No one affected the University of Tennessee at Martin as much as Paul Meek, who held the campus's leadership position as executive officer, dean, UT vice president or chancellor from 1934 to 1967.
Meek was born William Paul Meek on Feb. 9, 1897, in Martin, to Felix McCrager Meek and Charlotte Temperance Atkinson. His early childhood was spent on the family farm two miles south of Martin. He received his early education at local schools and graduated from both the Eastern Academy and Hall-Moody's in-town arch-rival, McFerrin College. Meek graduated from McFerrin in 1914 with intentions of attending Vanderbilt University, but a bad harvest on the family farm prevented him from leaving that fall. He changed his mind the following year, deciding instead to travel to Knoxville to attend the University of Tennessee as an agriculture student. He spent four years in Knoxville, with a brief tour in the United States Army in 1918, before graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture. In Knoxville, Paul Meek was president of his senior class, serving with class officers C. Porter Claxton (class treasurer and the first executive officer of UT Junior College, the predecessor to UT Martin) and Martha Campbell (class secretary and later Mrs. Paul Meek).
Meek returned home to Martin and farmed for a year before becoming a teacher and football coach at a public school in Harlan, Kentucky. By 1923, he was principle of the school and became superintendent of the Harlan City School District in 1929. He returned to Knoxville in 1933 to earn a Master of Science degree in education and was offered the position as executive officer of the University of Tennessee Junior College in Martin the same year his master's degree was awarded. Meek took up the challenge of replacing his friend and former classmate C. Porter Claxton with some trepidation. He ultimately guided the college as its chief administrator for 33 years.
The situation at UTJC on his arrival was very unstable. The devastating effects of the Great Depression caused enrollment to drop dramatically, causing classes and the entire athletics program to be cancelled and faculty and staff to be reduced. Meek's flair for advertising and public relations doubled enrollment and under his leadership the college began to stabilize financially. Meek was preparing to enter a doctoral program at the University of Chicago in 1941 when the Industrial Arts building (now Crisp Hall) caught fire and burned. "My doctoral program probably went up in smoke along with the ... building," he later wrote. A year later the United States' entrance into the Second World War duplicated the difficulties of the Depression as student enrollment plummeted once again. Through Meek's efforts a naval air cadet training program was initiated in 1943 and provided enough income to keep the college's doors from closing permanently.
The immediate post-war years found the college expanding at an astounding rate. In 1951, the junior college acquired its first degree-granting programs and a new name – the University of Tennessee, Martin Branch. Through Meek's urging, the UT Board of Trustees allowed the college to double and triple its degree programs and encouraged the construction of class buildings and new dormitories. In 1959, Meek was at last awarded a doctorate ¬– honorarily – in law by Lambuth College. His efforts were recognized again in 1962 when he was given the title of vice president of the University of Tennessee and chancellor of the Martin Branch. Just prior to his retirement in 1967, Meek was present when Gov. Buford Ellington signed the document changing the college’s name to "The University of Tennessee at Martin."
In retirement, Meek witnessed the creation of the Paul and Martha Meek Scholarship Fund, the establishment of a "Paul Meek Day" and the naming of the campus's first library building in his honor. "The heart of any campus is the library," said University President Andy Holt at the 1968 dedication, "and that's why it is named after Paul Meek." Paul Meek died Nov. 2, 1972, at the age of 75, and he is buried in Martin's East Side Cemetery.