For most of the last half century, the most unusual historical exhibit in Knoxville was the Estes Kefauver office at the University of Tennessee’s Hoskins Library on Cumberland Avenue.
It was unique, it’s safe to say, in the world: a shrine to the U.S. senator from Tennessee who died suddenly of a heart attack a few weeks before the assassination of his close rival and closer ally John Kennedy. It included all the furnishings of Kefauver’s Washington office—the vintage leather furniture, dozens of framed pictures of contemporary political figures on the wall, including President Kennedy, and one of Kefauver himself, from when he made the cover of Time magazine. The two-time presidential candidate and 1956 Democratic vice-presidential nominee was an especially colorful senator, and his clutter was colorful, too, including his famous coonskin cap, children’s crayon artwork, and dozens of odd souvenirs, some of significance only he could have explained. His office furnishings were recovered exactly as he left them that day he collapsed in the Capitol, packed up and reassembled in Hoskins’ then-new addition on the campus of the university he attended 40 years before.
Though his name may not resonate as it once did, Kefauver is one of the most nationally prominent, most politically influential, and bravest of all UT’s alumni.
As a young lawyer, Kefauver stood up to the corrupt Crump political machine and, in so doing, buried it. A few years later, he challenged organized crime and his own region’s bitter network of segregationists. He was often a minority standing up for the right, which is why one particular Davy Crockett symbol stuck. Though he usually wore a suit and tie and horn-rimmed glasses, he also donned that coonskin cap when the occasion called for it.
For years, the Kefauver exhibit occupied a little alcove at the end of a conference room just off UT’s special-collections wing. It wasn’t on any beaten path, and few ever encountered it accidentally. To all the visitors I ever showed it to, it was dependably astonishing.
But the Kefauver office has been off limits to the public for several years, since cracks emerged in the modernist wing that contained it, betraying dangerous structural problems. After some study, UT decided to remove the troublesome addition, which raised questions of what to do with the Kefauver office. UT catalogued and packed up the artifacts. For the last few years, there’s been some talk of moving it elsewhere, like the Baker Center.
In February, his daughter, Lindsay Kefauver, got word that UT was not going to include the Kefauver exhibit in its future plans. “The university doesn’t believe that we have prominent enough space to dedicate for this renowned historical exhibit,” wrote special-collections chief Jennifer Beals, after a discussion with Dean Steve Smith. “Therefore, if you would like us to return the office exhibit to you or to another institution, we can facilitate that process for you.”
Lindsay Kefauver was disappointed by that response. She’s wondering what to do next. She’d like to keep it in Knoxville, she says, but she’s exploring a Nashville option. She says Alan Lowe, the Baker Center’s original director, was “enthusiastic” about finding a place for the exhibit in that building, but he left UT to take a job as director of the George W. Bush Presidential Library five years ago, and the current administration seems less interested.
Maybe a shrine to a legislator who’s been dead for half a century was hard to fit into UT’s long-term mission. Still, it was interesting, for the 40-odd years it was there. And, for those who could find it, it was one of the few things in Knoxville so unusual they could make strangers say gosh.
I might have left it at that, that nothing lasts forever, that maybe they don’t have room, that maybe it’s just too odd for a modern and particularly pragmatic sort of university, except for the fact that UT has been finding room for several other shrines. Last week, a certain UT alumnus, a Vol fan who’d just attended the Orange and White game noted a little ruefully that the only two statues of real people on UT’s large campus are statues of coaches: the two relatively new bronzes of Robert Neyland (who wasn’t a UT alum) and Pat Summitt.
I was sure he was wrong, at first. But despite statues of mythological figures and an emblematic “war dog,” Neyland, Summitt, that’s it.
No one would ever say, in public, that both coaches don’t deserve prominent and eternal commemoration of a sort once reserved for gods and monsters. Maybe, in the 21st century, coaches are our equivalents of Pericles, and Xerxes, and St. Paul.
And for those who don’t find more statues satisfying enough, there are streets named for them, too. There’s also a UT sports museum on campus.
For the record, Kefauver was also a former Vol. No UT football player has achieved such national distinction outside of sports.
You can’t help but wonder. Assuming some UT alumni, perhaps the differently abled among them, make achievements outside of athletics, on occasion, might one or more of them sometimes rate some permanent commemoration? Is it appropriate to suggest to students and visitors—and not in a shrill or anti-athletic sort of way, mind you—that UT may offer multiple ways to achieve something in life? The Hodges Library does offer some bas-relief plaques of worthwhile alumni, and the Baker Center does have an exhibit about Tennesseans in politics—though both together are dwarfed by the athletic tributes.
It’s a coincidence, I believe, that, as UT tries to free itself of the Kefauver exhibit, on the same block, they’re proposing to demolish three historic houses associated with UT’s heritage, including the childhood home of one of its few Pulitzer winners, historian Bernadotte Schmitt. (It was also the final home of his father, one of UT’s most beloved professors, Cooper Schmitt, for whom a math scholarship is named.)
As UT pumps up its overt athletic presence, all that other stuff seems to be fading away.
Corrected: It's Bernadotte and Cooper Schmitt, not Schmidt.