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KNOXVILLE — A University of Tennessee alumnus who founded Pilot Corp. told graduating UT students Friday they must urge state legislators to support the university’s role as the creator of knowledge for the 21st century.

James Haslam II, the founder and chairman of Pilot Corp., urged 3,300 graduating students to stay involved with the university, both as alumni and supporters of public higher education.

“Insist — that’s a good word — insist that your legislators properly fund the university,” Haslam said to a round of enthusiastic applause.

Haslam, 1952 UT graduate, former football captain and UT trustee, is the chairman of Pilot, a company that operates 178 travel centers and convenience stores in 37 states. He is also a leader in civic and charitable organizations in East Tennessee.

Haslam said that the 21st century would be dominated by an economy based on knowledge that is generated, preserved and disseminated by universities.

“Our economy is now dominated by mind, not matter,” he said. “The 20th century economy has been an industrial economy. The 21st century will be a knowledge economy.”

Quoting leaders as varied as football coach Bear Bryant, humanitarian Mother Teresa and British statesman Winston Churchill, Haslam advised the graduates to exercise leadership by making something happen, having confidence, being kind, aiming high and never giving up.

Among the new graduates attending commencement was 90-year-old Elizabeth Eichelbaum, who was awarded a doctorate in education from the UT College of Education.

Eichelbaum, a native of Russia, immigrated to the United States as a child. She earned a GED diploma at 65 and followed that with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Wayne State University. Her dissertation for the Ph.D. was on using art therapy as a tool for raising self-esteem.

Eichelbaum suffers from macular degeneration and is nearly blind. Her family has established a UT scholarship in her name that will support graduate students who are returning to school after at least a 10-year absence.