The Torchbearer statue stands amidst a canvas of greenery

Lighting the Way

The iconic Torchbearer statue is a symbol of enlightenment, leadership, and service.

Around the country, Volunteers are known for their willingness to put others before themselves. It is that ideal—a commitment among past, present, and future Vols to lead wherever they are—that is embodied in one of the most visited sites on the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s campus.

Standing on the edge of Circle Park, the Torchbearer statue proudly displays the Volunteer Creed: One that beareth a torch shadoweth oneself to give light to others.

Its torch, which bears a flame that never extinguishes, is a symbol of knowledge and enlightenment—a belief that truth and reason overcome ignorance.

The Torchbearer is more than a photogenic site on campus. As UT’s official symbol, the statue has appeared in images on yearbooks, class rings, and commencement programs for decades. Being named a Torchbearer is among the greatest achievements for graduating seniors at the university.

“Since freshman year, I had heard about the Volunteer Creed, and I watched my friends and classmates put others first through service,” says Fort Mill, South Carolina, native Emma Heins, who was named a Torchbearer in 2019 before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science.

I was following in the footsteps they had already created, practicing what UT instilled in us.”

—Emma Heins

But how did UT arrive at the Torchbearer?

Originating among students and alumni, the plan to create a physical symbol for the Volunteer spirit gathered momentum nearly 100 years ago. In 1931, after organizing an international design contest, a committee selected a design by Yale student Theodore Beck as its winner.

Plans to cast a 26-foot-tall Torchbearer statue, wearing a sheathed sword and holding the figure of the Goddess of Victory in its left hand, were thwarted by a lack of funding as the country went from the Great Depression through World War II. Though lacking a physical presence on campus, the Torchbearer became UT’s official symbol.

After efforts by students and trustees in the 1960s, the statue was unveiled at a ceremony on April 19, 1968.

More than 50 years later, it continues to represent who Volunteers are and why they choose Rocky Top: to bear the torch and light the way ahead for others.

Updated: March 18, 2021

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