There, but for Grace…

What a beautiful Sunday afternoon in March–so many options for a great day.

I could go hiking, watch a sporting event outdoors, maybe do some yard work in the bright sunshine. A day like that, when it’s still technically winter, calls for making the most of it.

So, what did I choose? None of the above.

I made my first-ever visit to KARM, Knox Area Rescue Ministries. The visit–by a group of several of us from the church I attend–had been scheduled for weeks. IMG_8380 2Truth be told, I began the day somewhat regretting that I had committed to the KARM visit–only because I work long hours at my job and, at least at this time of year, warm and beautiful days off are hard to come by.

At KARM, the people served are called guests,” as a show of respect for the homeless and those struggling to keep from becoming homeless. The three guests I got to talk to made me realize I was meant to spend my afternoon with them.

IMG_8382 2Before I met them, our group of about 10 people got a complete tour of the facility. KARM not only serves about 1,000 meals daily and gives a few hundred men and women a safe place to get a good night’s sleep, the agency offers Christian worship services every evening and an array of training and classes almost every day.

“We believe that rescue begins when someone comes through our doors with all their brokenness on display.”–KARM

We learned the meaning of “toxic charity,” articulated in a book of the same name by Robert Lupton, which says, “When we do for those in need what they have the capacity to do for themselves, we disempower them.”

IMG_8381 2As our guide explained, one way to think of the basis for KARM offering rescue, followed by attempts to remedy obstacles to self-sufficiency is that, “Nobody is so poor that they have nothing left to give.”

And, she added, “If you’re not willing to work within parameters, we can’t give you services. If someone is perfectly capable and chooses not to accept help, that’s different than being incapable.”

KARM works with each guest to identify needs and capabilities. A case manager is assigned to hold a guest accountable, to ensure medical appointments are kept, housing prospects are investigated, and training and other opportunities are maximized.

“Knox Area Rescue Ministries provides daily for those most vulnerable and desperate among us, first supplying rescue services of food and shelter, then healthy, supportive  relationships, and ultimately restoration, including job-training opportunities.”–KARM

Launch Point is the name of a four-week program of training on a range of topics to enable basic, successful functioning: social customs, legal obligations, financial responsibility, resume writing and more. Serenity is an 18-month alcohol and drug addiction recovery program.

IMG_8367 2The local Salvation Army headquarters is across the street, and those served by it and KARM congregate in the surrounding area. At the same time each Sunday afternoon, KARM staff roll up a metal gate covering the open-air window at a snack counter. Our group had brought pre-packaged snacks and bottled water to add to the cupboard, and several stepped up to the counter to distribute goods to the guests who approached.

We’d also been told it was OK to step outside and visit with those gathered–if we were comfortable doing so. It was clear to me that the distribution of snacks from the counter was well-staffed, so I ventured outside. I had a bit of trepidation about being able to discern those interested in conversation and about what I might say, so I asked God to help me.

I approached a man about my age and asked if I could join him. He was friendly and we began talking easily. He wasn’t from Knoxville, but is staying with family in the area and hoping to get his own place. He told me KARM is helping him with local housing and employment that he should qualify for as ex-military.

IMG_8358 2The next person I approached was probably in his 30s, I realized after he began speaking. I had guessed older from his appearance, which suggested a lot of mileage on some of life’s hard roads. He told me it was fine to sit with him, but conversation didn’t come easy. Not that he resisted, words just took a lot of effort. So we sat together at the concrete picnic table and mostly looked around us. We agreed the sunshine was nice but the breeze was a little sharp. I thanked him for letting me join him, wished him a good day, he nodded, and I moved on.

I walked up to a young woman, and she eagerly invited me to sit with her. She offered me some of her cheese crackers, and I told her I’d already had some. She was glad to talk and did so, readily. I learned about where she is from (out-of-state), about her family (some of whom are struggling as she is), and that she is well-informed on the nature and role of social services in Tennessee. I asked about her health, and she was candid about a serious mental illness: But, you know, if I just take my meds, it’s OK.

“Something miraculous happens in our own hearts when we serve the neediest among us. We see how fragile our own lives are. We recognize our total dependence on God, and His rich blessings in our lives. Our relationship with Him grows deeper and stronger than before, and He uses us to work miracles in the lives of others.”–KARM

A few minutes later, it was time to move on. As we went to pray and leave literal words of encouragement at each of the beds in the sleeping quarters, I felt a bit overwhelmed by the quantity–more than 350 single beds–of need, knowing KARM is not the only such facility in the area.

I kept thinking about the people I’d just met. I hoped things might get better for them, that life might cut them a break, that our conversation might be remembered fondly. I know I remember it fondly. Gratefully. Because KARM’s words above are true–confronted by the most extreme of need, I could not help realize how fortunate I am. That I haven’t been devastated by the fragility of life. That I haven’t been the victim of tragic circumstances or decisions.

Everywhere I looked, I kept thinking to myself, “There, but for the Grace of God go I.”

And ever since, I’ve been thinking about volunteering to teach in some of KARM’s classes. It seems like a good way to express gratitude.

Tennessee: The State of UT

My relationship with the University of Tennessee began when I was 9 years old.

UT’s White County Extension agent, Linda Koger, walked into my 4th grade classroom for the first time and enrolled me in the 4-H club, along with the 20 or so other kids in my class. I can’t speak for the rest of them, but I remember being wide-eyed at the whole new world of possibility Ms. Koger promised through 4-H. I’d heard a little about it through my older brother’s involvement, and at last I was getting my turn.

Ms. Koger came back once a month, for an hour each time, and we in the Cassville Elementary 4th Grade 4-H Club got to dabble in everything from photography to public speaking to poster making.

4-H-Clover-RGB_digitalI learned what 4-H’s four Hs are, as referenced in the 4-H pledge, which we recited to start every club meeting: “I pledge my head to clearer thinking, My heart to greater loyalty, My hands to larger service, and my health to better living, for my club, my community, my country, and my world.”

What better philosophy for a young person? For any of us?

The first chance I had, in the summer between 4th and 5th grade, I went to 4-H summer camp at the Clyde M. York Training Center near Crossville. I went back every year until I was a high school sophomore. For all of those years and on into high school, 4-H involvement took me to places all over the state, especially ones operated by UT.

My dad was a farmer, and UT Extension agents shared ideas with him for growing yields or shrinking pests. My older brother competed in crop judging, cattle judging, and building and wiring electrical systems.

When time came for college, Tennessee Tech was closer and less expensive than UT Knoxville, and I got an excellent education there that enabled me to go to Knoxville and start my professional life as the first reporter hired straight from college by the News Sentinel. When time came for graduate school, I enrolled at UT. Doing so felt like completing some kind of life circle. From being introduced to the idea of UT at 9, to being engaged in UT-backed activities up to adulthood, to finally becoming a UT alum.

But there was more to the circle, since just before I completed my master’s degree at UT, I had the exceptional good fortune to take a job as the first director of communications for the UT system.

2018 SOUT Event Speech
UT President Joe DiPietro

Obviously, not everybody who grows up in Tennessee ends up graduating from UT and being employed by UT, but there is almost nobody in Tennessee whose life is not impacted, made better or, in some cases, even enabled by the presence of the University of Tennessee.

Which is the vast and important story I get to be involved in trying to tell every year since our current UT president, Joe DiPietro, began presenting a State of the University address in 2016.

On Feb. 28, the president made his third annual address, one of those events involving a cast of thousands, but if everybody works hard enough and does everything just right, it looks easy. It isn’t easy, but it’s one of the most gratifying work experiences I’ve ever had.

2018 SOUT Event Setup
UT messaging in the speech venue.

Because I don’t just work at UT, and I’m not just a proud alum–I’m a believer. In higher education and in what the statewide UT system brings to higher ed and people from all walks of life across Tennessee. I know from personal experience.

I’m part of an enthusiastic, talented team that works on every phase of planning and execution of the presentation event that’s held in Nashville.

crowd.jpgAbout 150 UT leaders and key stakeholders attend in person, and the speech is available live on a webcast and–this year for the first time–via Facebook Live on the president’s Facebook page.

2018 SOUT Event setup
UT messaging in the event venue.

The president recapped system-wide UT highlights of the past year and plans for the year ahead. His remarks were built around a series of video stories that brought to life the University’s impact in each of its three mission pillars: education, research and outreach.

And in the final video story–one about the ways the University is bringing its full spectrum of capabilities in all three mission pillars to bear–the message was what the University is doing about the opioid crisis in Tennessee. You can watch that 2-minute video here:

UT On The Opioid Crisis.

As the president said, the opioid crisis “is exactly the kind of problem land-grant universities are meant to take on.”

Every word mattered. And all the words together painted a picture of how the statewide University of Tennessee isn’t just in Tennessee, it is Tennessee, woven into the fabric of life all across the state. That’s also the message of the video the event opened with:

Everywhere You Look, UT

The same message is the theme of the new UT System marketing campaign that launched a couple of days after the 2018 State of the University event.

As someone who dreamed of going to college from childhood and who today knows, personally, how the University of Tennessee changes lives, it’s an honor to be part of telling that story. 

And the winner is…

In case you didn’t know — hello, Oscars! — it’s award season.

As the rich and famous celebrated their noteworthy accomplishments, I was reminded of an accomplishment just as noteworthy to a team neither rich nor famous but who won big for Outstanding Achievement in a Labor of Love. OK, that may not be a real award category, but it speaks to how those of us who work on Tennessee Alumnus feel about the magazine recently winning two top prizes in the 2018 Council for the Advancement and Support of Education District III Advancement Awards.

The Alumnus is published three times a year for graduates of all University of Tennessee campuses. Not just Knoxville. Not just Chattanooga. Not just Martin. Not just Memphis–each of those campuses has its own campus-centric alumni publications. The Alumnus’  challenge is to speak with relevance to all UT graduates, from the system-wide UT perspective. That’s not always easy, but we’ve committed to doing that by organizing the features in each issue around a central theme and seeking stories from each campus that speak to that theme.

CASEIn recognition of the redesign of the magazine’s appearance and our intentional focus on cohesive, compelling content in each of its 2017 issues, the magazine won the Grand Award–top prize–for improvement in a category that included submissions from the University of Florida, University of Alabama and Georgia State University.

That’s pretty good company. The Alumnus also won the Award of Excellence–highest honors–for overall quality in a category that included Auburn University, Virginia Tech, Troy University and UAB. Also very good company.

It takes a village to produce a magazine, and I get to work with exceptionally talented people on the Alumnus. In 2018, I officially became executive editor after serving as interim managing editor for a couple of years upon the departure of Elizabeth Davis, in whose care the magazine rested from 2012 to 2015. Once Jennifer Sicking joined our team and had time to get the magazine’s rhythms down, I was proud to have her assume the managing editor role officially this year. Like Elizabeth and me, Jennifer is a former journalist. I’m not saying that’s a requirement to do the job, but it does give you a highly compatible skill set.

These awards were the icing on a whole cake of incredible for the magazine in 2017. The Alumnus also marked its centennial last year–100 years of continuous publication since 1917. That long history is why I always think of any of us who oversee the magazine as only short-term caretakers. It preceded us and, hopefully, it will survive long past us and for another hundred years. The only other person I’ve known to serve as editor is Diane Ballard, who had the job from 1986 until her retirement in 2012, and just people three had served as editor before her.

Screen Shot 2018-03-05 at 11.25.58 AMWe commemorated the Alumnus‘ 100th birthday with profiles–a third more content than usual–in each of 2017’s three issues of the most accomplished alumni of any UT campus over the last 100 years. We worked with the University’s own UT Press to compile those Centennial Alumni profiles into a hard cover book.

Tennessee Alumnus Centennial CelebrationThen, we finished off the festivities with a centennial celebration that saw more than 150 of our Centennial Alumni and University leaders past and present come together to mark the 100th anniversary milestone.

Growing up on a Middle Tennessee farm, that night was heady stuff for this gal. I never imagined I would one day stand in a room with elected officials, judges, former athletes, scientists, artists and entrepreneurs and get to share with them UT alumni status. Not to mention working on a magazine that serves as something of a “family album” for them and all of us.

Jennifer is maintaining the magazine with great care as it begins its second century in 2018, Elizabeth made the Alumnus even better than she found it, and Diane capably steered the publication for 27  years and patiently and kindly passed along her considerable institutional memory before retiring in 2013.


I’m grateful to the magazine’s art director and graphic designer, Laura Barroso–herself a (University of) Georgia bulldog–who is talented and exceptionally creative, and demonstrates that with every layout. And big props go to Adam Brimer, our former director of photography who has gone on to a new job in 2018, for ensuring photos and video that didn’t just present the same story in a different format. Adam was a real partner in our storytelling and he brought new facets through his photography and videography.

Finally, while the magazine’s website could be just a place to archive it electronically, our web designer Nick Simson makes sure it’s more than that. Nick brings both skill and great ideas that have made the magazine even better online.

Tennessee Alumnus Centennial Celebration
More of the whole, Hee-Haw gang…

According to, magazine readership, generally, is growing even as time spent–from 18 minutes in 2010 down to 15 minutes by 2018–reading magazines is slipping somewhat. That’s why it’s important to deliver in a magazine something the reader wants to spend time with.

There’s another reason we want to make the magazine special.

If you subscribe to one or more magazines, you know how much you look forward to the latest issue arriving. You paid for the subscription because you chose the magazine.

No one has to choose to receive the Alumnus, so we have to make the reader choose to believe he or she must read the magazine.

Fortunately, we villagers working on Tennessee Alumnus share a commitment to making sure readers can’t put it down, at least not quickly.

Here’s to Grand Award recognition of that. Cheers!

Tennessee Alumnus Centennial Celebration
With Laura Barroso.