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Thelma Hilton pictured with the Torchbearer.
Thelma Hilton pictured with the Torchbearer.

The Torchbearer is a UT icon—something all students, faculty, and staff are proud to have. But what would the campus be like without it?

Thelma Hilton, an accounting specialist in the College of Architecture and Design, celebrates fifty-six years as an employee next month and knows firsthand how challenging it was to bring the statue to campus.

Hilton graduated from Knoxville Business College in July 1960. After graduation she responded to an ad for a file clerk position in UT’s purchasing office.

“It was my first interview,” said Hilton. “I went into it scared and excited, but I was hired on the spot. I’m from a tiny coal-mining town in Virginia. My family has worked in the mines for generations, and that’s where my father died when I was two years old.

“Growing up, I came to believe there was no reason to stay so I worked really hard in high school and graduated top of my class. I set my sights on Knoxville for business school and more opportunities.”

Her family could not afford tuition, but a mine supervisor who supported her dreams offered to lend her the money to go to school. She agreed and moved to Knoxville, determined to start a new life.

“I used part of my very first paycheck to start repaying the supervisor, Mr. Connelly, and I didn’t stop until I had repaid him in full,” said Hilton. “I made about $40 each week.”

Thelma Hilton
Thelma Hilton joined UT in 1965.

Hilton used a manual typewriter, carbon paper, and a mimeograph machine that stained her fingers blue.

“I laugh when people complain about today’s technology,” she said. “They just don’t know how it used to be!”

She worked her way up the ladder in purchasing, serving as file clerk, senior clerk typist, administrative assistant to the director, purchasing agent, and finally office manager.

“In 1968, my purchasing career was tested when the office was assigned the task of having the Torchbearer statue transported from its port of arrival in Finland to Knoxville. We had to use a crane company to pick up and deliver the statue to Knoxville,” said Hilton. “This was quite a challenge but it arrived safely, and I felt so relieved. I never realized what this icon would mean to the university and to people who visited this campus.”

When told that she literally brought the flame of enlightenment to the UT campus, Hilton simply laughed.

“It was my job, and I’ve always done my best.”

But the statue is not the only impact Hilton has had on campus.

“When I first started working at UT, only a few buildings were here—Alumni Hall, Estabrook, business, law, and a home economics building,” she said. “In the 1960s, UT had a building boom. Suddenly I and a colleague had to learn to read blueprints, identify furnishings for residence halls and draw the furnishings on floor plans. We purchased the furnishings for all of the new residence halls.”

After forty-one years in purchasing, she retired.

“I was asked to return part time until a new director was hired, and seven years later, I retired a second time,” she said. “I thought I would go home and find a hobby.”

The hobby was not to be, however, as UT called again and asked if Hilton would work temporarily for an office that needed her background.

“It’s just as well since I’m not really a hobby person,” she said.

Hilton filled in for four months in UT’s College of Architecture and Design and other areas before returning to the college as a permanent part-time employee, where she can still be found using a coal miner’s work ethic and shining her own light on UT.

“I love the hustle and bustle of students, and I like the family feeling of the campus,” said Hilton. “Some of my closest friends are UT employees. A total of fifty-six years at UT says a lot about what a great place this is and the nice people I’ve had the privilege of meeting. I’ve given UT my all and I’ve loved working here.”



Amanda F. Johnson (865-974-6401,

Tyra Haag (865-974-5460,