Bill and Carol Latimer believe in the power of education to change lives. Their commitment to education inspired the Union City couple’s $6.5 million gift that made possible the new Latimer-Smith Engineering and Science Building at the University of Tennessee at Martin. The $65 million, 120,000-square-foot, three-story building was dedicated during a 3:30 p.m. ceremony Thursday, Oct. 27.
The dedication coincided with the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees fall meeting held Oct. 27-28 in the Boling University Center. Earlier that afternoon, board members approved a request by Bill Latimer to add Dr. Bob Smith’s name to the building in recognition of the former UT Martin chancellor’s service during a critical period in the university’s history.
The Latimer gift provided the 10% match required by the state for construction of the state-of-the-art facility. Ground was officially broken Sept. 18, 2020, and the building will open for classes in spring 2023. The Latimer Building will house the departments of chemistry and physics, computer science, engineering, mathematics and statistics, and the pre-professional health sciences program. The building features classrooms, laboratories, offices, and a small observatory.
UT Martin Chancellor Keith Carver welcomed the crowd that gathered on the building’s west side, which he noted is the university’s first new academic building in 40 years. “We’re excited for our campus community, students, faculty, staff – especially those in our STEM disciplines who are going to utilize this building,” Carver said. He introduced UT President Randy Boyd who told the audience that the university won’t have to wait 40 years for its next building. “We have over 1,200 buildings in the University of Tennessee System,” he said. “This is one of the best anywhere across the system, so you have a lot to be proud of.”
Boyd thanked both Carver and Smith for the vision and leadership they provided that made the building possible. Prior to Carver being named chancellor in 2016, Smith led the university for 19 months beginning in June 2015 during which time the Latimers’ gift moved the project forward. Boyd first met the couple during his campaign for Tennessee governor, and since then he has seen the impact of the Latimers’ generosity in the state. “I think we’re going to be thankful to them for their donations, but I know myself and many others that know them will be thankful for their inspiration,” he said.
Smith followed Boyd on the program and recalled the challenges faced by the university and the region at the time he was named interim chancellor. Those included high unemployment, problems in school systems and UT Martin’s accreditation probation. Despite the obstacles, he and others never lost the vision for a long-planned STEM building. “Among all the other projects that we were working on, we had to keep this building very much, and its opportunity for this campus, in front of us,” he said.
Smith recalled that the building came closer to reality during the 2016 legislative session, thanks to a change in the university’s required match to fund the project. The match reduction from 25 percent to 10 percent was led by State Sen. John Stevens (R-Huntingdon) and was the first of its kind in Tennessee government. The university was given a one-year opportunity to match 10% or approximately $6.5 million of the cost to construct the building.
In April 2016, Latimer asked to meet with Smith, and during that meeting, he told Smith to take care of the university, and Carol and he would cover the needed match so that the building could be constructed. Smith said that some key lessons in philanthropy led to the historic gift.
“The first one is it is really always about relationships,” he said. “… That sets the foundation for where philanthropy can bear fruit.” Smith said that the second lesson is that Latimer makes transformational gifts. “He does not want to make – and most of the successful philanthropists – do not want to make gifts that are just gifts,” he said. “They want them to be truly ones that make a difference.”
“And the third one was Bill and Carol are about making investments, not writing checks and gifts, and that investment must produce a return,” he said. Smith noted larger gifts to the university in recent years, likely inspired by the Latimers’ generosity. “So that investment has multiplied well beyond the initial gift, but it would never have if Bill hadn’t, and Carol hadn’t have stepped forward.”
Latimer used his time in the program to credit others for the building, which a few minutes later, would be announced by Carver as the Latimer-Smith Engineering and Science Building out of Latimer’s respect for Bob Smith and his service as chancellor. He began by speaking of his personal faith.
“Carol and I believe that if God has blessed you, then you need to use his blessings to bless others,” he said. “God has blessed us much more than we could ever deserve and much, much more than we expected, and God’s blessings is the reason that Carol and I are here today.
“We believe in education, and we believe that is the best way to help get people out of poverty.”
Latimer added his praise for State Sen. John Stevens and former State Rep. Andy Holt for their legislative work in 2016 that changed the way buildings were financed for higher education. He acknowledged UT President Emeritus Joe DiPietro for convincing Smith to return and lead UT Martin during a pivotal time. But perhaps he saved is greatest compliment for his friend with whom he shared the stage on this perfect October afternoon.
“In my opinion, for the amount of time Bob was chancellor … he did more for UTM than any other chancellor that I’ve had the privilege of knowing,” Latimer said.
Early in his remarks, Latimer asked his cousin, the Rev. Jimmy Latimer, senior pastor of Redeemer Evangelical Church in Germantown, to bless the new building and all who use the facility in the future. Before praying, he recalled the family’s history and why the new building fits the Latimer legacy.
“Bill’s ancestors and my ancestors came here from Middle Tennessee in 1853 to Obion County, and they were brothers and they had joining lands and farms,” Jimmy Latimer said. “And the first thing they did when they came to West Tennessee was, they put a plot of land from each farm together and built the Beech Cumberland Presbyterian Church and the Beech School.
“Our family has been involved as farmers, educators, and churchmen all these years, and today is a beautiful fruition of what God has done through Bill. It really says what our family has tried to be all these years.”