Diversity of Impact: UT Alumni Spotlight

mike dennisMike Dennis graduated from UT in 1976 with a PhD in botany and went to work for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in the aquatic plant program. Within the first few days on the job, his supervisor took him out to Guntersville Reservoir where they would meet a television crew doing a story on the TVA reservoirs and aquatic management. As the resident botanist, Dennis’ job was to identify the plants and tell their story. He waded off into the waters of the reservoir, picked up a handful of plants, and realized he was not quite sure what he had in his hands.

“Here I was, a brand new PhD supposed to know all this stuff and I stood there, with cameras rolling, and realized I knew the genus of the plant in my hand, but didn’t know much more than that without keying it out,” Dennis says. “It was an epiphany for me. I made it through the interview, but it gave me pause to realize I had not taken any courses where I could specifically learn aquatic and wetland plants.

A few years later, Dennis started teaching a two-week course at UT for people interested in getting out into the field to learn how to identify plants.

“I saw what I thought was a need to have a course where you got students out in the water and got them wet and muddy,” Dennis says. “Most taxonomists, bless their heart, will go up to the edge of the water and not get wet. The course is of value to the students, and to this day, I still get a call every now and then from a former student who has a question and wants to talk about it.”

Dennis still teaches the course every other year in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology in addition to running Breedlove and Dennis, an environmental consulting firm in Florida.

“When I was at UT, the idea of being an environmental consultant didn’t exist,” Dennis says. “Our firm was founded in 1976 and is probably one of the oldest, pure environmental firms in the country. There was really no need for environmental firms until federal legislation like the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act came into existence.”

Over the years, Dennis has played a role in developing environmental legislation in Florida and helping his clients mitigate their impact on the environment.

“Folks are going to continue to move to Florida,” Dennis says. “I look at it as my job to provide the best guidance and advice to these major landowners and folks interested in supplying the demand that’s there for housing, shopping centers, and attractions on how can they can best plan their projects to be sensitive to the environment.”

Dennis’ appreciation and respect for the environment developed when he was a kid. He grew up in a small town in Georgia where his father and grandfather owned an old country store, Hays and Dennis General Merchandise, and sold everything from flour and soup to shirts and faucets. He is an Eagle Scout and spent the majority of his youth wandering in the woods and looking through microscopes, which he enjoyed much more than reading history books. He is also the first person of his family to go to college.

“There was never any talk about when I got to a certain age, I’d run the store. It was assumed I’d go to college,” says Dennis, who originally wanted to go to medical school. “The only professions I knew growing up were doctors, lawyers, and ministers. There was the concept of engineers, but I didn’t know any.”

However, life had other plans for Dennis. In his first year at UT, he expanded his opportunities by engaging in field work when TVA hired him to help with a floristic survey.

“It was a scavenger hunt and I loved it,” Dennis says. “I spent all summer in the woods looking for permanent forest plots. I couldn’t believe someone actually paid me to walk around in the woods and identify plants. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven!”

When Dennis first started identifying aquatic plants, the term “wetland” had yet to be coined and the Clean Water Act was not part of the equation. However, he did not need the terms or laws to realize the importance of aquatic plants.

“To me, it’s fundamental that you identify the plants growing in a wetland,” Dennis says. “Once you can identify the plants and understand the life histories, you can begin to understand why they are growing there and the ecological relationships that are at play. In my mind you can’t protect, take care, manage, or regulate some element of our natural world unless you fundamentally understand it.”

Another thing that is fundamental to Dennis is giving back to the institutions that helped him get where he is today. In addition to contributing his time to teach the aquatic plant course and lead wildflower walks at the EEB-sponsored Great Smoky Mountains Wildflower Pilgrimage, he provides financial support to UT and EEB. Dennis is also currently chair of the Dean’s Advisory Board for the college.

“When I look back over my career, there are so many folks who contributed and helped me out,” Dennis says. “I give back to one degree or another to all the schools I attended. I’ve been blessed with an opportunity for an education and great scholars that have all contributed to me getting a fundamental knowledge base that it so important in life. It’d be wonderful if we all had enough financial resources to give $10 million here and $50 million there, but I’ve come to understand and appreciate that it really doesn’t matter how much you give back as long as you give back something.”