Neely is the executive director of the Knoxville History Project, but his love for history began before he could read. Tales of King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Davy Crockett, combined with his father’s interest in world history, built the foundation for a lifelong passion.
“We rarely went on a family vacation without doing something historical, whether it was visiting an antebellum house or hunting for shipwrecks,” Neely says. “I liked the beach as a kid, but a beach with a shipwreck on it was far superior to all other beaches.”
Neely (’81) would transform that love of history into a passion. He has become one of Knoxville’s well known and go-to historians. He will receive the fourth annual Distinguished Alumnus Award from the Department of History on Wednesday, April 18. The 5 p.m. event will take place in the UT Visitors Center.
For years, history was a hobby, not a career option. Neely intended to be an international journalist and began his college career at UT studying journalism.
“After struggling with the high-tech equipment we were required to use in the classroom – the IBM Selectric II typewriter, which seemed to be a hyper-automatic life-killing machine – I quit,” Neely says. “I was a business major for about a year until I took accounting. I felt undeservedly lucky to escape with a C.”
He spent a few months as an undeclared English major interested in modern poetry until one day he realized, to his surprise, the courses he had the most credits in were history courses.
“I think I took every undergraduate class that Bruce Wheeler and Milton Klein taught,” Neely says. “I remember several other faculty I had for one class or so, and no two were at all alike. The worldviews they presented were so different that it was startling to see any of them together. To me, that was part of what made history, which is really a synonym for reality, so interesting.”
From writing papers to nights spent studying in Hodges Library, Neely credits his history degree for giving him a background about more or less everything. A lot of what is happening in the world today relates to something he learned at UT 40 years ago.
“The requirement for footnotes on papers gave me a rigorous understanding of sources and a respect for the fact that truth is more complicated than anyone wants to believe,” Neely says. “You can’t get very near the truth of anything until you research everything available. The rigor of history is the same as the rigor of journalism. They are more or less the same thing, but history, ultimately, delivers more perspective.”
Since graduating, Neely has combined his passion for history with his journalism experience to become one of the best-known and most distinguished journalists in Knoxville. He was a staff writer, columnist, and associate editor of Metro Pulse, Knoxville’s leading weekly newspaper for over two decades. When the final edition of the Metro Pulse hit newsstands in 2014, Neely helped establish the Knoxville History Project, a local nonprofit with a mission to research and promote Knoxville history. He became executive director in December 2014. Part of the project included a new alternative weekly – Knoxville Mercury. Neely wrote a weekly history column and several other features pertaining to Knoxville history. Due to funding challenges, the staff published the final edition July 20, 2017.
“We have several alumni who go on to distinguished careers in academic history, but we also appreciate the chance to acknowledge all those who are using their history background in other ways,” says Ernie Freeberg, professor and head of the Department of History. “Jack Neely’s long career as an award-winning journalist, and now director of the Knoxville History Project, is a great example. His work makes it clear that history is not just a profession, but a necessary way of thinking about the world we live in.”
Neely continues to make an impact on the department and helps students conducting research about Knoxville history. He is an adjunct instructor in the public history course and takes students out into the city to explore its history and encourages students think about how to remember the past.
“Jack is always happy to help our students find their way in the archives,” Freeberg says. “He is an incredible resource for us, and for everyone who lives and works in Knoxville.”