That’s not an overstatement when it comes to the retirement of Debbie Ingram after a career as a physical therapist, a teacher, establishing a new degree program and leading the effort that produced the first doctorate ever awarded by the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Ingram will retire in May. For all that she’s accomplished, her entry into the field was almost coincidental. “I was 13 years old when I first had the opportunity to see a physical therapist, and it was while watching a soap opera,” Ingram says. “My grandmother watched every soap that was on TV and one of the characters was a physical therapist helping somebody with walking. My grandmother had rheumatoid arthritis and had such significant joint pain and loss of motion, she looked at me and said, ‘I think that’s a good career choice for you.’
“Believe it or not, that’s how my interest in physical therapy began.”
In high school, Ingram was involved in a teenage program for the March of Dimes. Terry Denniston, now chief of staff for the UTC chancellor and whose early career included social work, was the club’s advisor and set up Ingram’s visit to observe Bradley Memorial Hospital physical therapists at work. Ingram was hooked. After bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Georgia State University, she joined Erlanger Medical Center.
When asked to help establish a physical therapy program at UTC, she initially declined. She and her husband had just adopted their daughter, Alexandra, and Ingram planned to be a stay-at-home mom. “But I realized that was not me,” she says.
Next thing she knew, she was teaching college students, pursuing a doctorate at UT Knoxville and serving as a member of the state’s physical therapist licensing board. Then suddenly, her 3-year-old daughter began losing her hearing. That inspired Ingram’s doctoral research on implementation of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. “All those things happening all at once—how I stayed sane, I don’t know,” Ingram says.
After years of service to the national UT Alumni Association, Ingram was elected its 2007-2008 president. “I traveled throughout the country advocating for higher education and what our alumni mean to their institutions,” Ingram says. She is the first and only UTAA president who was a member of faculty.
Achieving a career with a lasting legacy makes her fortunate, Ingram says, “I would wish for everyone what I feel, which is to be able to look back and say, ‘I sure am glad I did that.’