Hiwassee College’s Class of 2019 was the final chapter of a 170-year legacy.
While graduating from college is always an emotional time, for the approximately 70 students receiving degrees from Hiwassee College on Friday afternoon, “bittersweet” was the word on repeat.
The Class of 2019 was the 168th and final graduating class from the small Madisonville college. It was announced in March that Hiwassee College would close its doors for good on May 10.
“It’s very bittersweet and sad,” said graduate April Gaston, of Englewood. “We’ve shed a tear or two.”
Gaston and her friend Jessica Denhartog, of Vonore, both plan to continue their education at nearby Tennessee Wesleyan University (TWU) in Athens. Numerous Hiwassee students who finished two-year degrees are transferring to TWU, particularly with TWU absorbing Hiwassee College’s dental hygiene program.
While students like Gaston and Denhartog appear to have a bright future ahead of them, they will never forget where they got their start — the little Madisonville college that sent thousands of graduates out into the world.
“It’s crazy to think we are the last class,” Gaston and Denhartog both agreed.
David Houseman, the chairman of the college’s Board of Trustees, recognized the sadness hanging over everyone in the Performing Arts Center during the ceremony.
“This is a day you’ve worked very hard for,” he told the graduates, “but we’re also aware of our collective sense of loss. My greatest hope is that what you remember from today is the satisfaction of your graduation. I hope you look forward to your life after Hiwassee with confidence and when you do look back, that you focus on the great memories you had here.”
‘Don’t forget your roots’
James “Jim” M. Henry, a 1965 graduate of Hiwassee College, served as the final commencement speaker.
Henry is a United States military veteran, who served his hometown of Kingston as mayor for seven years starting at the age of 26. Following his service as mayor, he was elected by Roane County as state representative, where he served for 12 years. He also served in former Gov. Bill Haslam’s cabinet in several areas. From 2004-2011, he sat on the Hiwassee College Board of Trustees and served as chairman of the board in 2008 and 2009.
“It’s great to make money, but it’s much more important to serve your community,” Henry told the graduates.
Henry shared a true story with the graduates about former Gov. Ben Hooper (called the “Who’s your daddy?” story by many).
“Sometimes you need a reminder that you’re one of God’s children,” Henry said, encapsulating the story.
He left the Class of 2019 with 10 things to help them reach happiness. The very last point: “Don’t forget your roots.”
Following Henry’s speech, Hiwassee College President Dr. Robin Tricoli presented him with an honorary doctorate from Hiwassee College.
Dr. Tricoli encouraged the Class of 2019 to “be a light.”
“Let the light and love of our Lord Jesus Christ be in your every thought and deed,” she said. “When Jesus is your role model, you will live to honor Him… this is not the end, but the beginning of a lifetime of learning.”
Allison “Ali” Moore was honored as the valedictorian of the Class of 2019.
Sarah G. Mozley, with the Class of 1969, awarded Anne-Marie Hodge, professor of biology, with the Excellence in Learning and Teaching Award during the final graduation ceremony.
“Here are somethings that I hope don’t change about your guys,” Hodge told her soon-to-be former students. “I hope you stay loving. I hope you stay indigent. I hope you never lose your ability to advocate for what you believe in. I hope you stay as stubborn—some of you—as you need to be. Stay weird. The world need diversity. Stay determined. Stay cynical. Stay accepting. Stay curious… everyone of you has been so impactful in my life.”
‘A legacy that’s lasting’
Brenda Malone, the president of the Alumni Board of Governors welcomed the new graduates into the alumni family.
“You’re in a unique position as members of the last graduating class,” she said. “When you look back, relive your good memories you had while here at Hiwassee. The thing most of us have in common is our willingness to serve others and make a positive impact in our communities. We hope you will follow this tradition.”
Malone also announced that the Alumni Board and Hiwassee College have partnered with the Monroe County Mayor’s Office and the Monroe County Archives to created a collection of the college’s memorabilia and history.
“We don’t want the 170-year history of the contributions of this college to be lost,” she said. “We want to keep Hiwassee’s memory and history alive.”
Eric Wolfe, Hiwassee’s Student Government Association (SGA) president, shared memories and sights from around campus during his speech at graduation.
“I’m going to narrate the legacy of Hiwassee the best I know how,” said Wolfe. “Any given day, any given time, you’d find the majority of Tigers on campus—whether they live here or not.”
“You won’t forget the sight of the Rowdies—painted from head to toe—cheering on the teams,” he continued. “But it’s not just the athletics that make Hiwassee unique. It’s campus-wide.”
Wolfe said Hiwassee’s legacy will be long-lasting.
“So many people here believed in me more than I did myself,” he reflected. “So many people came here for a fresh start, a second chance or a last chance…. This is a legacy that’s lasting. From rocky lows to Smoky Mountain highs. Each of you get a chance to take a small piece of the Hiwassee College legacy home with you. Once a Tiger, always a Tiger. And that goes on forever.”
General Manager & Editor Tommy Millsaps contributed to this story.