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A Tale of a Tree and Two Pennies

Mike Littlejohn

Mike Littlejohn

To call Mike Littlejohn a tree hugger is exaggerating things quite a bit, but he does like trees, especially one very significant tree on the campus of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. It's a tree that represents his proudest accomplishment during his undergraduate years when he was studying business administration in the early 1970s.

"That was a very active time on campus. It was the anti-war era, and activism and student protests were a regular part of student life," Mike explains. "I was a student senator-very involved in student government-and participated in the African American Student Liberation Force. One of my proudest accomplishments was organizing a tree-planting ceremony in front of UT's university center to commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The tree and the commemorative plaque are still there today."

Recently, Mike returned to campus to be a part of two commemorative occasions. On Feb.1, 2011, he joined the march that celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first black undergraduate students to enroll at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

Mike Littlejohn

"There were more than 500 people who participated in that walk from the Torchbearer to the university center, and it warmed my heart to see that students are still engaged and interested in civic affairs," he says.

Then on Feb. 18, Mike lunched with the recipients of a scholarship made possible by his generosity. "I support this scholarship because I want to help kids who are as I was-hardworking, brimming with potential, but needing a little financial support."

Two Pennies

Overcoming Challenges
Mike reminisces about his own financial struggles. "I remember one two-week period during my junior year when the only thing I had to my name was two old pennies. The only way I made it through those two weeks was through the kindness of my friends. I remember thinking, 'If I ever have the opportunity, I'm going to give back and help someone else.' That is my motivation; well, that plus the philosophy instilled in me by my parents that a good education is the ticket out of poverty."

Mike is one of eight children raised by his parents in Memphis, Tenn. "Dad was a laborer with the Illinois Central Railroad, and my mom was a maid, so with eight kids, we were very poor. But my parents taught us the value of hard work and a good education. Going to college was expected."

Mike says it was on the streets of Memphis that the seeds were sown for his life's work.

"I've always enjoyed sales. Even as a kid I had a newspaper route and sold sweet potatoes door-to-door; I had the drive and focus to be good at it. Plus, I enjoy people, and sales really is all about people and relationships."

Mike remembers taking his first airplane flight to attend orientation at UT. "Ironically, I've been flying on planes ever since," he says.

Shortly after graduating in 1973, Mike joined IBM in Knoxville to sell typewriters. He retired 32 years later, after logging countless frequent flier miles and moving his family six times. "I suppose it's true what they say," he laughs, "IBM stands for 'I've Been Moved!'" Mike's work with IBM took him to Detroit; White Plains, NY; Johannesburg, South Africa; and Pittsburgh - twice.

A Lifelong Fan
Although his longest stay was in Pittsburgh, Mike never invested in Steelers tickets; he was too busy driving to Knoxville to follow the Vols! "Of course!" he says, as if there were no other choice. "I would pick up my two boys at school on Friday afternoon and either drive or fly to Knoxville for the games on Saturday." Both sons eventually graduated from UT's College of Business Administration as well-Karl with a major in marketing in 2002 and Drew with a major in logistics in 2009.

Mike is still an avid Vol fan, following athletic events from swimming to basketball and softball to track. "If the Vols had a pinochle team, I'd follow that too!" he admits. No doubt, the proximity to UT sports was a major factor in Mike's decision to make Knoxville his retirement home. "I also have half a dozen lifelong friends who live here, friends I met while I was at UT," he adds.

While he enjoys maintenance-free living ("I gave my lawnmower and leaf blower to my son-that was a great feeling!") and a schedule that makes him feel "as if everyday is Saturday," Mike is still very much a productive force to be reckoned with. "Let's put it this way," he says, "I'm on the lookout for good things to do, and I'm busy enough to have no trouble sleeping at night!"

"I have a tremendous affection for the University of Tennessee because of what it did for me. It played a huge role in my life and opened a lot of doors for me along the way. I have no hesitation in encouraging others to give. Every gift makes a difference," Mike says.

One need only see Mike with his tree for proof of how, with just a little help, seedlings can blossom into bountiful blessings.

To learn more about how you can leave a legacy that will help future students for generations to come, please contact the Office of Planned Giving at (865) 974-4826 or plannedgiving@tennessee.edu.

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