Harold Conner Sr. remembered as an educator, trailblazer, man of faith
Contact 1: Bud Grimes
MARTIN, Tenn. — The Rev. Harold Conner Sr., the University of Tennessee at Martin’s first black administrator, died Oct. 15 at Diversicare of Martin. He was 97. Funeral services are set for 1 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 24, at Fuller Street Baptist Church in Dresden with burial to follow at Eastside Cemetery in Martin. Visitation will be held at the church starting at 11 a.m. the day of the service and continue until service time.
Conner, known by many as “Dean Conner,” first came to UT Martin in 1969 as assistant dean of students and was later named assistant vice chancellor for student affairs. He continued as a university administrator until his retirement in 1981. Conner was instrumental in starting many campus organizations and programs that still play significant roles at the university, including the Black Student Association, the Freshman Studies Program, the Highest Praise Gospel Choir and the Peer Enabler Program that mentors entering students.
“Dean Conner was a trailblazer and a role model for generations of students from all backgrounds,” said UT Martin Chancellor Keith Carver in a statement. “His UT Martin legacy endures in many lasting forms, but his students and those who worked with him will always know him as an educator, mentor, friend and man of great faith.”
Conner played a major role in the integration of public schools in Weakley County and at the university. UT Martin joined the University of Tennessee in 2011 to observe the 50th anniversary of African American students enrolling in the university. Conner is remembered in the commemorative publication “Celebrating 50 Years of African-American Achievement” for his role in the successful integration of Weakley County Schools and UT Martin. Jesse Arnold Pryor, the first African American student to enroll at the university in 1961, credited Conner during the September 2011 dedication of Unity Circle near Clement Hall for encouraging her to attend the Martin campus.
Conner was a U.S. Army veteran, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., and an ordained Baptist minister, serving as pastor of the Fuller Street Baptist Church in Dresden for almost five decades. Conner was the first recipient of the UT Martin Black Student Association’s annual Legacy Award honoring his university achievements. The university’s Harold Conner Scholarship is named for him, and the city of Martin annually presents the Harold Conner City of Martin Award that recognizes outstanding achievement and innovative leadership in the community.
Deborah Williams-Boyd is a longtime employee in UT Martin’s Office of Business Services and recalled the many ways “Dean Conner” touched her and her family. “While a student at UTM, timid and shy, I was told to do everything I could not to go to his office, because when you went, you were already in trouble,” she wrote in an email. “He expected great things out of me, and I did all I could to make him proud.” Conner baptized her youngest son, loved hearing her daughter play the piano, and all of her children received the Harold Conner Scholarship while attending the university.
“He was always giving life instructions,” Williams-Boyd added. “I loved hearing him preach, and he never bothered to sugarcoat any of it. He shot straight from the hip and, if it bothered you, you just said ‘ouch’ and kept on pushing.”
Dr. Phil Watkins, UT Martin vice chancellor emeritus of student affairs, first knew Conner when he was a high school principal in Weakley County and later worked many years with Conner after he was hired by the university. Watkins credits Conner’s human-relations skills for his ability to work with people from all backgrounds. “I think a good part of it (his success) was his leadership style,” Watkins said. “It was a quiet, dignified and effective way of interacting with people.”
Beyond his leadership qualities, Watkins remembered Conner as a master storyteller. “Mr. Conner had a good sense of humor, and he used stories to make his points effectively,” Watkins said. “He could tell a simple story, and the point would be so clear, you just couldn't miss it.”
“Mr. Conner was one of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever had the privilege of working with,” Watkins said of his longtime friend and colleague.
Phil Dane, retired UT Martin athletics director and the university’s coordinator of student leadership development who now lives in Memphis, remembered Conner as both his junior high school principal and a fellow UT Martin employee. Dane paid tribute to Conner in a Facebook post.
“He was one of the wisest men I ever knew and a great man of faith,” Dane wrote. “He led our school when racial integration began and always made the point that we were integrated, not desegregated. And he was right. He treated us all the same.”
PHOTO ID: The Rev. Harold Conner Sr.