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Rooted In Giving Back—UT Honors Jim and Sandy Powell With Tree Planting

Sandy and Jim Powell

Sandy and Jim Powell

For almost a year, longtime supporter of the University of Tennessee Jim Powell worked on a secret project that would honor Sandy, his bride of almost 55 years.

He finally told her what he had been up to: He made a $1 million gift commitment to establish the School of Music Excellence Endowment as a tribute to his wife. In recognition of his gift, the School of Music and the University of Tennessee recommended naming the state-of-the-art, 400-seat performance venue in the new Natalie L. Haslam Music Center, the Sandra G. Powell Recital Hall. The recital hall will be the "jewel" of the Haslam Music Center, scheduled for completion in 2013.

Jim then went a step further. Because the interest income generated from the new Music Excellence Endowment would take about a year to build, he made an additional commitment of $50,000 so the School of Music could use funds—right away—to recognize outstanding faculty members. James Fellenbaum, associate professor and director of the UT Symphony Orchestra, and Andrew Skoog, associate professor of voice, became the first recipients of the Sandra G. Powell Excellence Professorships.

Even with these commitments, Jim still had more to do for the School of Music. The Powells are leading the School of Music's Steinway Initiative, a $3.5 million project to become designated as an All-Steinway School. It is a mark of excellence that is known internationally.

To gain the distinction, 90 percent of the pianos at the UT School of Music must be Steinways. This means the school needs to purchase 61 Steinway pianos to either replace or add to its existing inventory, says Cathy Dodge, senior director of development for the College of Arts and Sciences.

The Powells have committed $1 million toward the effort.

Being an All-Steinway School "is a big boost and it attracts the better students," Sandy says. "I look forward to seeing the quality of the students that come here."

Last month, to thank the Powells for their longstanding support of the university, UT officials planted a "wolf eyes" Chinese dogwood at UT Gardens. The Powells are the first university donors to be commemorated with a tree planting there. Only two others—retired plant science professors—have been recognized in the same way, according to James Newburn, the assistant director of UT Gardens.

Jim, who founded Johnson City—based Powell Companies, which deals in construction, says he wants students to have the same opportunity he did.

In 1955 he enrolled at UT as a freshman, thanks to a $200 scholarship.

"No matter what I do, I'll never be able to pay that $200 off," he says.

Sandy didn't attend college—a priceless opportunity that is at the heart of "why we absolutely love giving students a chance to go to college."

Students who have been beneficiaries of the Powells' generosity often ask them what they can do in return.

"We have always responded, 'Sometime down the road when you're able, help one other person,' "Sandy says. "Keep the gift of giving going."

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