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College of Engineering Dean Wayne Davis, left, presenting the 2014 Nathan W. Dougherty Award to Dwight Kessel.
College of Engineering Dean Wayne Davis, left, presenting the 2014 Nathan W. Dougherty Award to Dwight Kessel.

Longtime Knoxville and Knox County political icon Dwight Kessel was the guest of honor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, College of Engineering awards on Thursday night, where he received the 2014 Nathan W. Dougherty Award, the college’s most prestigious honor.

The acclaim is far from the first for Kessel, as several buildings or spaces—including the auditorium at UT’s Science and Engineering Research Facility—already bear his name. He and his wife, Gloria, also established a scholarship in his name in the Department of Industrial Engineering at UT.

“It’s always been a real pleasure to work with the university,” said Kessel. “It has provided so much for me, I’m just grateful to give back.”

The award was established in 1957 to honor Dougherty, who was the dean of the college, where the Nathan W. Dougherty building now bears his name, from 1940 to 1956. He was a star Vol football player from 1906 to 1909 and was also credited with helping recruit Robert R. Neyland to coach at UT. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1967.

Kessel, who graduated from UT in 1950 with a degree in industrial engineering, is best known as the first Knox County executive, serving from 1980 to 1994 after beginning his career on the Knoxville City Council from 1963 to 1966 and then serving as Knox County clerk from 1966 to 1980.

“Dwight Kessel is one of the true success stories from the College of Engineering,” said Dean Wayne Davis. “When you take a look at all he has accomplished, you can see why we’re honored to be associated with him.”

Outside of politics, Kessel helped start one of the first Knoxville-area Internet companies—U.S. Internet—and has been involved in various charitable causes such as the Boy Scouts of America, the Kiwanis Club, and the Girls Club, as well as business-related activities like the Greater Knoxville Chamber of Commerce and the Tennessee Center for Research and Development. He also was a member of the executive board of the 1982 World’s Fair.

“He’s used his success to help his community thrive,” said Davis. “Everyone from those of us at the university to the people of Knox County in general have benefited from his generosity and from all he has given back.”

In addition to what he has done for his alma mater and his community, Kessel has contributed to the area where he first made his mark, thanks to an endowment he and his wife established with UT’s Institute for Public Service to assist county governments in the state.

Kessel also had some advice for current students.

“Opportunities are there, you just have to figure out what it is you want most and whether that opportunity will get you there,” said Kessel. “It’s not always the obvious choice.”

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For more on Nathan Dougherty and the award, visit


David Goddard (865-974-0683,