we were not able to attract that group,” she said.
However, she did take the time during the interview 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, adding that she was not sure what her own personal plans were after focusing so hard on getting through the semester.
A number of students and staff have previously protested and announced displeasure over the closing, but the graduation ceremonies were an otherwise harmonious occasion seemingly handled with class and tact.
Among the highlights of the exercises attended by an audience estimated at more than 800 were some inspiring words by graduate Eric Wolfe. The Student Government Association president (and member of the also-inspiring baseball team that has qualified for the post-season beyond the graduation ceremonies) highlighted all the popular coaches and teachers one might see on a stroll around campus.
While he admitted that at a small private school like Hiwassee, one gets to know everyone – “and I mean everyone” – 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 Tennessee's Bill Haslam – told the story of a man who was teased a lot as a child.
As 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 a 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), Henry said.
Henry ended his brief talk with 10 pieces of advice to the graduates. Among them 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 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 presented the final Sarah G. Mozley Excellence in Learning and Teaching Award by Mozley, a member of the class of 1969. Allison McClain Moore from Marion, Virginia, was recognized as the final valedictorian for her 4.0 grade point average.
After the speeches, the graduates walked across the stage amid plenty of hollering and hooting like that 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.
The graduates and their families were then treated to a festive meal in the Rymer Student Life Center/Cafeteria.
Tricoli did not specifically address what will happen to the buildings and grounds, but she did say during the interview that they would continue to maintain the 88 acres while school is finishing up with dental hygiene classes this summer.
It has been announced recently that Tennessee Wesleyan University will acquire the school’s dental hygiene program.
A glance around the bucolic hilly campus Friday showed quite a contrast. Buildings like Brock Hall, Brunner Hall and the Hardwick-Johnston Memorial Library were boarded up or closed, the outdoor pool sat unused, and grass was growing in cracks in the Harris tennis courts.
But numerous signs could also be found that the school had tried hard amid the limited resources to maintain its physical plant. That was evident with the more than half of the buildings in as good a condition as those found at a thriving college, the freshly cut grass throughout the campus, and a baseball field manicured like that of an SEC stadium.
The campus still has a look of overall attractiveness. 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 Bowles said, “Hiwassee College has done a yeoman’s piece of work for 170 years and graduated some really good people.”
John Shearer is a United Methodist and a reporter for The Chattanoogan.
Students react to turmoil after decision to close / photo gallery (The Call, 4.11.19)
Hiwassee College closing in May (UMNS, 3.29.19)
Photos below: (1) Graduate Ben Snider poses for photos with family. (2) Rev. Al Bowles and Chris Bowles. (3) President Robin Tricoli and Board Chair David Houseman