When Lofton Stuart was approached a couple of weeks ago about coming out of retirement to join the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga as interim vice chancellor for development and alumni affairs and executive director of the UC Foundation, it didn’t take a whole lot of arm-twisting for him to say, “Yes.”
“I wasn’t really retired; I was actively working in real estate,” said Stuart, who arrived on the UTC campus today to begin his new role. Stuart was a member of the University of Tennessee System for 43 years before retiring in January 2016. “I knew this was going to be actively working, too. It allowed me to compliment my previous service to the UT System. I had worked for the university system in so many roles, and this gives me a chance to focus and work with people on the UTC campus. It just seemed to make sense to me. This was an opportunity I better not pass up.”
The interim position became available when former vice chancellor Bryan Rowland stepped down in January. A national search for the next UTC vice chancellor for development and alumni affairs and executive director of the UC Foundation will be initiated later this month.
Stuart grew up in Haywood County in West Tennessee and went to UT Knoxville intending to major in agriculture and return home to take over the family farm. While the degree in agriculture was received in 1971, a funny thing took place along the way; he was part of a group that started the first student alumni cohort on the Knoxville campus, called UT Today. The idea was to try to get alumni from the university to visit with current students.
“It was during the Vietnam War, and a lot of student protests were going on,” he recalled. “Whether we agreed with the war or not, we just felt like we had a great group of student leadership and wanted alums to be able to communicate with us. We formed a group that would go out and speak to the various alumni chapter groups throughout the nation. The guy who was head of the central alumni office said, ‘Hey, you seem to be a natural at this. Come work for us once you graduate.’ And that’s what I did. I started working for the alumni office in annual giving, and then I moved up through the ranks.”
A career path was set. Stuart thought he’d stay in town for five or six years “and kind of get being a recent college graduate out of my system” before returning home, but his father saw how much he was enjoying working for a university. “He told me, ‘Don’t feel obligated to take over the family farm,’” Stuart recalled. “I ended up staying at the university for 43 years.”
Before his initial retirement from the UT System, Stuart had higher-level responsibilities in a variety of UT alumni and development roles, including interim president of the UT Foundation, Inc.; interim vice president for development and alumni affairs; and executive director of UT’s national alumni association. He worked under 10 UT presidents during his tenure and served as executive assistant to former presidents Joe Johnson and John Petersen.
Although he was mainly affiliated with UT System positions, Stuart has long been an advocate and supporter of UTC staff and programs. He has worked closely with numerous UTC leaders including Terry Denniston, the Chancellor’s Office chief of staff; Jayne Holder, assistant vice chancellor for alumni affairs; Debbie Ingram, a longtime professor in the physical therapy department and former president of the UT national alumni association; and Mike Costello, chair of the UC Foundation.
“I’ve always had a great appreciation for the traditions and the enthusiasm with which both donors and volunteer leaders and the alumni association have supported this institution,” Stuart said. “Some of the closest friendships that I made within the university had been friendships that have carried outside of the university family but were made here in Chattanooga. Several of our former national alumni association presidents, including Debbie Ingram, went to school here. (Former Chancellor) Fred Obear and his wife, Ruth, have remained very close friends of mine throughout the years and even in retirement. I was excited to get to work in a much more intimate way with some people who had grown to be significant parts of my life.
“This gives me a real opportunity to work with the UC Foundation in a much more meaningful way than I had previously. I have always had a great deal of respect for the people I have met who have been a part of the UC Foundation. Scotty Probasco immediately comes to mind; in fact, my bow ties are somewhat patterned after Mr. Probasco, who wore bow ties daily to work.”
Stuart’s role as interim vice chancellor will be to bridge the gap until a permanent replacement is in place later this year. Known for both his relationship-building and team-building skills, he can lean on his own experiences of leading a unit during an interim period.
“I understand that there are some unique challenges in being an interim because you’re not here to set permanent policy; you’re here to ensure that staff are happy and motivated and that volunteers and donors continue to be appreciated for their efforts on behalf of this institution,” he said. “You don’t build relationships overnight. You create them over some time. And while this may be a short period in a continuum of making friends on behalf of UTC, I hope I can do something in this six-month period — or whatever the period length is — in both supporting the staff and supporting the volunteers and donors that are so important to this institution.
“This will also allow me to work with (Chancellor) Steve Angle. I had gotten to know him when I was previously working in the UT president’s office. In fact, I was on the airplane that went to pick up the Angles when they were brought down to be introduced to the Board of Trustees after his selection. I think I gave Steve Angle his first blue-and-gold bow tie — or first blue-and-gold tie to wear, period, as chancellor. The opportunity to work directly with Steve Angle, the opportunity to work directly with members of the UC Foundation, and the opportunity to maintain and continue relationships with so many of the people I already considered to be friends here in Chattanooga all create a unique opportunity for me. So, here I am.”