East Tennessee State University

Retirees Association (ETSURA)

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President Burgin E. Dossett is shown here with four of his children, Ann, Burgin Jr., Tom and Genie.

The following are recollections of ETSU during the tenure of its third president, Burgin E. Dossett. His daughter, Genie Dossett Matthews, shared them with members of the ETSU Retirees Association.  Dossett had run for governor and had been the state’s commissioner of education before his 19-year presidency began in 1949. When her family moved to Johnson City, Mrs. Matthews was enrolled in the University School as a sophomore.

This was a very exciting chapter of my life, of course. I had grown up in Nashville, and Johnson City was much smaller. The campus also was much smaller than it is now.  The faculty was like family. Mother (Nelle Jennings Dossett) immediately organized a women’s faculty group, with a garden club, a book club and a group that met to play bridge and canasta.  Since there was no university center or similar place on campus, she invited faculty members and students alike to use the president’s home as a social center.

Students cleaned up the basement, where coal had been stored, to make a recreation room. They painted a large pipe in one corner of the room as the trunk of a palm tree. Palm trees also were painted on the ceiling and walls.

The students opened up the whole basement to make a huge area for dancing. It was named the “Pirate Room,” and the sororities — all of them locals at the time — met there.  Faculty members came to the president’s home one night a week to play bridge and canasta.  During the first week of school each fall, all of the freshmen and their academic advisers dropped by to meet the president and his wife, along with the rest of the administration.

There’s a great story about Browning Hall, one of the men’s residence halls (Ed. Note: where Sherrod Library now stands).  Daddy had run against Gov. Gordon Browning in 1936. He thought he had the support of Edward Hull Crump, the Democratic political boss of Memphis. At the last minute, however, Crump came out for Browning.  I grew up thinking that Browning was synonymous with Hitler.  After all, he was the guy who had beaten Daddy in his run for governor.


Browning turned out to be the one who appointed Daddy as president of East Tennessee State. The scuttlebutt was that he was afraid Daddy was going to run against him again in the next election.  But Daddy never would have run again. He just wanted to return to East Tennessee.

After we came here, Daddy invited the governor to come to campus to make a speech. As he drove him around the campus, Daddy pointed out a little house, in terrible shape, where a group of male students lived.  “Governor,” he said, “this dormitory is going to be named for you. We don’t want it to bear your name in its present condition, so we need money to make improvements.”  Back at our house that evening, Browning said: “Burgin Dossett, you are the best politician I ever saw. You know I won’t let a building like that be named for me.”  So the governor got $500,000 appropriated to put on a new façade, and Browning Hall became a really nice dorm.

Years later, we went to a ceremony honoring Browning.  In his acceptance speech, he talked at length about what a great man my father was.



When visitors came to campus on business or to make speeches, they often would stay at the president’s home.  Among them was Dr. Wernher Von Braun, the German scientist who had so much to do with the NASA space program.  When Von Braun was here for a five-day visit, my husband, Payson, and I came home especially to meet him.  After a seminar he presented on campus, we sat around the house talking with Von Braun. He told us all about the Apollo missile program, which was just on the drawing board at the time.

Von Braun certainly wasn’t the only native of a foreign land who stayed in the president’s home over the years.  I can’t recall the name, but I clearly remember the answer given by a visitor from abroad when asked what was his favorite American food. “Those ‘hottens’ are just wonderful,” he said.  No one knew what he was talking about until he explained that they were a type of bread. As the basket was passed, he had been invited to have a “hot ‘un’.”  What he had enjoyed so much was a hot biscuit.

Before Daddy became president, classes were often called off because of even one or two inches of snow.  During his first or second year here, the Harlem Globetrotters were scheduled to play on campus on a day when the snowfall totaled 10 or 12 inches.  Daddy noticed that drivers from places like Knox and Greene counties, North Carolina and Virginia had made it to campus to see the game.  Then and there, he decided that no classes would be called off in the future because of snow. Nobody would be required to show up if there was a risk, but classes would go on. 




"Tales of the University" is a regular column provided by the ETSU Retirees Association about the university and the people associated with it through the decades.  Faculty, staff, students and alumni are encouraged to share their memories of ETSU with the Retirees Association for consideration for future columns.  Stories, comments and suggestions may be sent to Dr. Willene Paxton, chair of the Tales of the University committee, 1203 Lester Harris Road, Johnson City, TN 37601, or willenepj@charter.net.

Mailing Address:  Office of Human Resources
ETSU Box 70564
Johnson City, TN  37614-1707
Telephone:  423-439-4457
Fax:  423-439-8354
TDD:  423-439-4710

Office Hours:  8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. E.S.T. Monday - Friday
Office Location:  Rooms 307 and 311, Dossett Hall

Updated on 09/07/10