Adam Larkey’s life reflects his ties to growing up in East Tennessee — from playing bluegrass across the rolling hills to living the Big Orange life on the Hill. The University of Tennessee, Knoxville, spring 2020 industrial and systems engineering graduate will join the workforce soon, but his first career began when he picked up the fiddle as a 6-year-old.
A very young Larkey used to pick up an old fiddle of his father’s and pretend to play it. One day his dad asked him if he’d like to learn how to play for real.
The Unicoi native jumped at the chance and has added several other stringed instruments to his musical toolkit along the way. He launched his first band at age 10 and still plays regularly around the region.
“It’s just part of who I am,” he said. “I kind of got the knack for it. Mom and dad were booking shows, and we were playing every weekend.”
His parents also encouraged him in school along the way. Larkey was good at math and science and liked to apply himself to these interests.
“I always liked building things — I was a big Lego kid,” he said. Larkey thought about becoming an architect, but then he heard about another type of career from his parents: engineering.
He followed an engineering track as closely as he could throughout high school, taking AP classes and a computer-aided design program. He supplemented classroom activities with involvement in 4-H and the 4-H Performing Arts Troupe.
As a HITES camper, Larkey learned about several areas of engineering the summer before beginning his studies at UT. He said making the decision to come to UT was an easy one because he felt he had formed a bond with the campus community before officially becoming a student.
During his freshman year at UT he volunteered his time as a HITES counselor as a way to give back to the program he had enjoyed so much. One day during camp, Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering Head John Kobza gave a presentation to Larkey’s group of campers. He said he felt an instant connection to the program.
“Something that I think every ISE graduate walks away with is how to work with people and how to connect with them,” he said — something he’s done all his life while fronting a bluegrass band.
“I was the one that was introducing people, talking to people after shows, and doing the banter in between songs,” Larkey said. He also handled a lot of behind-the-scenes organization like negotiating contracts and paying the band.
“I feel like doing that really laid a foundation for ISE skills,” he said. “A lot of ISE classes focus on working in a team, coordinating, organization, and applying statistics to that — mapping out how you’re going to build your system.”
Larkey’s people skills also landed him an unexpected campus job his senior year. He was in line at Ray’s Place, a café on the Hill — the oldest part of UT’s campus and the site of many engineering programs — and overheard the staff talk about needing some extra help. A regular diner, he volunteered on the spot to fill in for a day.
“I worked the whole day, and they just kept me.”
He said he’ll miss his talks with owner Ray Mowery, a fellow country music fan.
“He’s a big Merle Haggard fan, likes Clint Black and just about everybody,” Larkey said. “Sometimes I would stop by just to chat with him about music and would stay until closing.”
One of his favorite memories includes a jam session with Wayne T. Davis, former dean of the college, interim chancellor of the university, and a fellow bluegrass musician.
“I had the pleasure of picking with him on multiple occasions, most notably during an engineering fundamentals class. Dr. Davis played the guitar while I played the mandolin.”
For Larkey, being a Volunteer means being the person who steps up to get the ball rolling. “When someone asks, ‘Can we do it?’ a Volunteer is the person who says, ‘I’ll make it happen.'”
That type of attitude will carry Larkey far, especially considering COVID-19 and its impact on the Class of 2020 graduates.
“The current health situation has definitely made starting a career as an engineer difficult, but I feel like the Tickle College of Engineering has groomed all of us to be able to face these kinds of challenges. Engineers solve problems, and I don’t think that will change — no matter the circumstance.”
This spring, the university will award 4,625 degrees — 3,415 undergraduate degrees, 1,014 graduate degrees and certificates, 117 law degrees, and 79 veterinary medicine degrees. Although in-person commencement ceremonies in May had to be postponed for safety, UT plans to honor 2020 graduates on campus in person as soon as it’s safe. See the UT commencement website (commencement.utk.edu) for details.