Our Emmett

Emmett Edwards, who served as the first African-American member of the UT Board of Trustees when he was a student at UT Martin, passed away in October 2012 at age 59. Roy Herron (Martin ’75) wrote a tribute to his lifelong friend, and below is an excerpt.

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His passing came when he was too young,
When the first diagnosis was just three months ago,
When many of us did not even know he was ill,
And when he left quicker than any of us expected.

To the many of you who did not know he was sick,
To all of us who did not know he would leave so soon,
He did not keep his condition from you
Because he did not love you,
But because he did love you.
Because he did not want to burden you.
Because he wanted always to lift you up,
Never to pull you down.

His passing also is especially hard because
He was as good a man as we ever hope to know.

Emmett was a believer,
Emmett never lost the belief
That the world could change for the better.

His belief was not some naïve,
Uninformed, undereducated and inexperienced idealism

But Emmett’s belief was a Biblical Hope
A hope born of experience
Taught by the School of Hard Knocks.

Emmett knocked,
And knocked
And knocked
And knocked.
And he opened doors for all who follow him!

Emmett knew the world could be changed for the better
Because he had seen it change and he had changed it!
Some of you changed it for him.
And many of you changed it with him.

About our friend who was born in Covington in 1953,
And eighteen years later graduated in
Covington High School’s first racially integrated class.

From Tipton County’s founding in 1823
Until Emmett’s high school graduation in 1971 there were 148 years
Of struggle to change the world for the better

He then attended the University of Tennessee at Martin.
There he became the most beloved figure on campus,
Familiar to all through his photography for the student yearbook,
His tutoring and work in science laboratories,
His leadership in student government, and many other activities.

A few of us slowly learned that all these activities
Were not just the result of a failure to prescribe proper meds.
Taking photos provided tuition money,
As well as a chance to graze buffet tables of events he photographed.
Tutoring and work in the labs helped with his dorm fees.
Student government office provided some meals and books.
He literally worked his way through school.

He majored in biology, I suspect at least in part
Because it was so hard and it broke limiting stereotypes,
And he was, quietly,
All about breaking the limiting stereotypes and prejudices.

In 1974, Emmett served as a Student Counselor to
The President of the UT System,
He was one of the first, and may have been the very first,
African American students from UT Martin to serve
As a Student Counselor to the President of the UT System.

In 1975 or so,
He became the first UT Martin student of any race
To serve as an administrative assistant to the Chancellor.

And he was nominated by fellow students
And appointed by the Governor
To serve as the first student from UT Martin
And the second student ever
On the University of Tennessee Board of Trustees.

In 1794, two years before Tennessee became a state,
The University of Tennessee was founded.
181 years later, the UT Board of Trustees
Finally had its first African American trustee, our Emmett.

Each of us has been blessed to know
And to be loved by Emmett.
If we now also give that love to one another,
Indeed, a double portion of his spirit can be ours.
Now and always.

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Edited by Margie Nichols (Martin ’75), vice chancellor for communications at UT Knoxville.