Lawrence D. Tyson: Philanthropist

Few members of the UTK community realize when they stroll by the Tyson Alumni House on the corner of Volunteer Boulevard and Melrose Place that they are passing the only grave on the UT campus. It is the burial place of a dog, the family pet of Lawrence D. Tyson and his wife, Betty, who once owned the house.

Tyson, a UT alumnus, West Point graduate, Tennessee Senator, Knoxville civic leader, and a benefactor of the University, built the mansion in 1908 as the centerpiece of a six-acre estate. The home was given to St. John's Episcopal Church in 1934 to be used as a student center. The gift included a provision that the recipient should maintain the pup's grave inviolate. When the building and property were acquired by the University in 1954, the proviso was included in the deed of sale. Thus, the University of Tennessee is the legal guardian of the grave of Bonita, the Tyson puppy.

Lawrence Tyson bears greater marks of distinction, however. The son of a Confederate army officer, Tyson was born in Greenville, North Carolina, on July 4, 1861. In 1879, he entered West Point Military Academy, graduated four years later as a second lieutenant, and served with the Ninth Infantry in Wyoming, where he saw action against Geronimo and the Apaches.

Tyson came to Knoxville in 1891 with his wife of five years--the former Betty Humes McGhee--to serve as the commandant of UTK's military science program. Tyson's father-in-law, Charles McClung McGhee, the southern railroad financier and Knoxville's most prominent citizen, was probably responsible for Tyson's appointment.

Once installed, Tyson wasted little time professionalizing the program. He introduced competitive drills, artillery training, classroom instruction in tactics and maneuvers, and a weekly dress parade to instill military bearing and pride. The mock military campaign was probably his most memorable innovation. University of Tennessee graduates remembered for years afterward the "Campaign of '92," when UT cadets camped on "the Hill" and exchanged artillery fire with an opposing battalion. By all accounts, Tyson was a successful teacher. But he was also ambitious. He resigned his commission in 1895 to pursue other callings.

Tyson entered civilian life as a lawyer, having received a law degree from UT in 1894. After a brief period in the local law offices of Lucky and Sanford (Cornelius T. Lucky and Edward T. Sanford), Tyson re-entered the Army in 1898 when the war with Spain began. He was commissioned colonel of the Sixth United States Volunteer Infantry and served on the island of Puerto Rico. After the peace of 1898, he was appointed military governor of the northern portion of the island.

Between 1899 and U.S. entry into World War I, Tyson was Inspector General of the Tennessee National Guard. In May 1918, President Woodrow Wilson appointed him brigadier general of the Fifty-ninth Brigade of the Thirtieth Division. He and his eight thousand-man contingent, made up largely of Tennessee soldiers, went to Belgium to reinforce British troops. In four months of continuous action, the Fifty-ninth Brigade lost almost three thousand killed and wounded, yet it won recognition as the first Allied force to pierce the famed German Hindenburg line.

After the war, Tyson was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and was given a hero's welcome when he returned to Tennessee.

Tyson's success lay only in part in his military career. With his family connections and his business acumen, he became a successful lawyer and industrialist. He organized and was president of the Knoxville Cotton Mills and the Knoxville Spinning Company, and he served as president of the Poplar Creek Coal and Iron Company and vice-president of the Coal Creek Mining and Manufacturing Company.

Tyson's business and political ambitions converged in his leadership of the Appalachian Exposition of 1911. Inspired by Theodore Roosevelt's conservation platform and by the successes of similar expositions in New Orleans and St. Louis, the Knoxville business community initiated the Appalachian Exposition to showcase the region's natural resources. Tyson, who had long associated conservation with love of country, lent capable leadership to the affair. His success helped turn this regional exposition into a national exhibition two years later. In 1913, Gifford Pinchot, Roosevelt's conservation chief, headed the exposition's National Advisory Committee. The Southern and L&N railroads offered excursions, and area business leaders donated $100,000 for the expansion of exposition facilities. Tyson also made his first bid for the U. S. Senate in 1913, but he was unsuccessful. He would serve in the World War and publish a newspaper before he would again seek a national office.

Charles McGhee had discouraged his son-in-law from taking up a career in politics, but the advice did not dissuade Tyson from seeking office earlier in 1903. In that year he was elected a Democratic representative to the Tennessee General Assembly and served there as Speaker of the House. From then on, Tyson himself said that he was constantly more or less active in politics. As Speaker, Tyson, together with other influential UT alumni, helped secure the first state appropriation for the University in 1905. In 1908, Tyson served as delegate-at-large to the Democratic National Convention; but for whatever reason, his political career did not gain momentum until after World War I. On his return from Europe, he purchased the Knoxville Sentinel and employed it to support his candidacy for political office. In 1924, he won the race for the U.S. Senate, defeating the Republican incumbent, Judge Hugh B. Lindsay, and he served in that chamber until his death in 1929.

Tyson knew better than most in the Senate the trauma of World War I, so it is not surprising that he fought for the interests of veterans and for world peace. He co-authored the Tyson-Fitzgerald Act, which extended full pay to disabled temporary officers of World War I, and he advocated U. S. involvement in the World Court in opposition to the isolationist party in the Senate.

The war left its wounds. In addition to losing his only son, Charles McGhee Tyson, in air combat over the English Channel, the elder Tyson lost much of his own vigor. When he collapsed from nervous exhaustion in July 1929, and died later on August 4, his attending physicians said he had never fully recovered his strength after the war. Knoxvillians mourned him as a civic leader and a generous philanthropist. One of his benefactions was a tract of land to be used for a city airport honoring his deceased son. The airport was moved, but it memorialized Charles McGhee Tyson nevertheless. Another gift of land became Tyson Park.

On the UTK campus, the Alumni Affairs and Development Offices now occupy the former Tyson home. It had been purchased in 1895, but Tyson commissioned George Franklin Barber to redesign it in 1907. The structure became Barber's finest work in the "classic colonial" style.

The grandeur of the home, with its classical detailing, porticoes, and balustraded terraces, bespoke the fortunes of a man who was respected by his state, his country, and his alma mater.