A Love of Learning

The Lasting Legacy of Dr. William E. Troutt.

In his inaugural address of April 14, 2000, Dr. William E. Troutt told the crowd gathered at Idlewild Presbyterian Church about another president, Charles Diehl, who brought a college called Southwestern to Memphis in 1925. “He would bring to Memphis all the physical property of the college, but more important, he would bring a clear and compelling vision of the type of quality education a liberal arts college ought to provide,” Troutt said that day. He then invited those gathered to join him on another journey: “Not from one locale to another, but a venture into a new set of possibilities for this college.”

With the close of this school year, Troutt will stand in Fisher Gardens and preside over the Class of 2017, his last graduating class as president of Rhodes College.

It’s been 16 years of textbooks and backpacks, of sororities and fraternities and football games and midterms. There have been commencements and convocations. But what Troutt will miss the most is the day-to-day connection with students. “A student calling me to share that he’d been named a Rhodes Scholar, a student sharing with me that he got his dream medical school, Harvard — these are magic moments and moments that are so hard to replicate outside the world of higher education,” he says.

While many of us have gazed at the campus on North Parkway in Midtown and wondered at its architecture, its old-growth trees, its other-worldly look, it’s the world outside the gates of Rhodes, outside the setting of academia, that might seem a strange, Narnia-like existence for Troutt in the future. The universe of academia is one he’s lived in since 1982 when he was named president of Belmont College in Nashville at the age of 32. He was the youngest college president in America.

Troutt’s ever-present bowtie emphasizes a face that could be described as “professorial-yet-boyish” and he reaches up occasionally to smooth his thick, brown hair across his forehead. It’s not the look one would expect from someone who’d begun his life as a boy on a cotton farm outside of Bolivar, Tennessee. Though only 60 miles away, the books, ornate oak furniture, and original artwork adorning his office seem a world apart from that dusty homestead.

His father was one of eight children and dropped out of school in the eighth grade to help with the family farm. It wasn’t his only job; to make ends meet he also worked as a night watchman at a nearby factory and then, in his later years, as an engineer in the boiler room of the Western State Mental Hospital. His mother was a stay-at-home mom, devoted to young Bill and his sister.

Education and the pursuit of knowledge would become a constant throughout his life with the seed planted at Bolivar elementary and high schools. “I was so fortunate, I had wonderful teachers,” he says. “I got lots of affirmation — Miss Rainey, my fifth-grade teacher, singled me out as a student of promise, so I loved school, loved learning.”

It was a visit by the school’s principal, though, that would help influence his parents and give the student a reprieve from the more grueling aspects of farm life. “Early in my schooling, we took these tests and I did well,” he says. “My elementary school principal, Mr. Ross, came out and visited with my parents and said that I had potential and that they should be sure I had plenty of time to work on my studies. So I didn’t grow up as a typical farm boy with a lot of chores; my primary chores were to be a good student. That just came self-reinforcing as a young person.”

Because of his father’s lack of schooling and because of the subsequent years of labor both on the farm and in the factory and boiler room, his parents wanted more for their children. “They wanted me to have a better life economically than they’d had,” he says. “Life had been fairly hard for them, so my primary job was to be a good student. They sacrificed for that. They did everything so that I could hopefully be a diligent and successful student and have more opportunity than they’d had. Of course that proved to be the case.”

Influences abounded for Troutt as a child and his character was shaped by school, band, and the church. He looked forward to traveling west and tasting what the “big city” had to offer. “When you’re in a small town like Bolivar, you look to Memphis for special things,” he says, “whether it’s visiting relatives, coming to the Memphis Zoo as a kid, going to the Mid-South Fair, and, as you get a little older, for entertainment and memories of the Mid-South Coliseum and Ellis Auditorium.”

Another draw may have been the Overton Park Shell where music and theater acts regularly took to the stage in an outdoor venue. Many of you may have seen Troutt at the Levitt Shell last September, playing his saxophone on “Amsterdam After Dark” with the Rhodes College Jazz Orchestra and NEA Jazz Master, George Coleman, who composed the number. His first taste of what music could do for him came when his school band, the Bolivar Brass (think of the Tennessee version of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass), won the Hardeman County talent show and came to Memphis to play at the Mid-South Fair. It was there that a talent scout for American Idol precursor, the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, spotted them and booked them to play on CBS television, filmed in New York City.

“You can imagine what that was for a boy from Bolivar,” he says. “I was 17 and got to be on television, got to fly in an airplane. It was the same stage that Ed Sullivan was on and the Beatles had been there a few months earlier, so we got to tell everybody that we got to play on the same stage as the Beatles.”


And then there was the church. If the door to First Baptist Church was open, he says, he was there. So profound was the pull that when Mr. Chumney, his high school science teacher, gave him a catalogue to MIT and encouraged him to apply and to major in physics or engineering, he had misgivings. “My pastor called me into his study and said, ‘Bill, I know God has called you to the ministry,’” he recalls. “Of course, that makes a powerful impression on a young person, so I declared when I was a senior in high school that I was going into the ministry. I shifted gears in terms of my college choice and went to Union [University] in Jackson [Tennessee], which was the Baptist college nearby, with the intention of preparing to be a Baptist minister.”

College is a transformational time; Troutt wouldn’t be in the business if it weren’t. Young minds are shaped and expanded, dreams are realized and plans made. As a student, he was open to self-realization and change, and his dreams proved to be malleable. “It became clear to me during college that I could be a good person, I could be a faithful person, and not necessarily be a minister, which just didn’t seem to align with my strengths and what I should be doing,” he says. “So my senior year in college, I decided I wanted to be a college president. That was my dream.”

College also transforms us through the people we meet and Troutt met a very important person in his life while at school. Carole Pearson was from Bells, Tennessee, and had preferred Southwestern but was offered a nice scholarship from Union. After their courtship, the two were married in his senior year on November 26, 1970. “It was the best decision I ever made in my life,” he says.

Troutt says that, though he sought a life in academia, he didn’t have the call to be a professor, but that his strengths lie in leadership. He received his master’s from the University of Louisville, a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt, and worked in college admissions and for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, the coordinating body for all the public higher education in the state. There, he got to meet chancellors and deans, and he was later given the opportunity to go to Washington, D.C., and work for McManus & Associates consulting firm. It would be a fruitful time of learning, where he was able to travel to institutions around the country, those with real issues and challenges, to help come up with strategies and recommendations to strengthen them. It was valuable training that would help him on his next adventure when a college in Nashville came courting.

“I got a call from Belmont,” he says. “I’d been recommended as a candidate to be executive vice president, a job that could wind up leading to the presidency.”

Taking the job wasn’t a difficult decision. Not only would it potentially lead to him realizing his dream, but he’d been traveling, often for weeks at a time, with a young family of two children back at home. Belmont would offer him the opportunity to lay a foundation. He was 30 years old.

Not long after his tenure began at Belmont, the president, Dr. Herbert C. Gabhart, announced his intention to retire, and Troutt’s name quickly rose to the top as a replacement. “I’ll never forget the board meeting that was scheduled to select a new president,” he says. “Carole and I were sitting outside the boardroom and we were waiting and waiting and waiting, and finally the door opened and I was congratulated as being elected the third president of Belmont.”

The meeting had been extended and the conversation, he would learn later, centered around his age — 32. One of the trustees had finally risen during the discourse to say, “Two things are sure: He will not get any younger and the job will age him.”

A boy from a cotton farm rising to college president is the stuff of inspiration. For Troutt, who had scant leadership experience, he called on what he’d seen of his father’s ways — the hard work, setting an example, and setting a pace. His parents were proud to see their son in this new position and he was eager to take on the formidable challenges.

“It was a wonderful opportunity but it was, at that time, struggling financially,” he says. “We would borrow money in June for payroll for the summer months, and then when the fall came and tuition collected, you were able to pay the bank back. The early days of Belmont were struggling; it was a very young institution.”

Belmont began as Ward-Belmont College, a finishing school for women. It had little connections and almost no resources when it was purchased by the Tennessee Baptist Convention in 1951. It sat in the shadow of Vanderbilt University, a University of Tennessee campus, and Lipscomb University. In his 17 years at the school, Troutt turned the tide and made the connections that would see it to success. “We benefited from being in a dynamic city and as we established ourselves, began to attract some financial support,” he says. “The school changed fundamentally in character during my tenure and so many good things happened — we went from around 1,400 students to about 3,000 students — but, more importantly, we went from being an open admission school where the ACT average was about 16, to a more competitive place where the ACT average was 25. So, very satisfying work there at Belmont. I loved it. The college and I kind of grew up together.”

But growing up so often means moving on and in 1997 Troutt was tapped to chair a congressional committee, the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education, whose findings would serve as a blueprint for the Higher Education Reauthorization Act of 1998. From his exposure and contacts made with the commission, people began contacting him with other opportunities. One of those consultants asked if he’d be interested in a leadership job in the public sector — he was not — and then suggested a role at a liberal arts college. “Well, maybe,” Troutt said at the time. In 1998, that headhunter called back saying he’d been hired to provide professional help in the search for the next Rhodes College president to succeed Dr. James H. Daughdrill, Jr.

“I didn’t take that terribly seriously,” Troutt says. “When you’re 200 miles away, you’re hardly an expert, and I was enjoying my work.”

But persistence pays off and in early 1999, he was persuaded to take a trip to Memphis, spend the weekend at The Peabody, and visit with his parents, while also meeting with the search committee.

“That was really a defining moment — a January morning with that committee and I became so impressed with what was in their hearts, what they hoped to achieve,” he says, adding, “There was just a passion for excellence, a passion for making Rhodes an even stronger college. . . . By the end of that long interview, I was really excited about this opportunity. In fact, I called Carole on my way to Bolivar and she was certainly surprised. We were in the middle of renovating our home in Nashville to the point where it did not have a roof; it had a blue tarp over it. We were not planning to move anywhere, so that got her attention. But we had another conversation and in March I was named 19th president of Rhodes College.”

Rhodes was in far better shape than Belmont had been in when Troutt took the reins there. In his inauguration speech, when he spoke of Diehl moving the campus to Memphis, he said, “It was a chance to start afresh in every way — a new campus and a new approach to education.” And certainly that’s how Troutt felt that spring day he took over as president.

You had a college that already produced a lot of remarkable people, a lot of leaders for the world, and had some values that I resonated with very much from the long-standing, student-run honor code to a tradition of service that was really pretty remarkable,” he says. “So I inherited a place with a remarkable story and remarkable people and a passion to be an even stronger college.”

To sit back in that comfortable leather chair and rest on his laurels, spend mornings strolling the bucolic campus and eating at the well-appointed dining hall would be the easy way out. Not for this one-time farm boy. He talked with and listened to the students, faculty, alumni, and other stakeholders and, by the day of his inauguration, had outlined 10 steps with attached task forces to see the college into the twenty-first century. Those steps included an emphasis on undergraduate research, augmenting the way students are mentored, rethinking the curriculum, and enhancing the residential experience. Two others — connecting students with Memphis and expanding opportunities for study beyond Memphis — have been dear to him and are some of the greatest things Rhodes has accomplished during his tenure.

“One of the things that we’ve done that’s been extremely successful is we’ve built a lot of partnerships with the city, partnerships with great institutions — St. Jude has been just a remarkable academic partner,” he says. “We will have 59 students enter medical school this fall — 33 from the class that just graduated and another 26 who’ve had some kind of experience after Rhodes. The partnerships we’ve created with other healthcare providers, starting with St. Jude, have created so much opportunity.”

He gestures across the street to the Memphis Zoo, as well, where students are doing large animal research. Students work around the world with the U.S. Department of Commerce and in embassies thanks to FedEx’s relationship with the DOC.

The work Rhodes students do in the community is good for the student and college, but good for Memphis as well as is seen in retention rates. “Three years in a row we’ve had alumni surveys where our young graduates are one year out, and over 40 percent of them have stayed here in Memphis,” he says. “I think what makes that remarkable is that over 90 percent of them come from somewhere else.”

Student population growth is necessary (1,450 in 1999; more than 2,000 today), as is that of the faculty, and both have been accomplished during Troutt’s time as president. But oftentimes the real proof is in the pocketbook, and it’s here that he excels with improvements to the campus seen in the new construction of the Robertson Hall science building, the Bryan Campus Life Center, and — the largest single gift in Rhodes history — the $35 million Paul Barret Jr. Library. But the crowning achievement may be the successful conclusion in 2015 of a $314 million capital campaign. “It has enabled us to take Rhodes to another level in terms of support for our students and I’m grateful for that,” he says.

Once he passes through the iron gates for the last time, it will be into a new life, one without the concerns and pressures he’s known since he became a college president over three decades ago. What he’ll do with the time remains to be seen, and he isn’t making any plans just yet. “I’ve been encouraged by some very wise friends and trustees to take a gap year, to take some time and think about what I really want to do,” he says.

Regardless of what he decides, you can be certain that it will be filled with family — daughter Carole Ann Schmidt is in Kenilworth, Illinois, with his 12-year-old grandson; and son Jack is in New Orleans — and certainly with Carole, whom he calls, unabashedly, “the love of my life and one of the most remarkable women you’d ever want to meet,” adding, “I could not have been a college president without her support, her good counsel, her full engagement in her role as the first lady of Rhodes College.”

As the new school year began a few months ago, there was a buzz on campus, as there is every year. “There’s an energy that comes when a residential college begins its fall term that’s indescribable,” Troutt says. It’s on the list of things he’ll miss in retirement. Somewhere else on that list is something he’ll experience for the final time in spring of 2017, and something that must take him back to his own humble beginnings: “There’s a satisfaction at commencement, and a pride, and you see these students and their families that are so appropriately proud.”

This story originally appeared in Memphis magazine, November 2016.