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ETSU: Johnson City's partner for 108 years

Brian Noland, Guest Commentary • Dec 1, 2019 at 6:30 AM

In November 2011 when I arrived in Johnson City on the evening prior to my first interview for the job as president, I saw the letters “ETSU” shining bright on the pedestrian bridge towering above State of Franklin Road.

City leaders had the bridge constructed to provide easy access between the university and the Millennium Center, which is now part of our campus, and soon it will be a pedestrian pathway to our new Martin Center for the Arts. The bridge and those bold letters have also served a symbolic purpose, one that commemorates the many “bridges” that have linked the city of Johnson City and East Tennessee State University for more than 100 years.

Our city’s Sesquicentennial has been a celebration of those bridges.

When the state of Tennessee authorized the establishment of three Normal Schools in 1909, the purpose was to prepare teachers to serve in the state’s public school systems which, at the time, were experiencing a dire need for trained educators. One of those schools, as outlined by the state, would be located in the eastern region of Tennessee. Believing in the power of education and how it can transform lives, local leaders championed that Johnson City be the chosen site for this new school. Businessman George L. Carter even offered a portion of his farmland to be the campus home for the school.

Though other East Tennessee cities had entered the race and were campaigning for the normal school, Johnson City was victorious, and East Tennessee State Normal School opened in October 1911 with 29 students enrolled. Faculty from all across the nation, including some who had trained at prestigious institutions like Columbia University, moved to Johnson City to teach at the normal school. Every fall semester that has since followed, the presence of ETSU has brought hundreds of students, faculty and staff to Johnson City, some of whom had never heard of Johnson City before.

Since the start of the normal school, the support from the city for our university has never wavered. During the Depression when the school was unable to issue paychecks, businesses like Scott’s Grocery, which sat where our Family Medicine Associates clinic is today, would issue groceries to our employees on credit.

ETSU’s global recognition as a major academic health sciences center is a tribute to the people of this region, for it was this community who fought not once but twice to bring professional schools to Johnson City. As you know, local physicians, educators, businessmen and residents fought for years for ETSU to have a medical school. The Quillen College of Medicine was approved by the state in March 1974 and today is one of the nation’s most prominent schools for preparing rural primary care physicians. A significant number of physicians practicing in our region today completed their training at the Quillen College.

History would repeat itself three decades later when the move was made to create a pharmacy school in East Tennessee. At the time, our region was experiencing a major shortage of pharmacists, and students had to move hundreds of miles away from home in order to attend a pharmacy school. In 2005, when then Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen challenged the region to raise $7.5 million in order to establish the school and bring the first class of students to campus, the people of this region answered that call. This past May, we graduated the tenth class of students from the Gatton College of Pharmacy.

Recognizing the need to improve health care access for underserved populations, such as the homeless, our College of Nursing stepped forward to establish a network of nurse-managed clinics, including the Johnson City Day Center, which has been supported by the city and Ballad Health. Our working relationship with Ballad Health and the Quillen VA Medical Center has resulted in state-of-the-art health care services being available right here in our hometown.

Our partnership with the leaders of Johnson City made it possible for ETSU to acquire the Millennium Center, obtain funding for the Martin Center for the Arts, and fill the seats at Freedom Hall for basketball games and concerts. Business and industry leaders have mentored our students through internship opportunities and have hired our graduates, as have local school systems who help us prepare the educators of tomorrow.

ETSU was founded with the mission to improve the quality of life for the people of this region. The bridges we have built with the city have allowed us to realize that mission, and I look forward to the new bridges we will build in the years to come. Our university is fortunate and deeply honored to call this community home. Happy 150th Johnson City!

Brian Noland is the ninth president of East Tennessee State University.

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