“Our future has to be in education. There’s no question about it.”
Those were the words of the late W.H. (Bill) Swain as part of an oral history project in 1999.
Today, Scott Countians remember Swain — who died in 2015, at the age of 92 — as a banking mogul, the face of First National Bank for more than half a century.
But Swain was as equally devoted to civic matters as he was his ventures in private business. And, from helping to develop Scott County’s first public water utility to spearheading an effort to bring telephone service to the community, there was no area of civic involvement that Swain was more dedicated to than education.
Swain is perhaps more responsible than any other single person for Scott County having a campus of Roane State Community College. This year, as Roane State celebrates its 50th anniversary, it seems appropriate to take a look back at the efforts Swain made to bring RSCC to Scott County.
Not that Roane State has been here for 50 years. It wasn’t until the 1990s, about 20 years after the college was founded in Harriman, that a satellite campus opened in Huntsville. But in fewer than 30 years, the local Roane State campus has enabled thousands of Scott Countians to receive two-year and even four-year degrees without leaving home. That’s been a game-changer for education attainment among high school graduates, and even moreso among older students who have discovered opportunities to return to school that might not have otherwise existed.
The need for education
Bill Swain came to Scott County from Detroit in 1942 to run his father’s lumber mill in Helenwood, and he never left. He ran the mill for more than 35 years, and was involved in a variety of other business ventures before being recruited to First National Bank by future Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. and Dr. Milford Thompson.
Along the way, Swain worked a lot of Scott Countians.
“I’ve employed a lot of people who didn’t have much education but had native intelligence and were willing to work hard and therefore make a good living for their family and could really progress,” Swain said in 1999. But, he added, “I think that day, with all due respect, is gone.”
From post-World War II, when American servicemen were returning home and going to work until the late 1990s, as the transition to a digital world was fully underway, Swain saw monumental changes in the way businesses operate and understood that, for many, it’s hard to get ahead in life without a proper education.
“People are going to have to have an education and be able to change and adapt because they are probably going to have six or seven different careers — let alone jobs — in their lifetime, which has not been true in the past,” he said.
Swain’s commitment to education didn’t start with Roane State Community College. It started before that, and not just in the ways that banks typically pitch in as community players to help fund school clubs, sports teams and other activities at the primary and secondary levels.
In 1984, Swain was appointed by then-Gov. Lamar Alexander to the Tennessee Board of Education, a position he served in for nine years. In 1993, when his administrative assistant at the bank, Josetta Griffith, suggested a “mini-grant” program to help fund teachers’ ideas to improve education, he enthusiastically jumped on board. To date, First National has provided more than $1 million to local educators through the mini-grant program, which has been named after Griffith, now retired.
Roane State got its start in 1971, in Harriman. The Tennessee General Assembly had initiated the state’s community college program in the early 1960s, building six by 1970. In 1969, Gov. Buford Ellington recommended three more community colleges be built — one of them in Roane County, the other two in Sumner and Shelby counties.
After temporarily locating in the former Fairmont Elementary School in the fall of 1971, Roane State had moved to its permanent campus by the fall of 1973. A series of improvements and campus expansions took place over the next several years, before a second campus was built near Oak Ridge in 1986.
If Roane State could build a campus in Oak Ridge, it could surely build a campus in Scott County. That must have been the way Swain saw it. He began working tirelessly to bring RSCC to the local community.
“Stubbornness, I guess,” was Swain’s answer to an interviewer in 1999 when asked how he became involved with efforts to see an RSCC campus built in Huntsville.
“We’ve always felt the need for a community college,” he said.
And, as it turned out, Swain had just the place for Roane State to locate … at least temporarily. As part of his family lumber operations, he had opened a retail store in Helenwood, next-door to West Ready Mix on U.S. Hwy. 27. But he had so many irons in the fire that the business was eventually closed.
“I was so involved with the bank and the lumber mill and the Brimstone Company and some other things that something had to give,” he said. “So we closed that operation but we had the building.”
As Swain described it, he made Roane State a “race horse” deal on a lease payment, and the college accepted it, offering its first classes here in 1988.
“A lot of folks in the community pitched in and remodeled it,” he said.
Incidentally, that former hardware store is still used for education; the Scott County School System first used it for an alternative school and today uses it for its technology headquarters.
A permanent campus
When Roane State opened in Helenwood, the Scott County campus became just the school’s second satellite campus. But its location in the old Swain building was only temporary. The building was relatively small — much too small to fulfill the hopes and goals that Swain and others had for RSCC’s educational offerings in Scott County.
So work began on a permanent location for Roane State. When RSCC opened the doors at its aptly-named W.H. Swain Campus off Baker Highway in 1994, the Scott County site became the school’s first permanent Higher Education building.
It wouldn’t have been possible without Swain, who donated 38 wooded acres to make the permanent campus a reality. Today, RSCC’s Huntsville campus is arguably the most scenic of any of its satellite campuses — others have followed in Cumberland County, Fentress County, Campbell County and elsewhere — and that’s largely because it is situated in a natural setting off the busy highway.
Swain wasn’t the only person who was involved in the effort, of course. In fact, Earl McDonald was one of the biggest contributors, originally pledging $500,000 towards building the permanent campus.
“We thought we were talking about a $1,250,000 project and we just kept pushing and we just wouldn’t let them tell us no,” he said.
Ultimately, about $2.5 million went into the Roane State campus, with McDonald providing about $1 million of that.
“Only $500,000 of it is public money, the rest of it is private money,” Swain said.
Building a legacy
Swain understood too well the need for access to higher education. Although he could likely have made a comfortable living his entire life in the lumber industry, he began his ascent to greater achievements by seeking a degree at a time when attending college was almost an afterthought for many Scott Countians. Enrolled in an accounting program at the University of Tennessee, he completed school by commuting from Scott County to Knoxville well before the interstate system was completed. In those days, the road wasn’t paved past Huntsville, and the commute involved a lot of driving over muddy and rutted roads.
Swain worked out a morning schedule and drove to Knoxville to attend classes three days a week: on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, driving back and forth each day. Sometimes, road conditions necessitated a drive to Harriman on U.S. 27 before crossing over to Knoxville.
“The roads were so bad,” he said. “We talk about Straight Fork and Fairview, I can remember the bottom dragging in the winter time as you went through that low place for a mile there.”
Swain said the drive to Knoxville took two hours, one way.
“When you went to Knoxville and back, you were worn out,” he said. “Regardless, just because of that trip. I was a lot younger then and I was a whole lot more tired than I am now going over there.”
The lack of a college or university closer to home likely prevented some young people who would have otherwise sought a degree from doing so. The opening of Roane State’s permanent campus in Scott County changed that, especially when the school began offering four-year degrees in certain subject areas, through a collaborative agreement with Tennessee Tech in Cookeville.
Of all his accomplishments — helping establish Huntsville Utility District, which he served as first president of, helping build Highland Telephone Cooperative, serving as chairman of the Industrial Development Board of Scott County and leading the local chamber of commerce, and his lengthy career as the leader of First National Bank — Swain took more pride in seeing Roane State come to Scott County than anything else.
“Personally, I think it’s the most significant thing that’s been done in Scott County in all the time I’ve been here,” he said in 1999. “It has had such an impact on all the community. It has a synergistic effect because if you are a parent and you are taking of your time to come out here and go to school at night and one thing and another, you are going to make sure that your children are working at their school, too.”