Leading a walking tour of the UT campus, Jack Neely (’81), executive director of the Knoxville History Project, looks out from the McClung Museum and describes how Circle Park was ringed by Victorian houses before it became part of campus. He notes the possibility that Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York’s Central Park and the Biltmore grounds, may have helped plan Circle Park’s landscaping in 1893.
As a wire editor for the Daily Beacon, UT’s student newspaper, Neely gained a following when he started writing filler items for empty spaces in the paper’s layout by tapping into historical resources at Hodges Library and recounting events from the past. “I had always loved history,” says Neely, who grew up in Knoxville. “People often look back and say it was a simpler time. I don’t know what that time was, because any era you dive into, you realize how complicated the history is.”
Standing in the Clarence Brown Theatre plaza, Neely notes that the Ula Love Doughty Carousel Theatre, once nestled in a neighborhood of houses, was transformed in 1952 from a tent site into what is likely the country’s oldest theater in the round. Anthony Quayle, Mary Martin, and UT’s own John Cullum and Dale Dickey are among its storied performers. Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Edward Albee lectured there in 1976. The Clarence Brown Theatre, says Neely, was opened in 1970 thanks to a gift from Brown (1910), the Hollywood director of Greta Garbo in Anna Christie and Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, among many other stars and films.
The Alumni Memorial Building, Neely tells his walking tour, opened in 1934 as a combination gymnasium and auditorium. A wide variety of celebrities have taken the stage, including Andy Griffith, Frank Sinatra, and the B-52s. Legendary Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff gave his last concert there in 1943, five weeks before his death.
In 1993, Neely started writing his “Secret History” columns for the alternate weekly MetroPulse. When that paper closed in 2014, he helped found the Knoxville History Project, an educational nonprofit with a mission to research and promote Knoxville history. As its executive director, he writes books, speaks to UT classes, leads campus walking tours, and presents noncredit programs.
“The goal of the KHP is to bring history to life,” says Neely. “I try to show how Knoxville and UT history has influenced our lives today. It seems to me that people can remember things better if they can relate them to their world. History is a big part of what makes people care for a place, come back to it, keep it going, and send their kids there.”