For 50 years, the Volunteer statue, best known by its nickname the Torchbearer, has been the proud embodiment of a UT Volunteer, a combination of leadership and service that improves the world around us.
The torch is a symbol of knowledge, enlightenment, truth, and intellectual optimism—the belief that the light of truth and reason overcomes the darkness of ignorance.
At UT, we embody this spirit in our academic achievements, leadership and service programs, and Torchbearer awards—the highest honor we bestow on students.
It inspires our education, the programs that benefit Volunteers beyond campus, and the gifts Volunteers give back to the university.
The plan to create a symbol of the Volunteer began in 1928 when student and alumni groups chose to honor UT and Tennessee, nicknamed the Volunteer State, with a new campus statue. The senior class began raising prize money for an international contest to select the best design for this symbol. Four years later in 1931, a committee chose Theodore André Beck, a Yale School of Fine Arts student, as the winning designer.
The Torchbearer was made to look more modern.
However, Beck’s design immediately met opposition from some art students and faculty. They objected to the older appearance, out of shape physique, and to the lamp the figure held waist-high instead of a torch. The design simply did not represent their Idea of the Volunteer spirit.
After Beck visited campus and listened to their concerns, he modified his design, replacing the lamp with a torch the figure held high. UT adopted the Volunteer Creed, “One that beareth a torch shadoweth oneself to give light to others” to accompany the representation.
The Torchbearer’s sheathed sword represents protection.
The younger-looking statue now wore a sheathed sword and held a figure of the Goddess of Victory in his left hand.
Plans to cast a 26-foot-tall version of the statue in a plaza were thwarted by a lack of funding. Costs were estimated at $60,000, which in today’s money would be more than $1 million.
Instead, the university adopted the Torchbearer as its official symbol and began using it on yearbooks, class rings, stationery, and commencement programs, along with selling five-inch tall bronze reproductions.
The Goddess of Victory overcomes the world’s challenges.
By the 1960s, after a few more changes to the design, the university began new efforts to cast the statue. Trustees devoted money to fund an area in Circle Park, but not the statue itself.
The Class of 1967 raised enough funds for a nine-foot-tall Torchbearer, but art students again voiced objections. They said the statue would have bowed legs, look archaic, and appear to be directing traffic on Volunteer Boulevard.
The students marched to the office of then-UT President Andy Holt and demanded that a committee of students and faculty decide whether the statue would be cast as designed. Holt persuaded Beck to again revise his design. Beck’s final work on the statue capped the more than 30-year quest to raise the Torchbearer and was unveiled at a ceremony on April 19, 1968.
From that day forward, the Torchbearer has stood at the heart of campus as a symbol of our shared dedication to lighting the way as Volunteers.
In the original design, the Torchbearer held a lantern.