“Our future must be in education. there is no doubt.
These were the words of the late WH (Bill) Swain as part of an oral history project in 1999.
Today the Scott Countians remember Swain – who died in 2015, aged 92 – as a banking mogul, the face of First National Bank for more than half a century.
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But Swain was as devoted to civic affairs as he was to his private businesses. And, from helping the development of Scott County’s first public water utility to spearheading an effort to bring telephone service to the community, there was no area of civic engagement to which Swain was more dedicated to education.
Swain is perhaps more responsible than anyone else in Scott County with a Roane State Community College campus. This year, as Roane State celebrates its 50th anniversary, it seems appropriate to look back on Swain’s efforts to bring the RSCC to Scott County.
It’s not that Roane State has been around for 50 years. It wasn’t until the 1990s, about 20 years after the college was founded in Harriman, that a satellite campus opened in Huntsville. But in less than 30 years, the local Roane State campus has enabled thousands of Scott Countians to receive two-year and even four-year degrees without leaving their homes. This has been a game-changer for the educational attainment of high school graduates, and even more so among older students who have discovered opportunities to return to school that might not have otherwise existed.
The need for education
Bill Swain came from Detroit to Scott County in 1942 to run his father’s sawmill in Helenwood, and he never left. He ran the factory for over 35 years and was involved in various other business ventures before being recruited to First National Bank by future Senator Howard H. Baker Jr. and Dr Milford Thompson.
Along the way, Swain worked a lot of Scott Countians.
“I employed a lot of people who didn’t have a lot of education but had native intelligence and were willing to work hard and therefore make a good living for their families and could really make progress,” Swain said in 1999. But, he added, “I think that day, with all due respect, is over.”
From the post-World War II era, when the U.S. military returned home and went to work until the late 1990s, when the transition to a digital world was underway, Swain saw monumental changes in the way businesses operate and have understood that for many it is difficult to move forward in life without a good education.
“People are going to have to have an education and be able to change and adapt because they’re probably going to have six or seven different careers – not to mention jobs – in their lifetime, which hasn’t been true. in the past, “he said. .
Swain’s commitment to education didn’t start with Roane State Community College. It started before that, and not just how banks typically step in as community actors to help fund school clubs, sports teams, and other activities at the primary and secondary levels.
In 1984, Swain was appointed by the then governor. Lamar Alexander on the Tennessee Board of Education, a position he held for nine years. In 1993, when his administrative assistant at the bank, Josetta Griffith, suggested a “mini-grant” program to help fund teachers’ ideas for improving education, he jumped on board with enthusiasm. To date, First National has provided more than $ 1 million to local educators through the mini-grant program, which is named after the now retired Griffith.
Roane State debuted in 1971 in Harriman. The Tennessee General Assembly initiated the state’s community college program in the early 1960s, building six in 1970. In 1969, Governor Buford Ellington recommended the construction of three more community colleges, one in Roane County, the other two to Sumner and Shelby. counties.
After moving to the former Fairmont Elementary School temporarily in the fall of 1971, Roane State had moved to its permanent campus in the fall of 1973. A series of campus improvements and expansions took place over the years. following years, before a second campus was built. near Oak Ridge in 1986.
If Roane State could build a campus in Oak Ridge, surely they could build a campus in Scott County. This had to be how Swain viewed it. He began to work tirelessly to bring RSCC to the local community.
“Stubbornness, I guess,” was Swain’s response to an interviewer in 1999 when asked how he got involved in efforts to build an RSCC campus in Huntsville.
“We’ve always felt the need for a community college,” he says.
And, as it turned out, Swain had just the spot where Roane State could locate himself… at least temporarily. As part of his family lumber operations, he had opened a retail store in Helenwood, adjacent to West Ready Mix on US Hwy. 27. But he had so many irons in the fire that the business was eventually closed.
“I was so involved with the bank and the sawmill and the Brimstone Company and other things that something had to give,” he said. “So we closed this operation but we had the building. “
As Swain described it, he made Roane State a “racehorse” agreement on a lease payment, and the college accepted it, offering its first classes here in 1988.
“A lot of people in the community took part and reshaped it,” he said.
Incidentally, this old hardware store is still used for education; the Scott County school system first used it for an alternative school and now uses it for its tech headquarters.
A permanent campus
When Roane State opened in Helenwood, the Scott County campus only became the school’s second satellite campus. But its location in the old Swain building was only temporary. The building was relatively small – far too small to fulfill the hopes and goals that Swain and others had for the educational offerings of the RSCC in Scott County.
Work therefore began on a permanent location for Roane State. When the RSCC opened the doors of its aptly named WH Swain campus off Baker Highway in 1994, the Scott County site became the school’s first permanent higher education building.
This wouldn’t have been possible without Swain, who donated 38 wooded acres to make the permanent campus a reality. Today, the RSCC’s Huntsville campus is arguably the most scenic of all its satellite campuses – others have followed in Cumberland County, Fentress County, Campbell County and elsewhere – and it is in largely because it is located in a natural setting away from the busy highway.
Swain wasn’t the only person involved in the effort, of course. In fact, Earl McDonald was one of the biggest contributors, originally pledging $ 500,000 for the construction of the permanent campus.
“We thought we were talking about a $ 1,250,000 project and we kept pushing and we just wouldn’t let them say no to us,” he said.
In the end, around $ 2.5 million went to the Roane State campus, with McDonald’s providing around $ 1 million.
“Only $ 500,000 is public money, the rest is private money,” Swain said.
Building a legacy
Swain understood all too well the need for higher education. While he probably could have lived comfortably his entire life in the lumber industry, he began his ascent to greater achievement by seeking a degree at a time when attending college was almost an afterthought for many. Scott Countians. Enrolled in an accounting program at the University of Tennessee, he completed his education commuting from Scott County to Knoxville long before the completion of the interstate system. At that time, the road was unpaved past Huntsville, and the journey involved a lot of driving on muddy and bumpy roads.
Swain set a morning schedule and traveled to Knoxville to attend classes three days a week: Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, going back and forth each day. Sometimes road conditions necessitated a trip to Harriman on US 27 before crossing to Knoxville.
“The roads were so bad,” he said. “We’re talking Straight Fork and Fairview, I remember the bottom sliding in the winter as you walked through that low place for a mile over there.”
Swain said the trip to Knoxville was two hours, one-way.
“When you went to Knoxville and back you were exhausted,” he said. “It doesn’t matter, just because of this trip. I was a lot younger then and a lot more tired than now.
The absence of a college or university closer to home likely prevented some young people who would otherwise have sought a degree from doing so. The opening of Roane State’s permanent campus in Scott County was a game-changer, especially when the school began offering four-year degrees in certain subjects, thanks to a collaborative agreement with Tennessee Tech in Cookeville.
Among all his accomplishments – helping establish the Huntsville Utility District, of which he was the first president, helping to build the Highland Telephone Cooperative, serving as president of the Scott County Industrial Development Board and running the chamber of local business, and his long career as head of the First National Bank – Swain was more proud to see Roane State come to Scott County than anything else.
“Personally, I think this is the most important thing that has been done in Scott County since I’ve been here,” he said in 1999. “It had such an impact on the whole community. . It has a synergistic effect because if you’re a parent and take your time to come here and go to school at night and one thing and another, you’re going to make sure your kids are working in their school as well. . “