In 1958, a young University of Tennessee student named Joe Johnson received the master’s degree in political science at UT-Knoxville’s Alumni Memorial Gym.
It was the first of many commencements for Johnson, who as been a UT administrator for 38 years. As UT president for the last eight years, he attends up to 15 ceremonies a year.
With retirement coming in July, Johnson is making his final round of commencement ceremonies on UT campuses as president. After four decades, hundreds of ceremonies, and thousands of diplomas, memories of his first UT commencement experiences remain vivid and distinct.
”I remember my first UT commencement because it was my graduation,” Johnson said. ”I also recall it’s being the first time I heard (former UT President) Andy Holt give the ‘Andy Holt Pledge'(a humorous test in which degree candidates pledge to continue supporting UT after graduation).
”I always remembered that pledge. I have concluded several UT commencements with variations of it over the years.”
Johnson rattles off tales of commencements past with folksy storytelling prowess and nostalgic glee. The stories include a graduate who literally turned back flips on stage; the family who hired a five-piece band to play when their son’s marched; and the audience’s spontaneous applause as a blind UT-Martin graduate was led across stage by a seeing-eye dog.
”Commencements are always a happy time,” Johnson said. ”I’ve seen them change from very somber, sober, serene events. Now there is clapping, shouting, music, and the speeches are shorter. They have totally changed in the time I’ve been here.
”It’s a grand occasion. It puts the stamp – the exclamation point – on one’s time at UT.”