9 People You Didn’t Know Have a UT Connection

by Cassandra Sproles January 15, 2015

Entertainers

Dixie Carter

carter2Best known for: Designing Women

Most remember Dixie Carter best as the outspoken and opinionated southerner Julia Sugarbaker in the television series Designing Women (1986–1993). Carter attended UT in 1959 and 1960, studying for a degree in liberal arts. While at UT, she was a member of Delta Delta Delta and was Miss Volunteer 1960. She made her professional acting debut in 1960 in a production of Carousel in Memphis and her Broadway debut in 1974. Her only Emmy nomination came in 2007 after a seven-episode guest spot on Desperate Housewives alongside fellow UT alumnus James Denton.

Collin Wilcox Paxton

Collin_Wilcox_1958Best known for: To Kill a Mockingbird

Once you’ve seen Collin Wilcox Paxton in her movie debut, it’s hard to forget her. Paxton played Mayella Violet Ewell, who falsely accuses a black man of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Paxton went to high school in Knoxville and attended UT, majoring in theatre and performing frequently at the Carousel Theatre. Her name can be found in many playbills from the theatre, including a 1953 performance alongside Tony Award-winner John Cullum (’53) in the play Dangerous Corner. Paxton also starred with fellow UT alumna Dale Dickey in the ’90s TV series Christy.

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Authors

Alex Haley

alex_haleyBest known for: Roots

About 140 million people, more than half of the population of the United States, were glued to their televisions in 1977 watching the Roots miniseries, which was based on Alex Haley’s 1976 book Roots: The Saga of an American Family. The miniseries broke records for viewership in 1977 and inspired a greater awareness of African American history. As an adjunct faculty member in the College of Communication, Haley was a valued and respected member of the UT academic community. In April 1991, he donated his notes, manuscripts, videotapes, and mementos to be housed in UT’s Special Collections Library on the Knoxville campus.

Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt-Vonnegut-US-Army-portraitBest-known for: Slaughterhouse-Five

In 1943, a young Kurt Vonnegut was sent to UT through the Army Specialized Training Program to study engineering, science, math, and foreign languages in order to help meet wartime demands. After being shipped off to Europe, Vonnegut became a prisoner of war during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. He was imprisoned in Dresden, Germany, and survived the bombing of Dresden with a group of POWs in an underground slaughterhouse meat locker called Schlachthof Fünf (Slaughterhouse Five). Vonnegut’s semi-autobiographical book about the incident, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), is one of the most lauded in American literature. Vonnegut returned to campus to speak in 2004.

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Astronauts

Barry “Butch” Wilmore

800px-Barry_WilmoreBest-known as: Commander of the International Space Station

There was one thing that Butch Wilmore couldn’t go without at the International Space Station—and that was SEC football. The 1994 UT graduate traveled to the ISS in September 2014 but didn’t want to miss any of the football action, so he had the new SEC Network piped into space. Wilmore took command of the ISS in November 2014 and will return to Earth this March. During his tenure as a fleet naval officer and pilot, Wilmore completed four operational deployments, flying the A-7E and FA‑18 aircraft. He has accumulated almost 7,000 flight hours and more than 600 carrier landings.

Scott Kelly

2015-final-coverBest-known for: Research on the International Space Station

This spring, Scott Kelly will cross paths with fellow Vol Butch Wilmore on the International Space Station. Kelly, who earned a master’s degree in aviation systems from UT in 1996, will stay aboard the ISS for one year, marking the longest time a person has spent at the station. He is the identical twin  of former astronaut Mark Kelly, who is married to former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. The Kelly twins are the only siblings to have traveled in space. The pair was recently featured in Time magazine, with Scott making the cover.

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Inventors

Mark Dean

Mark-DeanBest-known as: Co-inventor of the personal computer

Every time you connect a monitor, keyboard, or mouse to a computer you have UT alumnus Mark Dean to thank for making it work. Dean graduated in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, is a professor in the College of Engineering, and is known as a pioneer in the world of personal computing. He is a co-inventor of the personal computer and is responsible for developing the technology that allows us to connect devices to computers. He holds three of the nine original patents on the computer that all PCs are based upon, and more than forty patents overall. Dean spent thirty-four years at IBM and was recently named a National Academy of Inventors Fellow.

Min Kao

kaoBest-known as: Co-founder of Garmin GPS

It’s possible that Min Kao has gone with you on a lot of road trips. Well, maybe not Kao himself, but the GPS products he developed with colleague Gary Burrell under the name Garmin. Kao graduated from UT in 1977 with master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical engineering. In 2012, the Min H. Kao Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Building was dedicated at UT. The building was built with the help of a $12.5 million gift by Kao to the university.

Charles Scott Abbott

Trivialpursuit_TokenBest-known as: Co-inventor of Trivial Pursuit

Charles Scott Abbott earned his master’s degree in journalism at UT in 1978. A native of Quebec, he was working as a sports editor for the Canadian Press in 1979 when he and friend Chris Haney invented the board game Trivial Pursuit. We can only guess that it was his Volunteer pride that led to the choice of orange for the game’s Sports and Leisure category.

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32 comments

Dave Loope January 20, 2015 at 6:19 pm

How on earth can you leave out Cormac McCarthy?–DL

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Cassandra Sproles January 20, 2015 at 6:40 pm

Hi Dave! I was saving Cormac McCarthy for a follow-up to this list! Thanks for reading and commenting!

Best,
Cassandra Sproles
Executive Editor

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Annetta Jenkins January 20, 2015 at 11:36 pm

Cormac is “never follow up” always 1st string.

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Beldina Auma January 20, 2015 at 6:25 pm

Go Vols! Great accomplishments.

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Gail Burchette January 20, 2015 at 6:32 pm

This is wonderful! I knew about Dixie Carter, and I knew Min Kao was a UT grad, but I did not know he was co-inventor of the Garmin. The news about all of the others as well is so inspiring!

I have always been proud to be a UTK grad, but this just reinforces my Big Orange Pride!! VFL

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Ev Blau January 21, 2015 at 3:53 am

Clarence Brown, Hollywood director and UT philanthropist.

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vann January 22, 2015 at 3:08 pm

Huge impact on films artistically and movie technology, as well. And is reputed to have “dated” all of the major female stars of his day. Met him in 1970. Interesting old guy.

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Pam Cox January 20, 2015 at 7:21 pm

Nice job. Interesting read. Thanks

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Gerri Bussell January 20, 2015 at 7:57 pm

Awesome!! That’s why I am proud to be a VOL Graduate!!!!

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Jennifer Joyner January 20, 2015 at 8:57 pm

What about David Keith? He graduated from UT. Also Wilma Dykeman taught adjunctly at UT for a time. I took one of her courses. Enjoyed the rest of the list!

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Allison January 20, 2015 at 9:37 pm

Deana Carter- singer and songwriter.

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Dennis Dobbs January 20, 2015 at 10:09 pm

I have always considered Clarence Brown to be one of the VERY famous UT alumni! Big Orange pride is alive an well!

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The Philosophizer January 20, 2015 at 10:46 pm

What about Amy Miles? CEO of Regal theaters. She graduated with an undergraduate degree in Accounting

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Joseph January 20, 2015 at 10:48 pm

Thanks for this interesting information!

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James Trolinger January 20, 2015 at 10:54 pm

Astronaut Henry (Hank) Hartsfield was a graduate student at the University of Tennessee Space Institute.

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Karen Daniel January 21, 2015 at 12:11 am

Clay Griffith is Cameron Crowe’s long time set designer and a UT grad.

Huell Howser was also a UT grad.

The West Coast Vols are few, but we are mighty. 🙂

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Robert Jones January 21, 2015 at 3:07 am

Lowell Cunningham, author of “The Men in Black”.

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Danny January 21, 2015 at 2:27 pm

you mentioned Dale Dickey in passing, but she should have her own paragraph! Great article. Next time, list some famous Vol fans, like Charlie Daniels, Lee Greenwood, David Keith, etc.
GO VOLS!

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vann January 22, 2015 at 3:01 pm

But most everyone is aware of the UT connection for these people that you suggested. I was surprised at several of the people who appeared in this article which is just what the article promised. I mean, Curt Vonnegut? Who knew?

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Robin January 23, 2015 at 4:37 pm

Danny, Lee Greenwood did not attend UT.

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Maurice Msarsa January 21, 2015 at 2:34 pm

Morris George is my pen name. I wrote six action fiction novels:
LOVE, HONOR, and GLORY
I WAS THERE WHEN IT HAPPENED
NOW and FOREVER
HITHER SIDE OF HELL
SHEITAN’S TANGO
STANDING ALONE

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Jeff Schenkel January 21, 2015 at 4:00 pm

For Karen (above), as a California resident (San Dimas, Los Angeles County) but native Knoxvillian, I had no idea about Huell Howser. Should have figured because of the accent.

Thanks for that.

And what about UT Journalism grad John Nobel Wilford, mentioned in this space before? He spoke to our 1970 Communications Department graduating seniors breakfast in the student center (summer quarter). He wrote the biggest headline ever (at that time) used by the New York Times — “Man Walks on Moon.”

And what about Jack Topchik, another J-school grad, three years ahead of me and an influence in my career selection, who devoted his entire career to the New York Times? Jack, I will always remember you for saying, probably with a cigar in your mouth, “Jeff, why start at the bottom when you can start at the top?”

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John Hudson January 21, 2015 at 10:14 pm

Dixie Carter was a gifted actress, author, spokesperson and mother, among many other roles. She was a community activist in her hometown of McLemoresville in Carroll County, Tennessee. She and her husband Hal Holbrook raised funds to assist in building The Dixie Carter Performing Arts and Academic Enrichment Center in Huntingdon, the county seat. She received her BS degree in 1963 from the University of Memphis (then Memphis State), having previously attended UTK and Rhodes College (then Southwestern at Memphis). All biographical profiles about Ms. Carter in her books and other articles lists her as attending the University of Tennessee, not receiving a degree. Unless Cassandra Sproles has some University documentation that indicates Dixie Carter received a degree, the article should be corrected to reflect Ms. Carter’s association with UTK. This is not to diminish her affiliation with the University. She is a remarkable woman who entertained and inspired millions, and I am proud that she was a student at the University of Tennessee. — John Hudson, MBA 1976, UTK

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Cassandra Sproles January 22, 2015 at 3:14 pm

Thank you, John, for pointing out this error! Dixie Carter did indeed transfer from UT in 1960. We had to dig a little deeper in her UT record to confirm this. Her entry has been changed to reflect this.

Best,
Cassandra Sproles
Executive Editor

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Wes Faires January 21, 2015 at 10:17 pm

Wes Faires, owner of Orion’s Belt and Asteroid #160346

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Southern Vol January 22, 2015 at 1:16 am

Carol Aebersold, a UT Knoxville graduate and creator of Elf on the Shelf.

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jeremy January 22, 2015 at 5:17 pm

Former pro wrestler and Hollywood after Kevin Nash played basketball for UT. Go big orange!!!

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Janet Picha January 24, 2015 at 4:05 pm

Wow, I am more proud to be a grad of UT! Re Dale Dickey, I had the pleasure to she her performance in the Clarence Brown production of “Sweeny Todd”. I also got her to autograph the alum magazine in which she appeared on the cover.

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Barbara West January 25, 2015 at 9:03 pm

Please don’t forget Howard Baker.

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Sandy Morganstein February 7, 2015 at 6:08 am Reply
Kelly November 5, 2017 at 10:32 pm

You left out Mary Costa, who was a torchbearer, the original voice of Sleeping Beauty, actress and opera singer.

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Cassandra Sproles November 6, 2017 at 1:34 pm

Hi Kelly! We gave Mary a whole story of her own: http://torchbearer.utk.edu/2015/03/tennessee-royalty. However, she is an honorary degree recipient and did not actually attend UT.

Best,
Cassandra Sproles
Executive Editor

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