Education Prepared Donnie Ross for a Larger Game
Story by Bud Grimes | Photos by Steve Mantilla & Nathan Morgan
Donnie Ross (‘18) found success in college and professional baseball, but he also prepared for life after baseball by earning a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees, the second of which he received from UT Martin in December 2018 after completing the university’s online MBA program.
Years ago, while baseball and life were happening, Donnie met and married his wife, Alison, now the administrative assistant for UT System Interim President Randy Boyd. Their journey is one of mutual support and the ability to simultaneously enjoy the moment while also planning for the future.
A UT police lieutenant and former Tennessee Vols baseball player, Donnie was raised in California and is a lifelong Los Angeles Dodgers fan. In 1991, his family moved to Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, and he took his passion and talent for baseball to Columbia State Community College in Columbia. “My dream was to get to … UT Knoxville and play in the SEC and, sure enough, the two-year wait (playing at Columbia State) helped,” he said. He completed his college eligibility in 1999 before signing as an undrafted free agent with the Kansas City Royals organization and playing a combined seven years in minor league and independent baseball.
A minor league baseball stint with the Wilmington Blue Rocks ultimately introduced Donnie to Alison Kildow, a New Jersey native and English major at the University of Delaware, who would become his wife in 2005 after his graduation from UT Knoxville.
Alison moved to Knoxville early in the relationship and was already an established UT employee when the couple married. She started in a temporary position in 2003 and began working for Hank Dye, UT vice president for public and government relations, two years later. “I was just 24 years old at the time,” she said. “I was young, and he (Dye) really took a chance on me, on this young Jersey girl that didn’t really know anything.” The position turned out to be a good fit, and her work with public and government relations continued until Dye’s retirement in 2012. She then worked for his successor, Dr. Tonjanita Johnson, and followed her when she became executive vice president and chief operating officer for the UT System in 2016.
With baseball likely behind him and Alison in a good place in her career, Donnie considered using his bachelor’s degree in sport management to become a teacher and coach. Instead, he received an unexpected opportunity to work in a new position mentoring student athletes as a member of the UT Police Department. “I had contemplated finishing up playing baseball anyway, but this gave me a chance at a career,” he said. The UT position allowed him to further his education and pursue a master’s degree in sport management, which he received in 2012.
Even with a master’s degree, Donnie believed he needed to make himself more marketable. He had learned about UT Martin’s online MBA degree from program graduate Tiffany Carpenter (’15), UT associate vice president for communications and marketing. He saw the MBA as a way to gain the financial and management knowledge and skills to potentially help him with future promotions. He was accepted into the program sooner than he expected and began in August 2016.
Donnie and his family encountered the usual challenges that face adult students when trying to balance family responsibilities, work and school. Being an online student was another adjustment he had to make, and he and his MBA cohort learned how to lean on each other during uncertain times. “When you’re struggling through a program, and you could hear somebody else going through the same struggles, golly did it make it easier,” he said. “There were some times where I was stressed out of my mind, and we’d talk … and then we’d get to bounce ideas off each other. … That part of the program is really, really neat.”
Later, as Donnie prepared to walk the commencement line, Alison received the opportunity to work with President Boyd, which wasn’t an easy decision to make with a young family. “Traditionally, people have maybe been 10 years older than me or have had older children,” she said. “But again, it goes back to timing. I couldn’t pass up this opportunity.” She officially began her new position in December and hasn’t looked back.
Both Donnie and Alison see Donnie’s opportunity to earn a second master’s degree as well worth the sacrifices. “Going through it … was challenging. It was tough,” he said. “But finding out I could do pretty well … (in spite of) life getting in the way … was good. It was very rewarding.” He also has a message for others: “Don’t be afraid to pursue your dreams.”
As with any family, new challenges and opportunities lie ahead, but the same mutual support system that carried the couple through baseball seasons apart, late-night homework and challenges to family time still remains. Maybe the best news of all is that seven-year-old Mary Alice already understands the significance of her daddy’s most recent educational accomplishment. On the December Friday before commencement, she said she’s proud of her dad “because he’s graduating college,” to which Donnie proudly added, “And we’re gonna see her do it one day.”
Donnie Ross had a talent for hitting home runs both as a Tennessee Vol and as a professional baseball player. Beyond his athletic accomplishments, his educational goals and achievements set a strong example for his daughter and have prepared him for what’s ahead in the larger game of life.