Each building rich with history. If they could talk, oh, the stories that could be shared. Every square foot of this historical land is deeply rooted in the people of Monroe County. With a history that spans over 170 years, it is Hiwassee College.
The name Hiwassee is derived from the Cherokee word “Ayuhwasi”, meaning “meadow place at the foot of the hills,” which is reflective of the college location at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Hiwassee’s first president, Reverend Robert Doak, also served as its senior professor and the only college-educated staff member. Students entered at around age fourteen and graduated in their late teens or early twenties. David M. Key, Hiwassee’s first graduate, went on to be the Postmaster General under President Rutherford B. Hayes. The Honorable Albert H. Roberts, graduate 1889, would later become the Governor of Tennessee from 1919 to 1921.
Back in the day, Hiwassee College housed an elementary school taught by the student teachers. Charlie Brakebill was one of those students. He fondly remembers the three-room school and his student teachers. Charlie has a lifetime of memories at the Hiwassee campus. During his time at the elementary school, he was rewarded with a 1lb box of chocolate-covered cherries; immediately consuming the sweets, it was the box that remained on display in his home until heading to college. “I walked over 2 miles daily to Hiwassee for school,” reflected Charlie, “coming home so hungry, telling my Mom it was from the walking.” Mrs. Brakebill didn’t believe her son’s story, discovering that Charlie was sharing his sandwich each day with a friend who never had a lunch.“Mom never said anything to me,” said Charlie. “From that day until I was finished with school, there were always two sandwiches.” The 93-year-old native of Madisonville entered the U.S. Army at 18 and served three years in Europe during World War II—including at Omaha Beach, retiring as a lieutenant colonel from the Air Force in 1967.
Hiwassee College is a fixture in the community, with an impact that reaches beyond the campus and the educational offerings. The grounds of the campus and buildings have always been available for community events. The Barker Learning Center held the commencement services for Madisonville High School, and annually the Monroe Area Council for the Arts presents a world-class performing arts series at the Hiwassee Performing Arts Center.
Under the leadership of President Dr. Robin Tricoli, the college regained accreditation in 2013 (lost in 2008) with reaffirmation in 2018. Enrollment increased, as well as the priority of community commitment. Working closely with Lisa Bingham, the Hiwassee H.O.P.E. program was founded. This program provided students, within or aging out of the foster care system a home, three meals, financial aid and a support parent enabling them to achieve higher education. Proceeds from Monroe Life Magazine’s Celebration of HOPE Balloon Festival, held on the campus, provided the funding. When the program caught the attention of Hiwassee Alumni, Jim Henry, then Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, it became a fully funded government program and today is offered in post-secondary schools throughout Tennessee.
In addition to community and education, Hiwassee College has excelled in sports with National Championship appearances in Baseball, Men’s Basketball and Women’s Basketball. The Hiwassee Tigers gave opportunities for students to play their sport on a collegiate level while obtaining their
education. Carolyn Bush-Roddy, 2019 Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame inductee and 1975 Pan-American Games Gold Medalist, enjoyed that opportunity. She finished her playing career with the Dallas Diamonds of Women’s Professional Basketball League. In 1997, she returned to Hiwassee as Head Coach of the Lady Tigers until 2000. The Hiwassee College Athletics Department was diverse with Basketball, Soccer, Baseball, Golf, Shooting, Volleyball, Cross-Country, Softball and Cheerleading.
Hiwassee College has a rich heritage. The liberal arts college is affiliated with the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church. The core values and foundation of faith are the pride of Hiwassee alumni; it is the lifelong connection that brings so many of them back to the campus. Brittany Tipton, class of 2012 valedictorian, returned eight months after graduation to be Resident Director and Equestrian Center Manager. “From the moment I started working, President Tricoli pushed me to go for my Master in Equine Science,” said Brittany. “I was accepted to UTK’s graduate school and achieved it. The plan was to return to work in April.” She did return to work at the Equestrian Center as planned; however, now it is to manage the first-class boarding and training facility until it is sold. “I was speechless,” expressed Brittany upon learning her beloved Hiwassee would closed. “It’s a part of me.” The Hiwassee College Board of Trustees voted to close the institution at the end of the spring semester. The announcement came in late March, citing financial instability. In an official statement from the communications department:
“We are proud of our historic mission of educating students for 170 years in the United Methodist tradition of John Wesley…Hiwassee College’s legacy will survive through those who attended the college and who continue to lead and serve…changes in demographics, our rural location, and declining enrollment have combined to produce an unsustainable economic model. Our current full-time equivalent enrollment is 225 students… the community, our alumni, and this region have all been a vital part of supporting our mission and campus. Our faculty and staff have been supportive through the years and we are grateful for their commitment to Hiwassee College and Christian higher education…We wish to thank all of those whose prayers and support have been so meaningful for so long.”
Although the college is closing, the legacy will live on with those positively impacted by Hiwassee College. The final graduates walked across the stage in May. It is a new start for them and the finale of the historic school. Eric Wolfe, student body president and graduate, will have the unique legacy of being the first Biology major to graduate in 60 years and also the last one in school history. This reality for Hiwassee College was heartbreaking for students, alumni, parents, faculty, community and the entirety of Monroe County.
According to national reports, colleges are closing or merging at an accelerating rate, from about eight per year between 2004 and 2014 to an estimated 20 per year moving forward, with small private colleges particularly vulnerable. It was a business decision for Hiwassee College as it faced an enrollment of 225 with a sustained need for at least 500. As the pool of college-bound students shrinks, elite schools will recruit more from populations once left to the smaller regional colleges. Sweet Briar College, a women’s liberal arts college about 12 miles north of Lynchburg, Virginia, had the fiercely loyal alumnae bring their school back from extinction. But there are not enough alumni and, increasingly, not enough students to replicate that everywhere. Sadly, many communities are experiencing the same loss of institutions that is currently being grieved in Monroe County.
It is a harsh reality that we wish did not happen anywhere, but especially our Monroe County, our Hiwassee College. The experience has also brought reflection into a time of our lives somewhat forgotten. When asked, Charles Brakebill was unable to express the hurting within his heart on the closing. Brittany Tipton shared about finding comfort in the memories, stories being shared of Hiwassee greatness. Lisa Bingham hopes that something will revive the beautiful campus and continue providing educational opportunities in the area. The responses are varied, the grief at different stages; however, they are the voices for the buildings that cannot talk, they are sharing the stories of those 60 acres, they were a part of the history and, along with the countless others, they will continue the legacy of Hiwassee College.