When I showed up as a freshman to get the key to my room in Crawford Hall on the campus of Tennessee Tech University, a couple of student workers welcomed me to college and pointed me to the stair well closest to room 311.
The three-story building didn’t have air conditioning, had one wall phone for each hallway, communal showers in two big, shared bathrooms on each floor and one laundry area in the basement. I had a set of bed linens, too many clothes, an electric typewriter and my textbooks–more stuff than my mother wanted me to take, but almost nothing by today’s standards.
Today, college residence hall nest-making is big business. Retailers from Lowe’s to Wal-Mart to Bed, Bath & Beyond start early in summer trying to sell students on the idea that they aren’t just moving onto campus, they’re making their own, first homes.
And over the three decades since I went away to school, colleges have adapted to changing preferences for more apartment-like and less dorm room-like accommodations.
Universities have also realized the opportunity they have to reach out and make students feel welcome by declaring a “move-in day” and showing up en masse with smiles and helping hands.
Which brings us to UTC’s 2019 “Operation Move In.” It took place on Thursday, Aug. 15, before the Monday that classes began on Aug. 19. The scheduling is to enable parents a weekend, if they need it, to help their new college kids get fully situated in their homes away from home. The weekend also lets students get a feel for campus and its surroundings.
Just a few weeks on the job, I wasn’t able to help at move-in day 2018. The big doin’s are coordinated by campus housing officials, known formally as the Office of Housing and Residence Life. This year, as in all years, that office began recruiting volunteers in June. Hearing the effort was still about 200 helpers short at the first of August, I signed up both Bill and myself.
Almost a dozen student housing complexes are home to about a third of the student body of roughly 12,000. That includes approximately 1,500 freshmen who are required to live on campus if their hometowns are 45 miles or more from UTC.
Among the remaining volunteer locations when I signed us up was Decosimo Apartments. Those mean something to me because that’s where I lived for a month in 2018 before Bill and I got moved from Knoxville to Chattanooga.
I know my way around the building and the parking area there, so I signed myself up to help students carry in their belongings and for Bill to help direct traffic as parents had 20 minutes to unload cars at building entrances before finding long-term parking. Bill was OK with that assignment, he told me, emphasizing he wanted no part of lugging stuff into the building or up its stairwells.
Nope, no elevators in ‘Dee-co.’
All across campus, hundreds of volunteering employees–and their spouses, in many cases such as mine–made up a well-established system of coordination. Students with even-numbered room assignments were installed in the morning, odd-numbered assignments in the afternoon.
I knew the majority of my fellow employees we volunteered with and, per usual, Bill didn’t meet a stranger. He soon was pointing out the shortcut to this or the easiest way to that, and carrying loads inside despite swearing he wouldn’t be hauling anything.
Linens and clothing were just the start. Flat-screen TVs, cookware, dishes, shelving and every kind of blinged-out decor item went up the stairs that day. Cardboard from all the newly unboxed stuff and all the moving boxes had to be carried outside to a dumpster. Far too much of that flying to toss it into trash chutes. The dumpster outside had to be emptied at least once in the middle of the day.
Parents mostly were too busy to get choked up about the milestone moment they were in the midst of, and students mostly were excited about the milestone moment they had long anticipated.
Representatives of student organizations surfed by every residence complex, handing out freebies and invitations to join this or that group.
Even Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke stopped by to greet some of the few thousand of his city’s newest residents.
On-campus living bears little residence to the time when I was a student living on a campus, but helping this generation get settled was fun for Bill and me, and it was a great window into what students care about and the people who care about them.
Throughout my career, my line of work–in one setting or another–has steadily called for writing professionally. Often, the storytelling variety, which is my favorite writing to do.
If you don’t know what it’s like to have writing be part of your job, I’ll let you in on a secret: It’s a great way to meet all kinds of interesting people you otherwise wouldn’t.
The best part? You can meet the nicest people and, sometimes, just how nice they are can come as a great surprise.
Enter: Gary and Kathleen Rollins.
He’s a 1967 alumnus of UT Chattanooga. She is his wife.
Mr. Rollins is a UTC business grad, in fact, and earlier this year, he decided to make a gift of $40 million dollars to his alma mater.
Forty. Million. Dollars.
Not only is that a lot of money, it’s the most money ever in a single gift to UTC. A history-making amount. A game changer.
To commemorate the gift, UTC leadership sought to formally name the College of Business the Gary W. Rollins College of Business. Once that was approved by the UT Board of Trustees in June, the wheels got in motion for a day of major celebrations–three, in fact, all in sequence.
Sitting in on about two months of weekly planning sessions was a great opportunity to get better-acquainted with my UTC colleagues after beginning a new job in June. From a campus-wide celebration–complete with marching band, cheerleaders, hot dogs and speeches–to an evening reception to a formal dinner, you couldn’t count all the moving parts. Those of us planning and managing some of those parts were rightfully serious about making sure everything was buttoned up.
After all, Mr. Rollins is vice chairman and CEO of Rollins, Inc., a New York Stock Exchange corporation with many holdings including Orkin, the world’s largest pest control company. He moves in some elite circles. I followed the lead of my new colleagues in the College of Business and the Office of Development (fundraising), because they had done the work that brought us to this unprecedented moment. My job was to see that the word got out.
The Rollinses would have a jam-packed schedule of celebrations on what came to be known as “Rollins Day” on campus–Sept. 13–yet they agreed to add to their schedule an interview with me. I would ask questions off-camera, and our crack videographers and still photographer would get the visuals; then I would produce content for the news media, our website and our alumni magazine.
From talking to Mr. Rollins, I learned that he was born in Chattanooga, graduated from high school in Delaware and chose UTC for college, in part, because of close proximity to family in Chattanooga and North Georgia. He also said with a laugh, “I could get in.”
From meeting him and his wife, Kathleen, I learned they are unassuming, friendly and gracious.
He was self-deprecating in his remarks. She wanted the moment to be about him.
After virtually the entire 15-minute interview had been spent asking Mr. Rollins questions that he answered, I asked Mrs. Rollins if there was anything she’d like to say or add.
“No, thank you,” she said, smiling and patting him on the shoulder. “This is his day.”
I wrote a press release distributed that day and a magazine feature that publishes later this month. My colleagues who shot the photos (all of those above are by Angela Foster) and who shot the video and edited it (Mike Andrews and Jacob Cagle) perfectly captured the anticipation and excitement on campus for the celebrations, and the warmth and approachability of the Rollinses. I encourage you to check that out for yourself in the video below.
It’s three minutes that I bet you can’t watch without a smile on your face by the end.
Because, I discovered, they really are just the nicest people.
It’s been about six weeks since Bill and I moved to Chattanooga and our house in the suburb of Hixson, but it seems longer.
I expect anyone who’s ever moved their entire, long-established household to another city to take a new job in that city understands. I don’t mean it seems long in a bad way. It’s just that–given the stress of two closings 100 miles apart on the same day, movers arriving the next day, and having to use GPS to get back to work a couple of days later–the six weeks feel like dog years. A whirlwind of change has blown almost nonstop.
The good news: We’re finally getting our nest made.
As I’ve written here before, we were fortunate to have sold our Knoxville home of 24 years within the first 24 hours it was on the market. Which was the last Thursday in May. We were set to close a month later in June. All we had to do was find a place to live in Chattanooga, get a mortgage approved, get our stuff set to move, and close on the same day–in about 26 days. Oh, and I would be working full-time at the new job as of June 1. Piece of cake. What would we do with all our spare time?
It was a huge help that my new employer, UT Chattanooga, made it possible for me to rent a furnished, on-campus apartment for the month of June.
Back to Campus
Great Move-In Help
My June 2018 Neighborhood
So we only had to move my office stuff once and most of my clothes and a few of our household items twice. I’m not complaining. There’s no way I could have found and rented a furnished apartment for just 30 days–utilities included–otherwise. And the commute for the month of June was pretty sweet. Two blocks, and I never even had to start my car.
My new colleagues at UTC couldn’t have made me feel more welcome from the first day, June 4.
I mean, how do you beat your own, personalized welcome banner created by the creative services director? Thanks again, Steve. You’re the best.
Then Steve and our boss, George, and our division’s business manager, Megan, and I all went to lunch on my first day at one of the countless trendy spots in downtown Chattanooga: Jalisco Taquería.
Those three are a fun bunch to grab lunch with, and the tacos were great. Still, I managed to make the trip even more memorable by going for an accidental dive on the brick plaza as we carried our takeout to an outdoor table.
In my dress and heels.
Yep, that’s how I roll on the first day of the new job.
I couldn’t get the name of that location to come to mind later in talking about the restaurant with some other work colleagues. Steve helped: “It’s that place where you fell.”
Which is what it will forever be known as at the office, I guess.
A month of staying in Chattanooga five nights a week and driving back to Knoxville every weekend to pack stuff and clean the house was about all the fun I could stand. Then came June 26, when we officially sold a house in Knoxville in the morning, drove for two hours with three squalling cats, bought a house in Chattanooga in the afternoon, then headed to the new digs.
We couldn’t ask for a nicer neighborhood.
But the first night, we could have asked for furniture. It came the next day.
We slept on the floor–to keep the traumatized cats company–instead of driving back to my on-campus apartment where there was an actual bed with a mattress.
No biggie. We learned it’s possible to sleep on a floor and get up the next morning and spend the entire day carrying stuff inside and showing the movers where the heavy stuff goes. Not saying you’d want to do it, just saying that you can do it.
We were thrilled to have all of our stuff back in one place again. And lordy, there was a lot of it. One thing I learned from finally having a closet big enough to keep my clothes all in one place: I don’t need another shoe, dress or pair of pants.
All the change and strange was pretty stressful for our cats. We put them inside their individual crates and put them in a closet while the movers were working. They made not a sound nor a mess in their crates all day. They felt hid and that made them feel better.
It was kinda fun when the movers had gone and the time finally came to let the cats roam the house.
They skulked and sniffed and jumped at everything.
They’d never had a staircase to play on before, and they seemed to enjoy that.
A couple days later, it was Saturday, June 28, the last weekend before July 4. We were sweaty and tired and unpacking boxes when first one then, a couple of hours later, another knock came at the door from new neighbors to make sure we knew about the Pre-July 4 Neighborhood Block Party that evening.
No, it didn’t matter what we wore (since I wasn’t sure how quickly I’d be able to find my clothes). No, we didn’t have to bring anything–there would be plenty of food.
Tired, but showered and fully dressed in actual clothing, we eventually made our way to the Block Party. That’s when we found out what nice neighbors we really do have. And that they turn out in big numbers for the Block Party. If you look closely, you might be able to spot Bill and me in the photo:
We’re grateful to be living in a place with such nice, friendly people.
And we’re almost as grateful that the inside of our house is finally, slowly coming together.
Come see us. We’ll make you feel welcome to the neighborhood, too!
Knoxville, Tennessee stopped being my home on June 1, almost 26 years to the day since I moved there.
Leaving was a little bit scary, a whole lot stressful, and very exciting. My entire professional working life had been spent in Knoxville, but a fantastic new opportunity that I am immensely grateful for was waiting in Chattanooga.
So, I wasn’t moving too far away–about 100 miles–to keep in close touch with close friends. And I wasn’t moving any farther away–also about 100 miles–than I already was from family in my Middle Tennessee hometown.
I ended up in Knoxville in the first place, straight out of college, very coincidentally.
I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English-Journalism from Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville in 1992. Those of voting age in May 1992 will remember the economy was terrible then, when Bill Clinton eventually was elected president on a campaign focused on: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
For all the obstacles I had cleared and all my persistence in completing college, employment prospects were slim. I graduated cum laude with a 3.6 GPA and had a decent resume for a new college grad: managing editor of my college newspaper, section editor of the yearbook, internships, honor societies and one of three “Derryberry Award” nominees for most outstanding graduate in my class.
I’d even won campus funding for a distinguished journalists lecture series I put together that brought print and broadcast news leaders, even the iconic White House correspondent Helen Thomas, to campus.
Following commencement, I spent May driving from Cookeville to Nashville or Knoxville or Chattanooga pounding the pavement.
Quite by accident while in Knoxville, I happened upon the Knoxville News Sentinel building and went inside to the Human Resources department. Brad Riley popped my starry-eyed bubble: the newsroom there did not hire people as reporters without prior professional journalism experience; and they had a file cabinet full of resumes of working reporters who wanted to be there. The opening they did have, however, was in the circulation department: an hourly job in the call center, taking subscription orders, delivery complaints, temporary delivery stop requests and so on. It paid minimum wage. Not exactly what I thought hard work in college was supposed to bring. Tennessee Tech is a fantastic university–especially if you want to be an engineer. For those of us not good at math or numbers, engineering isn’t an option, no matter where we went to college.
At Brad’s suggestion, I went ahead and completed a job application–hedging my bets in case that opening went unfilled while I kept looking for a little while longer.
Back in Cookeville, I heard the local daily newspaper serving that town of about 40,000 had an opening for a reporter. I got an interview with the editor. It went well, but he told me he was interviewing three other people and would make a decision in about a week. He also told me it paid about minimum wage to start.
So, the money was the same, but the two scenarios were very different. I could hope to get the reporter job at a small daily and build a clip file that I would seek to parlay into a job at a larger paper, eventually. Or, I could hope the job as a customer service representative for the Knoxville News Sentinel would, by putting me down the hall from the newsroom there, lead to an opportunity work as a reporter. Never mind the long odds, since the paper had never hired a reporter without prior professional experience.
I was just naive enough to believe I could will myself into the newsroom at the News Sentinel, so without waiting to hear back from the Cookeville paper, I went to Knoxville, interviewed for and accepted the offer of a job as a customer service representative.
I had split days off: Saturday and Wednesday. Daily start time was 7 a.m., except for Sundays, when I worked 5 a.m. to 1 p.m. I started in June. On Halloween, I used the employee costume contest to lobby for a reporter job. I wore my college graduation garb–plus a cardboard sign around my neck that read, “Will Write For Food”–when I stopped in to see the editor, the incomparable Harry Moskos. I also handed him a list of the “Top 10 Reasons to Hire Gina” in the newsroom. He laughed and made sure his managing editor, Vince Vawter, saw me, too. I was pretty hard to miss, traipsing around in a mortar board and flapping graduation gown.
By January, still putting on a customer service headset at work every day, I decided my big gamble was turning out to be a big bust. I was going to look for a reporter job, no matter how small the newspaper, and start over.
In February, I actually saw a job ad in the paper where I worked for a reporter opening at the small daily in Middlesboro, Kentucky, about an hour north of Knoxville. I sent a resume and cover letter, got an interview and was offered the job. By then, I had met my future husband–workplace romance, since he was a manager in the News Sentinel’s circulation department–so the only downside I saw to Middlesboro, Kentucky was that we might not be able to see each other as easily.
I gave two weeks’ notice to my customer service supervisor. Then, wouldn’t you know it, the managing editor approached me in my headset about three days later and asked if I might still be interested in coming to the newsroom. Yes, of course, I told him. He said he had heard I had accepted a reporter job in Kentucky, and I said if there was anything he could do to expedite the possibility of hiring me onto his team, that would be appreciated. He did.
And that’s how I came to be the first reporter hired by the News Sentinel without prior professional experience.
Not everybody in the newsroom was as excited as I was. A couple were resentful. I hadn’t “paid my dues” as they had. I understood that and I was as green as grass with a lot to learn. But I did learn, and I developed a thick skin as my writing got better. I worked with some fine people, and I made a lot of great friends. If you know me, you know that I say newspaper people are the best people, and I say it because it’s true. I agreed completely with the aforementioned, and now deceased, Helen Thomas that being a reporter “is the best job in the world.”
Still, after about eight amazing years of going places, seeing things, and meeting people I never could have otherwise, I wanted to advance professionally. I saw little chance of that where I was, and I became open to new possibilities. This was long before the economic decline the print media finds itself in now–my decision to consider leaving the newspaper had nothing to do with that. In my last couple of years there, health and medicine was my beat, which meant I knew the administrator and PR people for every hospital, physician group, fitness center and nursing home in Knoxville and its surrounding counties.
Blount Memorial Hospital in Maryville, about 30 minutes from my house, recruited me to a position as PR manager with a pay raise and an opportunity where I believed I could make an impact. I felt I did from the first day and I learned a lot about a whole new career area: public relations. That’s not to say I was OK with walking away from journalism. Far from it. Being a reporter wasn’t just a job, it had been my identity. There was a big adjustment, and it took a while. And when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 happened, I never missed being in a newsroom more.
I believe I established some relationships with the news media and created some new communication approaches for the hospital that made a difference. We also dealt with a couple of crisis situations that gave us all some helpful insights. But after a few years, I wanted new challenges. I had begun preparing for them by enrolling in graduate school–toward a master’s degree with a science communication concentration–at UT Knoxville. A couple of my professors there and a couple of PR friends told me about an opening with the University, working for the UT system president’s administration, and suggested I look into it.
I did, and I was hired for the most challenging new job by the single-best mentor I’ve had to date. The mentor was my new boss, Hank Dye, whose name was familiar across the state in my line of work.
He was the Dye in Nashville agency Dye, Van Mol & Lawrence, and I could write a book about all I learned from him.
Generally, it’s accepted in PR that your job is to work to gain attention for your employer or, if you’re with an agency, your client. The first thing I realized in working for the UT president’s office is that you don’t have to seek attention for the University. It’s there 24/7, and everything happens in a fish bowl. And because our office worked with our counterparts at every UT campus and institute, statewide, Hank Dye aptly described it as like playing a game of “Whack A Mole.” Deal with one situation over here, another pops up over there. Something was always happening, and fast.
Every word said or written for public consumption mattered. I expanded my professional portfolio exponentially. I love to write–finding just the right phrasing to strike just the right chord–and the opportunities to do that, and other things I love, and to make an impact were fortunately frequent.
I loved the job, the fact I worked to advocate for higher education, and my adopted hometown of Knoxville. I had no plans to leave, until another opportunity–to advocate for higher education in a new way–arose in Chattanooga.
I was recruited to an opening there, and when I considered the long list of pluses–new and greater responsibility, leadership I already knew and liked, opportunity to work with students and faculty, continuing years of service with the University–I talked with my husband about it. I also talked with best friends and mentors. We all agreed it was the opportunity worth the big move it would require.
I don’t mean big as in far or foreign. I mean it would be a new city and the end of living in Knoxville after 26 years, for me, and for a lifetime, for my husband, Bill. But he was completely on board, and we both jumped into high gear from the time of the job offer in mid-April, until I was to start at UT Chattanooga on June 4–the day after my birthday.
I took that as another good sign that my decision to join the Office of Communications and Marketing there was the right one.
Neither Bill nor I have ever worked as hard as we did in the 30 days into which we crammed getting our Knoxville home of 24 years on the market, selling our house, finding and buying a Chattanooga house, moving me temporarily into an on-campus apartment at UTC, and then getting all of our stuff finally under one roof at our house in Chattanooga. I’m not sure we will ever be able to do that again. We don’t have it in us.
We’re still getting our new nest made, and I’ve been on the new job for a little more than a month–but everything is great on all fronts. As life flew by at 240 mph through May and June, I saw blog after blog to be written, but I had no time to write anything other than my name on real estate offers, mortgage applications and new job paperwork.
The big adventure continues, and I’ll be back here soon. For now, I’ve got to get back to moving right along…