The two share a name, but for years, they’ve seemed like two distinct ecosystems: A representation of small-town America with a charming downtown, separated by a four-lane highway named after a former governor and U.S. senator from the cerebral, bucolic college campus.

There was a time, however, when Maryville College and the City of Maryville were inextricably intertwined, and in many ways, they still are. It’s easy to overlook the connections between the two entities, but under the leadership of the college’s 12th president, Dr. Bryan F. Coker, those ties are on the precipice of an invigorated renewal.

“We are building bridges with the downtown and with Maryville like we have never had before, really marketing not just a college, but an experience here in this region,” Coker said on a recent episode of the podcast “The Fight for Clarity” — a project launched by Maryville College sophomore Eric Hartless. “The city truly wouldn’t be here without the college, and the city remembers that. I don’t know that, if in the past 10 to 15 years, we’ve embraced the city as much as we should have, but we’re revamping that, plain and simple.”

Ultimately, Coker added, the strengthening of those ties is designed to demonstrate “our commitment to downtown Maryville and to its revitalization, and my commitment to being sure that people who come here don’t just come to campus; they go downtown as well, and they see we’re part of downtown and vice-versa.”

A ministerial beginning

It’s not a stretch to say that Maryville College — or at least its founder, the Rev. Isaac Anderson — played a significant role in civilizing Blount County. In 1801, Anderson accompanied his family westward from Virginia, pushing through the Southern Appalachians into the Tennessee Valley, and as a 21-year-old aspiring minister, he had his work cut out for him: “Tennessee then was not part of any Bible Belt,” writes East Tennessee historian Jack Neely in a publication called the Maryville College “Founding Story.”

“Only a small minority of Tennesseans in 1801 were church members, and the irreligion of these trans-Appalachian westerners in those days often astonished northern visitors,” Neely continued. “One 1798 visitor wrote that he was ‘aghast’ at the cursing, drinking, dancing and card-playing on a typical Sunday in Knoxville. A few years later, another remarked that Knoxville (then the new state’s capital) was, as far as he knew, the only capital city in the world that did not contain a single church. This was the destination of a young, aspiring minister from central Virginia.”

Maryville itself had been established in 1795, after Revolutionary War veteran John Craig — namesake of the Fort Craig Elementary School (now the Blount County Boys and Girls Club) — donated 50 acres of land around his fort for the foundation of a new town. Named in honor of Mary Grainger Blount, wife of territorial governor William Blount, Maryville was incorporated on July 11, 1795, and grew quickly. As Neely noted, in 1811, Maryville was “almost as large as the neighboring state capital.” New Providence Presbyterian Church, with more than 200 members, was larger than any church in Knoxville, and it was here that Anderson — ordained at 22 years old — inherited the pastorship after the retirement of Rev. Gideon Blackburn.

Eager to lure other ministers to what was then the frontier, Anderson had established Union Academy in Knox County as a school to train them, and after his posting to New Providence, he brought it with him to Blount County. It was here that Anderson crossed paths with one of Blount County’s most famous historical residents, Neely writes:

“Among his students was a teenager, a former runaway who had lived among the Cherokee: Sam Houston was a bright and promising student, though he was indifferent about attendance. ‘I could not find it in my heart to whip him,’ Anderson later recalled. Houston would give Anderson some competition as a Maryville orator. For a time, Houston was holding forth in a nearby schoolhouse, drawing standing-room-only crowds to hear his stories of Greek mythology and his own life among the Cherokee. Anderson was known in Maryville as ‘the professor.’ Houston, the eccentric young man in a ponytail, known to wear gaudy combinations of English and Cherokee clothes, was distinguished as ‘the Indian professor.’”

Although the War of 1812 pulled Anderson from his teaching duties to serve as chaplain in the war efforts, the progressive nature that would later infuse Maryville College began to take shape in both word and deed: Serving as part of a crew building the first road through the Great Smoky Mountains, he became acquainted with, earned the respect of and learned respect for the Cherokee. A few years later, a former slave named George Erskine, whose freedom Anderson helped secure, became one of Anderson’s students.

By 1819, Anderson reached out to the Synod of Tennessee — the Presbytery’s governing body of the region — to seek assistance in establishing a more official school. The Southern and Western Seminary was born that year, although as Neely points out, “the school’s location in Maryville (where the Synod met in 1819) was originally assumed to be temporary. Anderson’s seminary was first based ‘in a little shanty of a house’ in downtown Maryville and later in a cluster of buildings on a half-acre lot on what would become known as Broadway, a couple of blocks from his church.”

A classical education

Although the term “liberal arts” has become a pejorative in some circles, the underpinnings of the seminary that would become Maryville College has always been one of grace and progressive thought. Anderson’s approach to theology could be summed up in a phrase that echoes today throughout so much of what Maryville College does: “Do good on the largest possible scale.”

In his remarks after being introduced as the college’s 12th president in 2020, Coker himself adopted the refrain as part of his own mission statement.

“A college president is ultimately the guardian of a sacred trust, serving as the steward of all that has come before, and all that is still yet to come,” Coker said. “I will be the president, but I will not be the presidency. … we are going to accomplish great things in the coming years, but we will accomplish none of it in isolation – we will move forward boldly as a community, united and staying fundamentally true to our liberal arts identity and our mission, to ‘Do good on the largest possible scale.’”

That motto, Neely writes, guided Anderson in his desire “to create a learning environment that would develop the minds and hearts of giving citizens and gifted leaders.”

“Anderson’s seminary offered a three-year curriculum including Greek and Hebrew, the languages of biblical translators, and an unblinking look at secular ideas, such as a study of the revolutionary philosophy of John Locke,” Neely continued. “The education was one that combined classical study and contemporary ideas; it taught critical thinking skills and emphasized a foundation of knowledge, the liberal arts.”

The idea that a liberal arts education is akin to “indoctrination” may spin well in some circles, but it ignores history and tradition. According to the Mellon Foundation, “The ‘liberal arts’ were originally those disciplines deemed by the Ancient Greeks to be essential preparation for effective participation in public life. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric were regarded as the core liberal arts, with arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy playing a secondary, if important, role.”

The word “liberal” causes some hang-ups among the uninformed, however. Writing in 2017 for The Atlantic, George Anders opines that “by its very name, the liberal-arts pathway is tinged with privilege. Blame this on Cicero, the ancient Roman orator, who championed the arts quae libero sunt dignae (cerebral studies suited for freemen), as opposed to the practical, servile arts suited for lower-class tradespeople. Even today, liberal-arts majors in the humanities and social sciences often are portrayed as pursuing elitist specialties that only affluent, well-connected students can afford.

“Look more closely, though, and this old stereotype is starting to crumble. In 2016, the National Association of Colleges and Employers surveyed 5,013 graduating seniors about their family backgrounds and academic paths. The students most likely to major in the humanities or social sciences — 33.8% of them — were those who were the first generation in their family ever to have earned college degrees. By contrast, students whose parents or other forbears had completed college chose the humanities or social sciences 30.4% of the time.”

That holds true for Maryville College even today: In a recent interview with The Daily Times, Coker “noted that Maryville College serves a high number of low-income students, with more than 40% qualifying for Pell Grants.” According to U.S. News and World Report, “At Maryville College, 81% of full-time undergraduates receive some kind of need-based financial aid, and the average need-based scholarship or grant award is $27,093.”

In many respects, the college’s austere beginnings belied any sort of exclusivity that may be associated with it — until 1826, Neely writes, Anderson was the sole instructor at the seminary, and even after he began to hire assistants, “few stayed with Anderson very long. The zealot found it hard to attract devoted staff who shared his commitment and his tolerance for self-denial and the financial crises that would be chronic for the rest of his life.”

The brink of ruin and back again

Despite its humble beginnings, Maryville College attracted individuals who sought to do the good that Anderson preached. As Neely pointed out, “some of the seminary’s earliest students were Cherokee and Choctaw Indians who were inspired to attend via mission churches. According to tradition, some blacks were also members of those first classes. Although not fully enrolled students, a number of women attended Anderson’s classes, as well, largely to learn language skills … if  Anderson was not strictly an abolitionist himself, his doctrine turned out to be friendly to the region’s healthy minority of abolitionists. In a time when the black population was both slave and free and many Cherokee Indians (prior to their diaspora in the Trail of Tears) still lived nearby, Anderson thought it important to minister to and educate people of all races in what was then an unusually diverse part of the country.”

Then, as now, petty detractors used such dedication to diversity as a reason to sling barbs. In Anderson’s time, it was William “Parson” Brownlow, a pro-slavery Methodist minister who would later go on to become governor of Tennessee. Brownlow, according to Tom Anderson of the historical blog Appalachia Bare, “once wrote that the seminary was ‘Dr. Anderson’s nest of Hopkinsianism and abolitionism in Maryville.’ This strain, along with increasing divisions around the issue of slavery, led Anderson to broaden the school curriculum and his seminary evolved into a liberal arts school. The Southern and Western Theological Seminary became Maryville College in 1842.”

Despite the change, Anderson’s school suffered financially, and by 1854, having lost both his wife and son and suffered a stroke, he watched helplessly as the Synod considered moving the school to Rogersville, Tennessee, Neely writes. In 1856, Anderson died, and the following year, a correspondent passing through downtown Maryville remarked that Maryville College’s “halls have been forsaken and her buildings have gone to decay.”

When the guns of the Confederacy opened fire on Fort Sumter in 1861, Maryville College closed almost immediately, Neely writes, and “many expected that it would be the end of the college. For more than five years, Maryville College did not exist except in the wishes of a few war-distracted educators. In November 1863, during the unsuccessful Confederate siege of Knoxville, Confederate Gen. Joseph ‘Fightin’ Joe’ Wheeler entered Maryville and occupied the quiet campus for a time. The original buildings were ruined and unfit for any conventional use.”

According to Maryville College history professor Dr. Aaron Astor, the institution’s salvation came in the form of a former student, Thomas Jefferson Lamar, who had graduated in 1848, entered the seminary, preached in Missouri and returned to his alma mater in 1857 as a Bible professor.

“By the time the college closed due to the Civil War … Lamar was one of just four faculty members left,” Astor told The Daily Times in a 2019 interview.

In 1866, Lamar surprised the Maryville community by reopening the college, starting classes in the fall of that year in a damaged building through which rain blew and cows occasionally wandered in through open doorways, but enrollment grew to almost 50, and the citizens of Maryville didn’t know what to make of the young scholars who were determined to get an education at a school that seemed destined for demolition.

“Under trying conditions, the students, especially those who actually lived in the ruined buildings, enjoyed a rare bohemian camaraderie,” Neely writes. “‘The Indian Braves of radical row,’ as they called themselves, were known for waking Maryvillians with a ‘war whoop’ that ‘rang out on the still breezes of the night’ and other ‘blood-curdling traditions.’”

Lamar persevered in his role as the college’s leader, and a few years later had secured enough donors to purchase 60 acres to the east of downtown, the site of the college’s current location. According to reporting by The Daily Times, “donors helped the school to purchase its current site off present-day East Lamar Alexander Parkway from Julius C. Fagg in 1867. Among the early buildings was Anderson Hall.”

In addition, the school’s leaders held fast to Anderson’s principles “by declaring minority students could attend, long before many of the country’s schools began integrating. ‘We deem it much to the credit of this institution that it has from its very existence stood upon a broad Christian basis excluding none from its benefits by reason of their race or color,’ the school’s statement read. That also included women, predating UT’s admissions policy by 20 years.” In 1875, Mary Wilson became the first woman to earn a full bachelor’s degree not just from Maryville College, but from any Tennessee institution of higher education. In 1880, William Henderson Franklin — “born to slave parents before the war,” Neely writes — “became, perhaps, the first Black to graduate from a predominantly white institution in Tennessee.”

Notable alumni

Those two were among a handful of remarkable individuals who passed through the halls of Maryville College over the course of its history. Others include:

  • Charles Todd, who attended around 1828, also served as an instructor and wrote what is considered Tennessee’s first novel, “Woodville,” “a long romance of Gothic proportions, spanning the Smoky mountains and the Greek revolution and themes of incest and murder,” according to Neely.
  • “Alexander Tadlock, who would go on to become a surgeon in the Union army and later help pioneer the world-changing theory that insects carry disease,” Nelly continues.
  • Calvin Duncan, who came to the dilapidated college in 1867 at the age of 14. According to the book By Faith Endowed: The Story of Maryville College, “when the older students suggested that he was in the wrong school, he retorted, ‘I came here to stay. This is my school.’” In 1871, he was part of the first commencement service in the newly constructed Anderson Hall, served two years as a tutor and went into the ministry.
  • Samuel Tyndale Wilson (Mary Wilson’s brother), who attended in the 1870s, served as a missionary to Mexico in the 1880s and returned to Maryville College in 1884, serving as a professor and then the school’s fifth president.
  • Nageeb Arbeely, the son of Syrian immigrants who lived in Maryville in the 1870s. After attending Maryville College, he obtained a law degree from New York University, and as the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration on Ellis Island, he was fluent in 10 languages and helped his fellow immigrants transition successfully into the country.
  • Job Lawrence, a classmate of Franklin who was elected to the Knoxville School Board and as a Presbyterian minister, “dedicated himself to uniting the war-fractured church,” Neely writes.
  • Kin Takahashi, a Japanese immigrant who found his way to Tennessee, enrolled in Maryville College and organized the manufacture of 300,000 bricks in an on-campus brickyard, using clay dug from the grounds of the campus, which were used to construct Bartlett Hall. The building was home to both a gymnasium, auditorium and swimming pool and became the first on-campus YMCA in the country. He’s also credited with organizing the college’s first football team.
  • Fred Hope, who became an African missionary in Cameroon, where he established the Frank James Industrial School, established what’s thought to be the first sawmill in equatorial Africa and was such an inspiration back home that the campus raised the money to construct the Maryville College Chapel in Cameroon.
  • Ralph Waldo Lloyd, a Blount County native who served as an artillery officer during World War I and as a pastor in Pittsburgh before returning to Maryville in 1930 to serve as the college’s sixth president. Under his leadership, Neely notes, “the college expanded despite the trying times of depression and war. In 1954, the same year the Supreme Court rendered the South’s segregationist Jim Crow laws unconstitutional, the college welcomed Black students back into the classroom. After the frustrating 53-year ban forced on it by state authorities, Maryville was back in form, educating blacks and whites together a decade before national policies forced many of the South’s universities to desegregate.”
  • Wiley Blount Rutledge, who came to Maryville College in 1910 and was, according to Wikipedia, a judge who served “as an associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1943 to 1949. The ninth and final justice appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, he is known for his impassioned defenses of civil liberties. Rutledge favored broad interpretations of the First Amendment, the Due Process Clause, and the Equal Protection Clause, and he argued that the Bill of Rights applied in its totality to the states.”

Such a list isn’t nearly exhaustive, and it doesn’t begin even touch the hundreds of residents of Blount County and Maryville who have passed through those hallowed halls and have gone on to do good on the largest possible scale, as Anderson advocated, right here at home: local entrepreneur Randy Massey, for example, or former Maryville Mayor Tom Taylor … local musician Larry Ervin, whose band Smooth Groove is a mainstay of Steve “Slim” Stilts’ annual “Slimfest” party … Dr. Penny Ferguson, who taught English at Maryville High School for 52 years … Coach Derek Hunt of Maryville High School and Coach Brian Nix of Alcoa High School, both men responsible for football programs with storied legacies in Blount County … and so many more.

As the current president, Coker is tasked with growing enrollment and that long list of distinguished graduates, of course, but he’s determined to do so using the same rigorous standards of scholarship, diversity and inclusion that have been part of Maryville College’s mission from the beginning. Given the school’s rich history, he told the MLK Business Luncheon in January, it only makes sense that those commitments are viewed through a historical lens rather than the disparaging opinions of some who would deride such a mission.

“Diversity, equity and inclusion are very much in the college’s DNA,” he said. “I want our students at  Maryville College to learn amongst those who have different life experiences … I believe that’s when the most powerful learning is truly going to take place.”

‘Of the region, for the region’

By “diversity, equity and inclusion,” Coker is obviously referring to the broad array of students from across the spectrum of race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin and religion … but those terms can also be applied to the relationship between the City of Maryville and Maryville College itself, and have for decades.

Case in point: In May 1945, according to the Blount Memorial Hospital website, Maryville College donated almost an acre of land for the health care facility, which would open two years later. That donation secured Maryville College a seat on the hospital’s board of directors, which also includes four board members appointed by the Blount County Commission, two by the City of Maryville and two by the City of Alcoa. In the years since, the two entities have enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship, with Blount Memorial offering work study and internship programs for college students, and in the spring of 2020, the college opened its residence halls for Blount Memorial staff members working in close proximity with COVID-19 patients who wanted to avoid potential infections of their family members.

More recently, a grassroots campaign of private donors, business contributions and funding from the cities of Maryville and Alcoa, along with the State of Tennessee, led to the completion of the Clayton Center for the Arts, a $47.5 million facility on the campus that was funded in part by the college as well. (The Blount County Commission opted not to take part in funding the facility.) The Clayton Center opened in 2010, and while every season features marquee entertainment — in the 2022-23 academic year, ticketed shows include bluegrass band Balsam Range with the Atlanta Pops Orchestra, long-time radio personality Garrison Keillor, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, “Fiddler on the Roof” and more — many shows by local arts organizations cost little, if anything.

Every year, concerts by various Maryville College instrumental and vocal ensembles and theatrical productions by the Maryville College Theatre Department, some including members of the community, take place on the various Clayton Center stages. In addition, band programs at the county’s four high schools often use the Clayton Center for performances, as do other Blount-based organizations such as the Appalachian Ballet Company, Primary Players Children’s Theatre Group and more.

On the academic side, the college’s various divisions host a number of on-campus programs that are open to the public, such as the annual STEMfest, organized annually by two of the college’s science-centric student organizations and geared toward area students and their families. Maryville College sporting events are open to the public as well, and while enthusiasts may turn their noses up at NCAA Division 3 play, the Scots offer excitement on the court, the field and the gridiron: The 2021-2022 basketball team, for example, finished the season 20-4 under head coach Raul Placeres, averaging 81.9 points per game and dominating conference play.

Under Coker’s guidance, the college is seeking to reassert itself as both a good neighbor and a steward of the community it’s called home for more than 200 years: At the beginning of 2022, Christy McDonald Slavick — executive director of strategic initiatives at Maryville College — was named chairperson of the Maryville Downtown Association, the organization charged with revitalizing the city center with the input of the community and city officials.

Her role, she told The Daily Times, will allow her to draw upon the college’s resources to assist in those efforts, which goes back to Coker’s goal of strengthening the relationship between the two.

“I can tell you — we agree and the city agrees — we probably wouldn’t exist without each other, plain and simple,” Coker said on the “Fight for Clarity” podcast. “Up until 25 years ago … in the early ’90s, there were still mortgages that folks were paying off to the college. We provided mortgages to the town, so that’s what (our) relationship (has been) like.”

Discussions are under way to improve a corridor from the campus through downtown to the Blount County Public Library, a walking path bookended by similarly embossed stonework that ties the two together. Other ideas being floated around: tartan crosswalks, a nod to the Scots name; and a new major dedicated to the dual relationship between hospitality in a tourism-heavy market and the regional identity of providing such in Southern Appalachia.

Such goals are underscored daily by two mantras coined by Coker, who often talks about how “we are all connected,” and that Maryville College is an institution “of the region and for the region.”

“You know, we are this gem of a small private college that is 15 minutes from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park … and so for us, it is really leaning into location and connecting with this location (and) seeing it as a learning laboratory,” he said. “We are building relationships like never before with the National Park, and we’re developing new majors. We already had an environmental studies major; we’ve added environmental sciences this (academic) year; (and) we are adding a pretty unique hospitality program at some point because hospitality in this region is a bit of a phenomenon.

“For me again it’s about differentiation, distinctiveness, and really standing out in the crowd in the midst of schools that are again really similar. When I was recruited, I told the board (of trustees), ‘I’m not going to turn you into this one school that’s not too far away or this other school that’s not too far away from here, because we’ve already got those in the area …’

“We’re going to continue to do what we’ve been doing, and we’re going to choose some things that are complementary to who we are, such as our real focus on the region and the environment,” he added. “We’re going to capitalize on those things, and that’s where we’re going to focus.”