Raising $178.2 million is a good reason to celebrate, and the University of Tennessee at Martin’s friends and supporters did just that with a dinner and celebration event Friday evening, Aug. 11, at Discovery Park of America in Union City. The RISE Campaign, the largest fundraising effort in the university’s history, officially concluded as more than 150 guests gathered at Dinosaur Hall to thank campaign leadership and donors for exceeding the $175 million goal before the June 30 campaign close. A total of 14,751 donors contributed to the campaign that will support student scholarships, athletics, capital projects and more.
The RISE Campaign, the fourth capital campaign in UT Martin history, was announced Sept. 11, 2021, at Hardy M. Graham Stadium during UT Martin’s home football game with Samford University. Since then, the campaign has welcomed support that includes the future transfer of Wildwood Farm in Memphis to the university by Melanie Taylor and the Taylor family, the largest commitment in University of Tennessee System and UT Martin history. The property value and new construction at the farm is valued at $79.5 million.
Dr. Charley Deal, UT Martin vice chancellor for university advancement, emceed the event and made multiple introductions, including honorary campaign co-chairs Rosann Nunnelly of Nashville and Melanie Taylor and campaign co-chairs Bill Blankenship of Memphis and Charlie and Bettye Moore of Union City. Kerry Witcher, president and CEO of the University of Tennessee Foundation, Inc., was the first of several speakers to talk about the campaign and its impact. He thanked all who supported the campaign and noted that the RISE Campaign’s success contributed to record giving to the University of Tennessee.
“We just closed what I would argue was our best year in advancement in the history of the University of Tennessee,” Witcher said. “System-wide we had 86,000 donors make a gift to a UT campus somewhere. We generated $342 million in private support and had more alumni engaged than ever before in the history of the university.”
UT President Randy Boyd followed Witcher and gave an example of UT Martin’s impact by telling Alec Richardson’s story, a Perry County native who was recently appointed as a senior adviser to Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and a member of the governor’s cabinet. Boyd credited the university’s Parsons Center for providing Richardson the opportunity to earn a college degree. “If not for UT Martin, if not for Parsons … that story wouldn’t have been told, and there’s thousands of stories that are like that throughout West Tennessee because of UT Martin,” Boyd said.
Among his comments about the campaign, Boyd expressed his excitement at exceeding the campaign goal and credited many university supporters for the outcome. “What an incredible achievement. I just want to say thank you to everybody that donated, to everybody that contributed, which is everybody in this room,” he said. “It’s just an incredible accomplishment.”
Boyd welcomed Dr. Yancy Freeman to the podium who joined the university Aug. 9 for his first official day at the university since being confirmed July 14 as UT Martin’s 12th chancellor. The RISE celebration provided the backdrop for his first major UT Martin event.
“I do want to recognize again the tremendous work – $178 million is a fantastic and phenomenal goal,” he said. “To reach that goal, to surpass the $175 million goal is absolutely wonderful.” Although Freeman accepted no credit for the campaign’s success, which began during former chancellor Dr. Keith Carver’s administration, he thanked Charley Deal and the university advancement team for their successful campaign work. Carver left UT Martin earlier this year to become senior vice chancellor and senior vice president for the UT Institute of Agriculture.
He also noted that $55 million of the campaign total is designated for student scholarships. “In order for us to continue to provide access, we have to do it in scholarship dollars,” he said. “Fifty-five million of the dollars that were raised will go toward scholarships to make it an affordable education. We thank you for your giving.”
A 2021 video was shown that opened the RISE Campaign, and then Jerry Reese completed the evening’s speaker lineup by recalling how UT Martin had impacted his life. The Tiptonville native, high school and college football standout, UT Martin Athletics Hall of Fame member and 2009 inductee into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame spoke of the friends he made and how his time as a player and a coach shaped his ability to work 23 years in professional football with the New York Giants. He was the Giants’ general manager from 2007 to 2017, a time when the team won Super Bowls in 2008 and 2012.
“None of these things happen if I hadn’t gone to UT Martin,” Reese said, adding that the university is also where he met Gwen, his wife of 35 years, which he said was “the best thing that happened to me while I was at UT Martin.”
Reese joined other speakers by thanking everyone present for supporting the university financially. He recalled his own experience as a 17-year-old student from Tiptonville, having the opportunity to attend college and said how giving is a difference maker in lives. “We talk about giving. I think about giving back,” he said. “That’s what’s important. … And if we give back, if we pay it forward, that’s the best thing we can do.”
Before a final toast and singing of the alma mater, Deal closed by previewing UT Martin’s 125th birthday in 2025 and again thanked supporters for making the university’s mission of educating students possible.
“It is because of each person in this room tonight we can celebrate the success of our campaign and the impact it will have on future generations,” Deal said.