In my role here at Carson-Newman I have the privilege to talk to so many people and hear incredible stories. How they found their way to Mossy Creek. What their time at Carson-Newman meant to them. I realized when I would relate my conversations with other members of our team their reactions usually were the same as mine. They too were fascinated by these tales that, often many years later, still brought a lilt to the voice of the narrator as he or she recalled that time.

It was then I decided some of these stories I had been blessed to hear were too good for me to keep to myself or within the confines of our department. I wanted to tell them to anyone who would listen. Not only because of the value of the tale, but with a hope it encourages others to tell us their stories.

More than 30 minutes had passed in the conversation with Dr. Boyd Burris and we had barely discussed anything about him. Sure, we had touched on his childhood in the Jefferson City suburb of Strawberry Plains. But the conversation, mainly, was about his late wife: Marcella Mays Burris. The way he talked expressed a love that was obvious, even eight years after her passing.

Listening to Dr. Burris discuss Marcella and reflecting on it later, it was fitting she was a 1951 graduate of Carson-Newman. Our centennial anniversary, 100 years after opening its doors on the banks Mossy Creek, Marcella Mays was a perfect example of the opportunity Carson-Newman provides students in our area of Appalachia – the reason the school was established.

“She wanted to go to Carson-Newman,” Dr. Burris said. “Her dad wanted her to go to Carson-Newman. But he didn’t have the money.”

Dads know how it is. What do we do, what sacrifices are made to try to provide our children with something we know will benefit them in the long run, possibly for the rest of their lives? Mr. Mays knew what he could do.

“He went to campus,” Burris recalled. “He went to see Dr. Harley Fite, the president of the school. He told him, ‘Dr. Fite, my daughter wants to come to Carson-Newman but I don’t have the money. I don’t have it now but I will. If you let my daughter come here for a year, I will sell enough cows between now and next year to pay her bill in full and whatever is owed.’ ”

It was bold really. Just a couple of years removed from a world war, money was not necessarily easy to come by. Especially in parts of East Tennessee Appalachia. But a father wanted a Christ-centered education for his daughter and made a commitment. If only the offer would be accepted.

“Dr. Fite said OK. He said Marcella could go to Carson-Newman.”

Of course, because Marcella is referred to earlier in this piece as a 1951 graduate of Carson-Newman, one can jump to the end of the story and know that Mr. Mays made good on his pledge. In a year’s time, he sold enough cows to pay Marcella’s bill.

But jumping to that point would be leaving out so much.

Marcella Mays did not just come to Carson-Newman and leave with a degree.

A graduate in voice, she served in the A Capella and Chapel Choirs, where she was as an officer. She was a member of the campus Calliopean Literary Society and held one officer position or another each of her four years. She served in Women’s Student Government (when there were separate ones for male and female students), Third Vice President of the Baptist Student Union, a member of the campus volunteer band and vice-president of the W. Powell Hale Players Dramatic Club.

On page 187 of the 1951 yearbook, it states: Each year, it is customary for the student body to choose from member of the Senior Class one girl and one boy who best typifies respectively the traits of Character, Intellectuality, Loyalty, Friendliness, Versatility and Personality. 

Dr. Burris remembers Marcella’s selection in her senior voice recital. He recalls that her junior year, she was asked by the Southern Baptist Convention to travel to Southern California on break and teach bible school.

He did not attend Carson-Newman. But yet he spoke so thoughtfully of how fondly Marcella would talk of Carson-Newman and what it had meant to her. He wanted to do something to honor her. So, he started an endowed scholarship in her name to help students, like Marcella, studying vocal performance.

A commitment to help future Marcellas, who he may never know or even meet. Maybe one who wants to come to Carson-Newman and just might be trying to figure out how. A commitment similar to the one her dad made more than 70 years ago.

As we hung up with a promise to talk again soon, I was grateful. Grateful to serve God’s Kingdom at Carson-Newman. Grateful to talk with folks like Dr. Burris and learn about alums such as Marcella Mays Burris.

And I was grateful to Dr. Fite for giving her dad time to sell the cows. 

And grateful he was able to sell them.

Without it, I would have never heard Marcella’s story or had the chance to tell it to you.

This is the first of what I hope will be many. I sincerely hope it touches you as it has us and offers a glimpse of how special this place is here on the banks of Mossy Creek. 

Kevin Triplett, Vice President for University Relations

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