Commencement speaker Neely reminds grads about MC’s ‘distinctive story’

Commencement speaker Neely reminds grads about MC’s ‘distinctive story’

May 4, 2019

You are members of a historic class, graduating from a very distinctive college.

That was the message delivered to Maryville College graduates of the Class of 2019 by Dr. Jack Neely, speaker for the College’s Commencement ceremony Saturday. Neely, a historian, journalist, author and lecturer, also was presented the honorary doctor of humane letters during the event held in the Clayton Center for the Arts’ Ronald and Lynda Nutt Theatre.

During his address, titled “Maryville College at 200: An American Rarity,” Neely talked about MC’s “distinctive story.”

“When people visit this place, they often say ‘what a beautiful college,’” Neely said. “But what makes it different from all other colleges isn't just the buildings and the trees. It has stories.

A good college should tell its stories. A college's reputation is its history, and its history is what makes it distinct from all others.”

Neely said that the best colleges have distinctive stories, and Maryville College – founded in 1819 and one of the oldest colleges in the South – “has one of the most distinctive stories I know.”

“Maryville undermines some of the tropes of American history, the stereotypes about the South, or Appalachia, or faith-based education, which people think they know,” Neely continued. “Maryville College, whose students included blacks, Native Americans, Latin Americans and Asians even in the 19th century, is an exception to many rules, and such a vigorous exception that it undermines the rules themselves, and American history as we thought we knew it.”

Neely said a distinctive story “begins with a distinctive teacher,” naming the Rev. Isaac Anderson, a Presbyterian minister who founded Maryville College in 1819 as that teacher.

“You may be aware that as Maryville celebrates its bicentennial this year, there's another college on the other side of the river that's celebrating its 225th, its bicenquasquigenary. A bicentennial is a bigger deal,” he said. “Maryville College and the University of Tennessee may not seem to have much in common. One is a small faith-based college. One is a very large, secular public university. But there's an interesting coincidence in their story.”

Anderson and his family migrated to East Tennessee from Rockbridge County, Va., as did the Rev. Samuel Carrick, who studied and worked with Anderson and founded Blount College – the institution that would become the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Anderson did something similar, when he founded the Union Academy, also known as "Mr. Anderson's Log College," in northeastern Knox County, in 1802.

Carrick, who served as the college’s first president and only professor, died in 1809, forcing the closure of Blount College. Meanwhile, Anderson founded Knoxville’s Second Presbyterian Church in 1818 and the Southern and Western Theological Seminary – what would become Maryville College – in 1819. When Anderson opened Maryville College, it was the area’s only college.

“A good historically minded attorney could make the case that if we consider continuity of service, Maryville College is about a year older than UT,” Neely said. “In any case, Isaac Anderson outlived his old colleague Samuel Carrick by almost 50 years, long enough to put his personal stamp on the college in the foothills, which became known as a bastion of intellectual discipline and progressive thought, tolerance and even diversity in a time and place when those attributes are presumed to be scarce.”

Neely also highlighted several figures from Maryville College’s past, noting that “it shouldn’t be surprising that a number of remarkable people, all of them mavericks in one way or another, exceptions to the American norm, had Maryville College in their curriculum vitae,” he said, adding that notable MC alumni include a U.S. congressman, a U.S. attorney, a U.S. Supreme Court justice, several authors, actors, athletes and singers.

“You know the story of Kin Takahashi,” Neely said. “I love to tell [University of Tennessee] Vol fans that the guy who introduced football to East Tennessee, long before it was played anywhere near the Hill, was a Japanese student at Maryville College. Takahashi came here with his friend Sen Katayama in the 1880s. Both wanted to improve their world. One founded the Japanese Communist Party. The other founded the tradition of East Tennessee football. I'll leave it to you to decide which one had the greater influence.”

Neely closed his address with the reminder that few American colleges have made it to the two-century mark.

“It means something,” he said. “There’s a lot more to know about Maryville College and its history - and a lot more history to make. Members of the bicentennial class of 2019 will do extraordinary things in Maryville’s third century and become part of the history of one of America’s most extraordinary colleges.”

Neely is Knoxville journalist with interest in local history

Neely is the executive director of the Knoxville History Project (KHP), an educational nonprofit whose mission is to research and promote the history of Knoxville. KHP was the largest supporter of the Knoxville Mercury, an independent newspaper that worked to promote better understanding of the city of Knoxville and its history and culture. The last issue was published in 2017 but continues an online presence.

Neely graduated from the University of Tennessee, where he studied American history, and started working as an Egyptian museum tour guide at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville. Later, he was a criminal defense investigator for a law firm and an assistant editor for a national nonfiction magazine.

He is known as a Knoxville journalist with a particular interest in the city’s unique culture and heritage, described in his columns, “Secret History” and “The Scruffy Citizen.” He has written several books about Knoxville and its history, including: The Tennessee Theatre: A Grand Entertainment Palace (2015); Knoxville, Tennessee: Green by Nature (2014); Market Square: A History of the Most Democratic Place on Earth (2nd ed., 2011) and Knoxville, Tennessee: This Obscure Prismatic City (2009).

Neely has visited the Maryville College campus on several occasions, delivering lectures on everything from regional literature to the concept of Appalachia. He also wrote the bulk of the Maryville College Founding Story. He received the Society of Professional Journalists’ Best Sportswriter Award for a 2008 feature in Metro Pulse about Takahashi.

Maryville College Faculty Recognized

During commencement exercises, recognition was also given to faculty members for outstanding service during the 2018-19 academic year. Dr. Dan Klingensmith, interim vice president and dean of the College, presented the awards.

The Outstanding Teacher Award, the recipient of which is nominated by juniors and seniors at the College, went to Dr. Karen Beale, associate professor of psychology. In presenting the award, Klingensmith described Beale as a faculty member who “wins praise from students for the ability to foster a great learning environment and for a commitment to always adjusting and improving her approach to teaching to meet the needs of the people she has in the classroom.”

“She has inspired a number of them to go on to graduate training in her field – and she has, in fact, done so well at preparing students for further study that her national professional society recognized her abilities last year with its inaugural award for outstanding mentoring of students,” Klingensmith said, adding that Beale also received the Outstanding Teacher Award in 2013.

“Teaching well is a challenge in any circumstance. It’s all the harder when you teach about subjects that ask students to think about, discuss and research sensitive personal subjects – in this case, adolescent psychology, human sexuality and the psychology of intimate relationships. Above all, students say that this professor is able to foster a safe space in which they can learn about emotionally-charged topics in a way that combines empathy and caring with academic rigor.”

Dr. Jennifer Oody, assistant professor of exercise science, was recognized as the runner-up for the Outstanding Teacher Award. Klingensmith described Oody as a faculty member whose students express great respect as a teacher and advisor – and whose students praise for her “genuineness and warmth.”

“One says that she was the most amazing and ideal instructor the student has ever had, and goes on to say, ‘She not only teaches us about [our subject] but about life,’” Klingensmith said. “Another commented that ‘she understands how difficult the course is and is willing to teach in any way needed.’

“She has only been teaching here since 2016, but she has already built a reputation for engagement and excellence in the classroom,” Klingensmith continued. “Students consistently praise her for her ability to facilitate interesting discussions, for her breadth of knowledge, and for her enthusiasm.”

Charge to the Class of 2019

In his charge to the Class of 2019, 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 2019 semester is 1,148.