Hilton Celebrates 56 Years, Remembers Bringing Torchbearer to UT
It’s safe to say we all love the Torchbearer. It serves as a reminder of something valuable, something worth working for, something life changing. The statue is as integral to our campus life as are our books and buildings. It is a wayfinding point…”Look for the Torchbearer and turn left….” It is a popular photo stop for graduates…”Be sure to get a picture at the Torchbearer….” And it is a jumping-off point for treks across campus…”Meet me at the Torchbearer….”
The Torchbearer is an icon, something we’re all proud to have as part of the fabric of the UT culture. What would the campus be like without it?
Thelma Hilton knows something about that. Hilton is an accounting specialist in the UT College of Architecture and Design. A petite, well-dressed lady, Hilton attacks her work with a sense of urgency and determination. It’s always been this way, she says, at least for the past 56 years.
Next month, Hilton celebrates 56 years as an employee of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In July 1960, after graduating from Knoxville Business College, Hilton responded to an ad for a file clerk in the UT Office of Purchasing. “It was my first interview,” she recalls. “I went into it scared and excited, and I was hired on the spot.” Her journey to that office in the General Administration Building on The Hill reveals how Hilton sets her mind to a goal and works until she gets it.
“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 sites on Knoxville for business school and more opportunity,” Hilton said.
Her family could not afford tuition, but a mine supervisor who supported her dreams offered to loan 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 from UT to start repaying the supervisor, Mr. Connelly, and I didn’t stop until I had repaid him in full,” Hilton said. “I made about $40 each week.”
She worked her way up the ladder in Purchasing, serving first as file clerk then senior clerk typist, administrative assistant to the director, purchasing agent and finally officer manager, but it was her time as a purchasing agent that so greatly impacted the UT campus.
In her humble manner, Hilton explains: “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. This was a challenge! What if something happened to this long-awaited icon? It did arrive safely, and I felt so relieved, never realizing what this ‘icon’ would really mean to the university and to people who stepped foot on this campus far into the future.”
When told that she literally brought the flame of enlightenment to the UT campus, Hilton simply laughs. “It was my job, and I’ve always done my best,” she says.
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, General Business, Alumni Hall, Estabrook Hall, Student Services, College of Law, a home economics building, Strong Hall and the old library,” Hilton says. “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 floorplans. Then, of course, we purchased the furnishings for all of the new residence halls. It was a challenge.”
Hilton proved herself up to many challenges, and after 41 years in Purchasing, she retired. “I was asked to return part time until a new director was hired. Seven years later, I retired for the second time,” she says with a grin. “This time, 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 who needed her background. “It’s just as well. I’m not really a hobby person,” she says.
Hilton filled in for four months in the College of Architecture and Design and other offices 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 a light on the University of Tennessee.
What Thelma Hilton Has Seen
In her 56 years as a UT employee, Thelma Hilton has seen
- 9 UT presidents and 9 UT Knoxville chancellors
- The formation of the UT system
- Neyland Stadium grow from simple bleachers to an iconic structure seating 100,000+
- Significant expansion of the campus of about 30 new buildings/facilities
- Incredible technology advances: “In my first job, I used a manual typewriter, carbon paper and a mimeograph machine that stained my fingers blue. I laugh when people complain about today’s technology. They just don’t know how it used to be!”
Although change has been prevalent over her tenure at UT, she says people have remained the same. “I love the hustle-bustle of students, and I like the family feeling of the campus. Some of my closest friends are UT employees.
“A total of 56 years at UT says a lot about what a great place this is and oh so many nice people I have had the privilege of meeting,” she says. “I just want to contribute. I’ve given UT my all, and I’ve loved working here.”