9 People You Didn’t Know Have a UT Connection


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.



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.



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.



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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Dave Loope January 20, 2015 - 6:19 pm

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

Cassandra Sproles January 20, 2015 - 6:40 pm

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

Cassandra Sproles
Executive Editor

Annetta Jenkins January 20, 2015 - 11:36 pm

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

Beldina Auma January 20, 2015 - 6:25 pm

Go Vols! Great accomplishments.

Gail Burchette January 20, 2015 - 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

Ev Blau January 21, 2015 - 3:53 am

Clarence Brown, Hollywood director and UT philanthropist.

vann January 22, 2015 - 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.

Pam Cox January 20, 2015 - 7:21 pm

Nice job. Interesting read. Thanks

Gerri Bussell January 20, 2015 - 7:57 pm

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

Jennifer Joyner January 20, 2015 - 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!

Sandra Sayer July 5, 2023 - 6:45 pm

Yes, Wilma Dykeman was a phenomenal adjunct professor. I took one of her classes.

Allison January 20, 2015 - 9:37 pm

Deana Carter- singer and songwriter.

Dennis Dobbs January 20, 2015 - 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!

The Philosophizer January 20, 2015 - 10:46 pm

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

Joseph January 20, 2015 - 10:48 pm

Thanks for this interesting information!

James Trolinger January 20, 2015 - 10:54 pm

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

Karen Daniel January 21, 2015 - 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. 🙂

Robert Jones January 21, 2015 - 3:07 am

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

Mike Childress March 8, 2022 - 11:07 pm

Having realized Kurt Vonnegut was attending UT at the same atomic bomb fuels were being produced just twenty miles away, I wonder if he ever made any public comment on the topic?

Danny January 21, 2015 - 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.

vann January 22, 2015 - 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?

Robin January 23, 2015 - 4:37 pm

Danny, Lee Greenwood did not attend UT.

Maurice Msarsa January 21, 2015 - 2:34 pm

Morris George is my pen name. I wrote six action fiction novels:

Jeff Schenkel January 21, 2015 - 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?”

John Hudson January 21, 2015 - 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

Cassandra Sproles January 22, 2015 - 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.

Cassandra Sproles
Executive Editor

Wes Faires January 21, 2015 - 10:17 pm

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

Southern Vol January 22, 2015 - 1:16 am

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

jeremy January 22, 2015 - 5:17 pm

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

Janet Picha January 24, 2015 - 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.

Barbara West January 25, 2015 - 9:03 pm

Please don’t forget Howard Baker.

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

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

Cassandra Sproles November 6, 2017 - 1:34 pm

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

Cassandra Sproles
Executive Editor

Brad Oldham May 24, 2018 - 2:05 pm

Lt. Col. Allen West!

David W Pelizzari August 28, 2022 - 2:53 pm

I was born in Lafollette, Tn. In 1946. My family moved to NC in 1960 and zi lived there till 2015 when my wife and i Moved to Pigeon Forge. Always was a Vols fan. This sight is so informative. Helps me endure to the Prestige and History of this Institution.

Hope Williams July 5, 2023 - 2:54 pm

I’m a 1999 UT graduate of the college of social work. I enjoyed reading this article and the comments following. I no longer receive my Torchbearer. May I be put back in the mailer?

Cassandra Sproles July 5, 2023 - 3:00 pm

Hi, Hope! Can you send an email to torch@utk.edu with your name and address you would like the magazine sent to?

Cassandra Sproles
Executive Editor


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