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Wayne Davis, interim chancellor.

That Wayne Davis wound up at UT at all is a story of hard work, persistence, and a little bit of luck.

A native of Orange County, North Carolina, Davis was inspired to pursue higher education by some of his childhood friends’ parents, who were teachers. While that would make him the first in his family to attend college, there was a problem.

“My father said he wanted me to attend college, that he knew how badly I wanted to go,” said Davis. “He told me we just didn’t have the finances, so I’d have to support myself.”

So Davis went to work at an early age, set on his goal of attending college. He delivered his hometown’s weekly newspaper, the Orange County News, on his bike, earning three cents for each paper.

When Davis was 14, someone from his church who knew he was saving for college said Davis could work in his grocery store every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night.

“I only saw two football games my four years in high school because I was there at the store every weekend,” said Davis.

As his high school graduation neared, Davis had only about half of what it would take to attend college. Once again, help came from someone he barely knew at church.

That person offered to provide him fulltime employment at Watson Electric—an electrical contracting company—every summer and during December holidays. Taking him up on the offer, Davis worked every summer and break. He also worked every week during his college sessions as a work/study student and received an alumni scholarship, attaining his goal by graduating from Pfeiffer College in 1969 after just three and a half years.

Davis went to Clemson University to earn his master’s in physics and decided to get a doctorate in engineering so he could apply what he’d learned. He applied to Clemson’s engineering school, where he was accepted and given an all-important assistantship stipend before fate intervened.

“I showed up at the college of engineering and they told me that the grant that I was going to be supported by had been cancelled by the government,” said Davis. “That was a real roadblock.”

He spoke to his department head in physics, who encouraged him to go to the library and look up other colleges that had environmental engineering, the field Davis wanted to pursue.

Having a slim chance of finding an assistantship mere weeks before the start of classes, Davis reached out to North Carolina State University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the University of Tennessee. As expected, NC State and Georgia Tech both said their assistantships were all given out, but UT still had one spot.

“Sylvia and I drove up on the July 4th weekend and I interviewed with them, and they said they’d love to have me and that I could start when I wanted,” said Davis. “So two weeks later, we packed a U-Haul and drove to Knoxville.”

Now, after 47 years of employment at UT, that path has led him to serve as the university’s interim chancellor.


Tyra Haag (865-974-5460,