Academic Touchdown

University administrators participate in a ribbon cutting

by Randall Brown

UT’s Humanities Center officially became the Denbo Center for Humanities and the Arts this spring, named for alumnus and former Vol football star Don Denbo (BS ’71). The naming is in honor of his generous gift to the center, inspired by his deep commitment to helping the current and future UT community appreciate the life-long value and benefits of an education grounded in the humanities.

“It was an opportunity of a lifetime to invest in something that I deeply believe in,” said Denbo. “The humanities center is the core of the university’s commitment to a classical liberal arts education, in terms of activity, research, and publishing. It’s been my life’s passion trying to tell the world this.”

Denbo already had a strong academic foundation when he enrolled at UT in the fall of 1967. He was addicted to reading, had excellent writing skills, and his first-year inorganic chemistry class was a repeat of the one he took as senior in high school. He had taken four years of Latin, the equivalent of a 300-level calculus class, spoke German and French, and read Hebrew and Aramaic.

“In short, I came to UT to play football,” he quipped at the April 2 naming ceremony at the center. Denbo was a Vol offensive guard under Coach Doug Dickey. During his career as a Tennessee Vol, he helped Tennessee to a 28-5-1 record, an SEC title in 1969, and a Sugar Bowl victory in 1970. At the same time, he was a Rhodes Scholarship finalist, was named to the SEC Academic Honor Roll, was selected as a National Football Foundation Scholar Athlete, and held membership in Phi Beta Kappa.

Denbo graduated from UT with a degree in psychology and a minor in history and planned at first to be a physician. He gravitated into the business world, earning his PhD in economics from the London School of Economics. He went on to be a founding member of Commercial Insurance Associates, one of the nation’s largest insurance brokers.

Chancellor Donde Plowman speaks at the Denbo Center for Humanities and the Arts grand opening event
Don Denbo speaks at the Denbo Center for Humanities and the Arts grand opening event

In 2018, Denbo was awarded the College of Arts and Sciences’ Dean’s Distinguished Alumnus Award, which recognizes outstanding alumni who have distinguished themselves through a lifetime record of achievement and service.

His ability to shift gears while building his career is a quality he attributes to his core liberal arts education. 

“I would put my accounting and finance skills up against anybody’s and my business life has, I think, proven this,” said Denbo. “But I never had a business course. I never took an accounting course. It was totally self-taught after I got out of school. I was able to learn it because of this framework of examination, testing, and deduction. That’s what a liberal arts education teaches people: how to interact with their own humanity and the world of human beings around them.”

Speaking at the naming celebration for the center, Denbo honored several professors who had profound impact on his UT experience: Richard Marius, who taught western civilization; his advisor Howard Pollio; his mentor, Larry Silverman; and Harry Hurwitz.

“They opened my eyes to the wonder of learning and to its value to all humanities,” he said. “Most particularly Professor Buck Ewing, who was the director of art history, opened my mind to art in a way that has enabled me to chase that Will o’ the Wisp for all of my life.”

The ongoing legacy of these faculty members is embodied through Denbo’s career success and in his support for the humanities and arts at UT.

“These studies framed my life and are continuing to frame it,” said Denbo. “They have endowed me with a deep commitment to see that other people have the same chance to learn and experience a component of being a human being in the same way that I have.”