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The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, will award an honorary degree to noted aviation businessman and philanthropist Scott Niswonger at a commencement ceremony next week.

In addition to Niswonger, the university also will welcome a lineup of commencement speakers that includes other business leaders, an educator, an elected official, and an accomplished alumna who is a philanthropist, volunteer, social media celebrity, and wife of a country music star.

Faces of graduates in line during commencement

Undergraduate college commencement ceremonies will take place Thursday through Saturday, May 10–12, and graduate hooding will be held at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 10. The university will award 3,113 undergraduate degrees, 923 graduate degrees, 109 law degrees, and 82 veterinary medicine degrees.

The arena’s large-event security protocol, including the clear bag policy, will be in effect during commencement ceremonies. Guests should refer to the policy for full details and a list of prohibited items.

Niswonger turned his passion for aviation into several thriving businesses with annual sales of more than $1 billion.

He began his career as a corporate pilot for the president of the Magnavox Company before establishing a cargo airline, General Aviation Inc., in 1973. He sold that company to become a vice president at Flying Tiger Lines, a military contractor and global cargo airline. He also founded Landair Services and Forward Air Corporation.

Niswonger is the lead benefactor of Niswonger Children’s Hospital in Johnson City, Tennessee, home to a St. Jude affiliate clinic. Additionally, the Niswonger Educational Foundation now has 20 scholars in universities across the United States, 67 alumni, and an annual program budget of more than $3 million. Niswonger also is chairman of the governing board at the Niswonger Performing Arts Center in Greeneville, Tennessee.

Niswonger has a degree in aviation technology and a doctorate of technology from Purdue. He earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Tusculum College in 1986.

Niswonger’s honorary degree will be the 19th awarded by UT. Read about the other 18.

Below is a list of other commencement ceremonies and speakers. All events take place in Thompson-Boling Arena unless otherwise specified:

Thursday, May 10

9 a.m.—Tickle College of Engineering

Charles O. (Chad) Holliday Jr., chairman of Royal Dutch Shell, earned his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering from UT in 1970 and an honorary Doctor of Engineering from UT in 2012. He previously served as chairman of the board of Bank of America and chairman and CEO of DuPont, the company he retired from after 36 years of service. A member of the US National Academy of Engineering and the UK Royal Society of Engineering, Holliday serves on the boards of Deere and Co. and Hospital Corp. of America

Noon—Haslam College of Business

Scott Niswonger, aviation businessman and philanthropist

 3:30 p.m.—College of Law

Justice Cheri Beasley, an alumna of the college, has served as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of North Carolina since 2012, becoming the second African American woman to sit on the state’s highest court in its nearly 200-year history.

 7 p.m.—Graduate Hooding

Student Vincent Price, who is receiving his PhD in teacher education with a focus on the teaching of black literature. Before returning to graduate school, he taught high school in his hometown of Vicksburg, Mississippi. He plans to return to teaching in Beaumont, Texas. 

Friday, May 11

8:30 a.m.—College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

The driving force behind Cruze Farm in Knoxville, Colleen Cruze Bhatti grew up on her family’s fifth-generation dairy farm in East Knox County and learned all about milking cows and bottling milk from her parents. After graduating from UT with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science in 2011, she expanded the family farm bottling operation into a larger-scale milk distribution service and added a brick-and-mortar ice cream and pizza shop. Cruze Farm now distributes fresh pasteurized milk to Knoxville, Chattanooga, Nashville, and the Tri-Cities, makes premium soft serve, and employs 30 people.

Noon—College of Architecture and Design

Percy Neal Richardson, a graduate of the first five-year class of UT’s School of Architecture, worked as an architect for four decades and was involved in numerous projects that continue to have a positive impact on the area. He was a principal of Upland Design Group, which today remains a leading practice in Middle and East Tennessee.

3:30 p.m.—College of Social Work

No speaker, but greetings from three graduating students: Emily Danielle Williams, who is receiving her bachelor’s degree, and Darris K. Upton and Dallas Bailey King, both receiving their master’s degrees. King is also president of Phi Alpha, the social work honor society.

 7 p.m.—College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences

Anton Reece, now president of West Kentucky Community and Technical College, received his PhD in educational psychology and research from UT and subsequently worked at UT for 13 years, ultimately as associate vice provost of student success and director of the Student Success Center. Earlier in his career, Reece—who hails from Caribbean country of Barbados—worked at Voice of Barbados Radio and was a guest anchor for Caribbean Broadcasting Television news. During the past 28 years, Reece has spoken to more than 600 corporations, colleges, high schools, youth organizations, churches, and prisons in New York, Texas, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Mississippi, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Arizona. His message is one of empowerment punctuated with homespun humor.

Saturday, May 12

9 a.m.—College of Arts and Sciences

Rep. John Forgety has served in the Tennessee House of Representatives since 2010. Prior to that, he was school superintendent in McMinn County. Forgety is retired from 20 years of service in the Tennessee Army National Guard, but at age 58, he was called to active duty in Iraqi Freedom III Operation Thunder Road. He served for 19 months in Diayala Province, Iraq, and received the Global War on Terrorism Medal, the Bronze Star Medal, Legion of Merit, and Distinguished Service Medal. Forgety, who lives in Athens, Tennessee, was McMinn County Man of the Year award in 2006.

10 a.m.—College of Veterinary Medicine, in James R. Cox Auditorium in Alumni Memorial Building

Dr. Jeffrey Biskup, an assistant professor of Small Animal Surgery at Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine, a unit of Oregon State University. He is a former faculty member in UT’s College of Veterinary Medicine and will channel his own college days, borrowing tips from the professors he found most effective.

1:30 p.m.—College of Communication and Information

Larry Patrick is managing partner of Patrick Communications, a media investment banking and brokerage firm based in Maryland with over $7.5 billion worth of deals to its credit. The firm has sold over 600 radio stations and 160 television stations. He also owns Legend Communications, a group of 22 small-market radio stations in Wyoming and owns an interest in 14 major-market television stations. Patrick earned his master’s degree in communication from UT in 1973. In 2013, his $1 million gift to the College of Communication and Information—the college’s largest to date—established the Herb Howard Distinguished Professorship.

4:30 p.m.—College of Nursing, 4:30 p.m.

Lauren Gregory Akins earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing from UT in 2012. That same year, she married her childhood sweetheart, country music star Thomas Rhett. While Akins was at UT, she became active with the nonprofit Christian organization 147 Million Orphans and went on a medical mission trips to Haiti and later made mission trips to Kenya and Uganda. The couple has raised more than $250,000 for the organization and Akins has joined the organization’s board of directors. Akins has become a social media celebrity and has 1.6 million followers on Instagram. While on a mission trip with 147 Million Orphans to Uganda, Akins met a newborn girl. The couple subsequently adopted that baby, now named Willa Gray, and brought her home with to Nashville in May 2017. Just a few months later, in August 2017, Akins gave birth to their second daughter, Ada.



Amy Blakely (865-974-5034,