When Dr. Paul E. Stanton Jr. was 7 years old he remembered his mother becoming upset to find him destroying some toy dolls by performing “surgery” on them.
“I was cutting the voice boxes out of one doll that a family member of mine had and putting it in another,” Stanton said in a recent interview from the office of the president at East Tennessee State University. “So I was doing some surgery. I was actually sewing it in. Now, why? I don’t know. But as far back as I can remember, that’s what I wanted to do.”
Stanton pursued that dream of becoming a surgeon, receiving his M.D. degree from the Medical College of Georgia in 1969. He began training in surgery after that, eventually becoming a certified vascular surgeon.
Stanton had a practice in Atlanta and served as a teaching arm for the Medical College of Georgia. But the college was 160 miles away, so he never felt the full connection to academia, he said. Stanton came to ETSU seeking that connection.
In 1985, he was named director of the Division of Peripheral Vascular Surgery for the then Veterans Administration Medical Center and ETSU’s James H. Quillen College of Medicine and served as associate professor of surgery at the university.
He rose through the ranks over the years, becoming dean of medicine and then president of the university on Jan. 1, 1997.
Now, after slightly more than 15 years on the job, he will retire as the eighth president of the school Saturday. Brian Noland, who holds a doctorate in political science, will officially assume the presidency on Jan. 15.
“First of all, it’s a bitter-sweet moment,” Stanton said of his retirement. “I’ve loved this job. I’m going to miss it. I hope to be able to contribute a day or two a week to the next president.”
Stanton was named president emeritus by the Tennessee Board of Regents in December, meaning he will remain on in a part-time capacity. Besides assisting Noland in whatever way he may wish, Stanton will do what he first entered higher education to do — teach.
“I’m hoping to teach a day a week to medical students,” Stanton said. “I won’t go back to the operating room. Fifteen years is too long. But I do hope to do some teaching.
“And I’m going to be relocating office equipment and supplies from here, probably over to Carl Jones Hall, Building 1 on the VA campus.”
He said it was a little eerie, because his original office at ETSU was in Carl Jones Hall. But his duties from that office are a comfort to him, Stanton said.
“When I came here in ’85, I didn’t come here at all thinking about being a dean or vice president or president,” he said. “I just wanted to teach. And that’s what I’m going back to now. It wasn’t planned. The good Lord’s blessed me with every step along the way. I have never had a bad job in my life.”
Stanton grew up in Atlanta. He lived there about 40 years before relocating to Johnson City. His father was a carpenter and his mother maintained the home. Stanton called his parents significant role models in his life.
“My dad could build anything,” Stanton said. “I can’t build anything. But I did learn from him, I think, some building techniques, tools to build programs.”
Stanton is pleased with the many programs and relationships he has helped build during his time at ETSU, though he was reluctant to list too many projects or take all the credit. He said everything that happens at ETSU is a result of many, many people working together.
Stanton said in his time as president, ETSU has worked to build community relationships.
“I don’t know any place that’s so blessed with the town/gown relationship as we have with Johnson City and the Tri-Cities region,” Stanton said.
He can’t possibly name them all, but one project in particular that stands out in Stanton’s mind is the creation of the Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy.
Stanton also had set a goal when he became president to have 25 percent of the student body living on campus. Only 12 percent of students sought dorm rooms in 1997. Today, 21 percent of ETSU students live on campus.
“I think it adds excitement to the campus, particularly weekend experiences and so forth,” Stanton said of campus living.
The massive new dormitories — Governors and Centennial halls — were built under Stanton’s watch.
But the responsibility of being president includes making unpopular decisions, too. Stanton said his most unpopular decision and his biggest concern as president was the elimination of the school’s football program in 2003.
“That was probably the toughest decision, because I knew I’d get beat up over it. And I did, but it had to be made,” he said.
The football program was requiring $500,000 each year from academics and another $500,000 from the now defunct Pirate Club each year to function, Stanton said. The program was losing $1 million per year.
“It just wasn’t working,” Stanton said. “So it was a strategic business decision. Maybe one day it can be brought back.”
Stanton first announced his intention to retire in early 2008, but the Great Recession had not yet hit in full at that point. That fall, amid state budget reversions, Stanton rescinded his retirement. He said he wanted to guide the school through difficult budget times.
“Sometimes, particularly in athletics, people want to hang on or come back, hang on or come back,” Stanton said. “I came back once but it was my belief for the sake of the institution.”
Stanton said he has always had a job, always had responsibility, so he is not sure if he is wholly ready for retirement.
“It’s time,” Stanton said of his retirement. “So, yes, I’m ready to move on. And I think I’m fortunate that I have known when it’s time, because I want to go out in the top of my game. I don’t want to go out in the bottom of it.”