As founder and executive director of the Knoxville History Project, Neely (‘81) speaks to UT classes, leads campus walking tours, and presents non-credit programs. His most recent classes include an introduction to Knoxville and an urban hikes series.
Neely describes Circle Park before it became part of campus, when it was surrounded by Victorian houses. He says that in 1893, Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape design, may have helped plan Circle Park’s landscaping.
The Ula Love Doughty Carousel Theatre was transformed from a tent site to what Neely says is likely the country’s oldest theater in the round. Anthony Quayle, Mary Martin, and UT’s own John Cullum and Dale Dickey are among its storied performers. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Edward Albee lectured there in 1976.
Since Alumni Memorial Building opened in 1934 as a combination gymnasium and auditorium, Neely says a wide variety of celebrities have taken the stage. Andy Griffith, Frank Sinatra, and the B-52s are only a few of the acts to perform there. Legendary Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff gave his last concert there in 1943, five weeks before his death.
For 25 years, Neely has brought local history to life in his books, walking tours, and Secret History columns published in the (now-shuttered) alternate weeklies Metro Pulse and the Knoxville Mercury.
He began writing a history column as a copy editor for the Daily Beacon after he stumbled across a collection of old Orange and White newspapers that served as his source material.
Those newspapers were in James D. Hoskins Library, known for its intersecting arches, painted ceilings, and vast block columns. Neely says architect Charles Barber, who designed other UT buildings including Alumni Memorial, loved the medieval era. Hoskins opened in 1931.
“People often look back and say, ‘It was a simpler time,’” says Neely after explaining that the Great Depression forced UT administrators to reduce the size of Hoskins Library and scrap plans for similar buildings. “I don’t know what that time was, because any era you dive into, you realize how complicated the history is.”
Neely’s work continues through the Knoxville History Project, an educational nonprofit with a mission to research and promote Knoxville history.
“Knoxville stands out—demographically, culturally, economically,” says Neely, “It’s more like America than most of Appalachia, but distinctive in its own interesting ways, and our mission is to bring that out.”
Neely and the KHP research the history of residences, businesses, and neighborhoods for clients and produce a wide variety of books.
“KHP also offers public lectures of all sorts,” says Neely, “Literary, musical, artistic—including lectures on UT’s campus, like what I’m doing this fall before Homecoming.
The goal of the KHP is to bring history to life. I try to show how Knoxville and UT history has influenced our lives today. It seems to me that people can remember things better if they can relate them to their world. History is a big part of what makes people care for a place, come back to it, keep it going, and send their kids there.”
UT’s Department of History honored Neely with a Distinguished Alumnus Award earlier in 2018.