A few weeks ago, Tom Broadhead went on a search for stamps. Instead, what he found was a piece of UT history.
Broadhead, the director of undergraduate academic advancement in the Office of Undergraduate Admissions and a professor of geology at UT, was browsing a stamp show in Charleston, S.C., when a familiar stamp dealer presented him with an unlikely opportunity.
Out of nowhere, the dealer pulled out an original letter written by former UT President Joseph Estabrook, a relic of university history dating back to 1835.
"He shows me this letter," Broadhead said. "And I was just kind of speechless. He says, 'I've had it for about 30 years. I think it needs to go home.'"
Broadhead didn't hesitate. He whipped out his checkbook and purchased the historical letter.
"I could not wipe the grin off my face," Broadhead said.
He brought the letter back to Knoxville and, knowing its significance to UT history, took it by the office of Betsey Creekmore, senior associate vice chancellor for finance and administration and a UT history buff.
"I was just blown away," Creekmore said.
The letter, dated Dec. 25, 1835, was a personal correspondance between Estabrook, who served as UT president from 1834-50, and his cousin, John Wood, in New Hampshire. Estabrook writes at length about the status of the university, his disdain for the time period's American political figures and even discusses family matters with Wood toward the end of the exchange.
Estabrook was the fifth president of UT — then East Tennessee College — and directly followed the rocky, one-year stint of President James H. Piper. A New Hampshire native and graduate of Dartmouth College, Estabrook writes early in the letter that the university "was as low as it possible could be when I accepted my appointment." Creekmore said Estabrook's reign was a sigh of relief after the weak administration of Piper.
"(Piper) followed Charles Coffin, who was a strong president," Creekmore said. "Piper simply was not a strong president."
The president's efforts for improvement to East Tennessee College were highlighted in the letter. He writes of an improved library and a newly purchased boarding house before touching on the impressive enrollment at the college, which sat at 80 students.
"He really was an extremely important president for the institution," Creekmore said. "He really was absolutely dedicated to academic excellence. He kind of built the basic infrastructure the university built on from then on.
"He was an amazing person that significantly increased the academic standing of the institution."
The intention of Estabrook to make UT a university of academic excellence was evident within the letter.
"There's a line where he says our requirements are the same as Amherst (College) and Yale (University)," Broadhead said. "At the end, he gets into some commentary about how he doesn't like Andrew Jackson, he doesn't like Martin Van Buren and some other stuff."
Creekmore said while the content is intriguing, Estabrook's language gives a true feel of the time period in which the letter was written.
"His language is so interesting, too," Creekmore said. "It's not just like formal communication; he's actually writing to a friend."
"It's so exciting," Broadhead said. "You think about this guy, he comes here from the North, in 1834 he becomes president of a school that, according to him, was pretty rundown at the time."
Before discussing his ideas for UT in the letter, Estabrook dived into his responsibilities as the president of the university. He writes of responsibilities that kept him busy in his new position, which Creekmore said was more akin to the duties of today's chancellor.
"The Office of President here is no sinecure," Estabrook writes. "If I have more salary than the professors — I have all the responsibility — every thing to oversee and attend to."
Broadhead said Estabrook's opinion of the university's presidency shines light on the work ethic exhibited by the leader.
"That was written in 1835," Broadhead said, "but you'd like to think every UT president should read that letter and think, 'OK, maybe I can take UT to the next level like this guy did.'"
Broadhead plans on donating the letter to the university, where it will be added into the UT archives. Creekmore said the importance of these historical pieces of university history cannot be overstated.
"I would hope other folks who might find things like this might think of us, too," Creekmore said.