Clowney tells 2018 grads to “Rise Up”

Clowney tells 2018 grads to “Rise Up”

May 20, 2018

Note: The ceremony begins at 15:45 in the video, use the video controls to scroll to that time. If the audio does not start automatically, turn on the sound via the player controls in lower right corner. 

Referencing the story of Nebuchadnezzar and the Fiery Furnace from the Book of Daniel, Shirley Carr Clowney ’58 encouraged members of the Maryville College Class of 2018 to “rise up” and follow their dreams.

“I hope that the memories you have already made here will inspire you to rise up to an unforgettable fugure,” Clowney said. “You have studied tirelessly and worked hard to reach another milestone in your life. Now it is time for you to go out and contribute by making a significant difference in your corner of the world.

“You are the future of America, so consider sharing your inevitable success with the real world. Be assertive, be bold and be strong even when adversity raises its ugly head – rise up and put action behind the goals you aspire to reach,” Clowney continued. “At some point in your time here, you may have experienced some setbacks and detours on your path to obtaining your degree. You may have felt like you were in the middle of a ‘fiery furnace,’ like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, but you trusted God through long hours of studies, exam after exam, project after project and maybe even some setbacks. … If you ever feel like you are in a fiery furnace, rise up and trust God to quench the fire before you become overwhelmed.”

Clowney, a civil rights advocate, community leader, author and historian, addressed the approximately 230 graduating seniors during Commencement exercises on May 20, 2018. She also was presented the College’s honorary doctor of public service degree during the ceremony.

A native of Alcoa, Tenn., Clowney enrolled at Maryville College in the fall of 1954, just a few months after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation and the Maryville College Board of Directors resumed its earlier policy of integration. Clowney was among “the Maryville Six,” six modern-day black students at Maryville College – including Nancy Smith Wright ’60, Freeman Wyche ’58, Queen Elizabeth Crossing ’58, Louise Hill-Gilmore ’58 and Leo Valentine ’58 – to reintegrate the College that year. She was also one of the first four black women to attend Maryville College.

Clowney later transferred to Tennessee State University to finish her bachelor’s degree, and after graduation, she moved to New Jersey, where she taught for 28 years. In 1992, she returned to Blount County, where she has been active in numerous local organizations, including the Blount County Genealogical and Historical Society, the Blount County Historical Museum, Leadership Blount and the Blount County Anti-Racism Task Force. After she returned to Blount County, Clowney became aware of the missing early history of many African-Americans in the area, and she has spent much of her retirement researching, recording and preserving local black history.

Clowney has been honored by the Tennessee Human Rights Commission for her work as a civil rights advocate. She was one of the first 10 recipients of the 50th Anniversary Civil Rights Advocate honor, which recognizes individuals who have made a significant impact in their local communities and across the state of Tennessee.

In her Commencement address, told graduates about some of the obstacles she faced when she was younger – when she felt like she was “in a fiery furnace.”

She described her childhood, growing up in the Oldfield community in Alcoa and walking one mile every day for 12 years to Charles Martin Hall School – the only school available to African-American students at the time. The building housed all 12 grades, and all students took the same courses, although “none of those courses included geometry, trigonometry, foreign langagues or even typing,” she said.

“It appeared we were being trained to pursue careers that required menial labor skills only,” Clowney said. “Needless to say, we were not prepared to be competitive with students who had college-level classes in their schools.”

Between 1880 and 1898, nine African American men graduated from Maryville College, and in 1901, a law was passed that prohibited public and private schools from enrolling any African-American students, Clowney told graduates.

“I had the distinct pleasure of becoming a trailblazer when Maryville College reintegrated just after the historic Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education outlawed segregation,” she said. “I graduated from high school in 1954 as valedictorian of my class, and a former principal, Mr. Harris Fowler, encouraged me to enroll at Maryville College. So I rose up to that challenge. I did encourage two of my classmates to join me. Three other students had enrolled, and we embarked upon that new experience. We became trailblazers before the explosive 1960s.”

While she said she was generally accepted by most, “our historic moment was not without some painful reminders.”

She described several of those reminders, including Ku Klux Klan members burning a cross near her house, not being able to eat at a grill near campus where classmates ate because the restaurant did not serve African-Americans, and African-American students living on campus not being able to have white roommates.

“I believe that going to chapel before classes really helped us get through each day,” Clowney said. “It helped us to rise up to the challenges before us.”

She concluded her address by congratulating members of the Class of 2018 and again reminding them to ‘rise up.’

“Be proud of your achievements and use them to fulfill your dreams,” she said. “You have the power to rise up! Not even a fiery furnace can hold you down if you have God as the head of your life. So rise up! Rise up and follow your dreams!” 

Two members of ‘Maryville Six’ attend ceremony

In addition to Clowney, Freeman Wyche ’58, a member of the original “Maryville Six” – the first six black students to reintegrate Maryville College in 1954 – attended the ceremony on May 20.

The last time the group gathered on campus was in 2008, when Clowney worked with former Maryville College President Gerald Gibson to have a plaque installed and dedicated in their honor, 50 years after the students’ original class graduated. The plaque hangs in Anderson Hall.

Grads honor students

During the ceremony, members of the Class of 2018 wore white ribbons in honor of Maryville College students and classmates who passed away during this academic year: Brittany Johnson, who passed away on Aug. 27; Michael Clark Jones, who passed away on Feb. 18; and Adam Peppers, who passed away on Jan. 25.

Maryville College Faculty Recognized

During commencement exercises, recognition was given to faculty members for outstanding service during the 2017-18 academic year.

Maryville College President Dr. Tom Bogart came to the podium first.

“This next recognition is usually awarded by the dean of the College, but it is my privilege to do the honor this year,” Bogart said.

Dr. Barbara Wells, vice president and dean of the College, was recognized for her retirement and election to the status of “professor emerita” at the College.

Bogart praised Wells’ 20 years of service to the College, which included many different roles in addition to her current position, including assistant professor of sociology, chair of the Division of Social Sciences and professor of sociology.

“As a teacher, students found her to be sensitive and responsive, while being friendly and open, yet objective in evaluating them and assessing their needs without discouragement,” the president said, adding that Wells is a skilled author who has written several books.

 “In 2012, she was given the confidence of the college community, when following a national search, she was appointed to the position of vice president and dean of the College,” the president continued. “Her broad educational interests have been essential with cross-departmental cooperation. She has been instrumental in guiding the College through several curricular changes and improvements. Highlights include the implementation of Maryville College Works, creation of a new core curriculum and reducing the number of credit hours required for graduation. Under her leadership, the College has added nine majors and five minors and developed dual degrees in biopharmaceutical and veterinary sciences with the University of Tennessee.”

Wells came to the podium to recognize Dr. Terry Simpson, professor of secondary education and director of teacher education, for his retirement and election to the status of “professor emeritus” at the College.

Wells praised Simpson for his 28 years of service to the College, which included 15 years as chair of the Division of Education and 17 years as director of teacher education.

“In his role of director, he has been a strong voice for children, advocating on the state level and more recently expanding that advocacy in his blog,” Wells said. “Dr. Simpson’s teaching has centered in the teacher licensure curriculum, where he has served as a powerful role model for our students. In addition, he has made a strong contribution to our senior ethics course.

“Dr. Simpson received Fulbright awards in 2000 and 2002 that brought him to Estonia and Saudi Arabia and enabled him to contribute to the education communities in those countries,” Wells continued. “From 2008-2012, he served as director of the East Tennessee Math/Science Partnership Grant, which focused on the preparation and support of STEM teachers in East Tennessee.”

Simpson also was recognized with the Outstanding Teacher Award, the recipient of which is nominated by juniors and seniors at the College. In presenting the award, Wells described Simpson as a faculty member who is “in a league of his own” and has inspired his students over many years.

He is the only faculty member to have received the Outstanding Teacher Award four times.

Wells quoted two students who described how Simpson is an outstanding teacher.

“‘He is inspiring, encouraging and passionate,” Wells read. “‘He has prepared me emotionally for what it is to become a teacher. The things he teaches are practical and applicable. Perhaps his most admirable trait is that it is evident how much he cares for us. He truly wants to take the time to help us become great teachers!’

“And ‘I believe in my heart that he was born to be a teacher,’” Wells continued. “‘I pray that when I become a teacher, I can be just a little like him. That is, to transfer all that passion to my students and just love what I do. After all these years, he is the best!’”

Dr. Jenifer Greene, associate professor of management and chair of the Division of Social Sciences, was recognized as the runner-up for the Outstanding Teacher Award. Wells described Greene a faculty member whose students express great respect as a teacher and advisor.

“Her students – whether in First Year Seminar or upper-level major classes – refer to her kind and supportive manner,” Wells said. “Students appreciate that she teaches them about real-world subjects that are relevant to their future experience in the workforce. They enjoy being able to apply these concepts to the world around them.

“Students observe that she loves teaching and is passionate about her field,” Wells continued. “Whether the topic of the day is organizational leadership or workplace justice laws, she brings her very best to the classroom every day.” 

Charge to the Class of 2018

In his charge to the Class of 2018, Maryville College President Dr. Tom Bogart told the graduates to depart from the College with more than a diploma.

“Leave here transformed by your experience and dedicated to following and demonstrating the will of God through your thoughts and actions,” Bogart said. “As you continue in your journey, please remember that you always have a home here ‘where Chilhowee’s lofty mountains pierce the Southern blue.’ Come back and share with us your successes and struggles, as you have done during your time here. Be the inspiration for the next person, the way that others have inspired you. Say ‘thank you’ to those who have helped you during your time here, and let us thank you for how you have helped us.

“The Lord bless you and keep you as you continue your journey,” the president said as he concluded his remarks to the new graduates.


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the Fall 2017 semester is 1,181.