Originally created 09/13/98

University president, once 'homeless,' now has a mansion



KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Ed Boling didn't know what to expect some 17 years ago when he drove through the gate at 4848 Lyons View Pike.

Eugenia Williams, an eccentric millionairess, had summoned Boling, the president of the University of Tennessee, to her mansion in tony Sequoyah Hills overlooking the Tennessee River.

It was their first meeting.

Miss Williams, who lived alone except for the caretaker, informed Boling that she would bequeath her estate, the largest private tract in the city, to the university.

"She hadn't given anything to the university before," recalled Boling, who became president emeritus in 1988. But then, "She had never been called on by the university because you couldn't call on her without an invitation."

Miss Williams died last Feb. 26 at age 98 and kept her promise. The 6,000-square-foot English country-style house on 24 acres are to become the official residence of the university president.

The gift was as much a puzzle as the giver.

"Nobody really knew her very well. Very few people that I know of have ever been inside that place," neighbor W.R. "Sandy" McNabb said.

Stories about her eccentricities resurfaced after her death, and tongues wagged from the streets to probate libraries when her gift became known.

"She was the kind of person who generated almost a myth. It was almost like `Sunset Boulevard'," McNabb said, referring to the 1950 film in which Gloria Swanson portrayed a reclusive, faded movie star.

Did she build the wall fronting her estate so locals could only peek at her wealth? Or was it to block a neighbor's view of the Smoky Mountains? Did she once maintain a New York apartment just so she could get her hair done there? Once married and divorced, did she actually lead a hedonistic life?

"Eugenia is a tragic figure -- alcoholic and friendless," John Staub, architect of the mansion, wrote in 1977 letter to McNabb, her neighbor. "Have never understood why she built the house ... . She has always been `anti-Knoxville'."

Even to those who warmly remember Miss Williams, she was an enigma.

"She was just as nice as she could be to us," said Betsey Creekmore, who as a child in the 1950s was delighted when Miss Williams let her climb into her flashy Thunderbird convertible.

"Now we didn't visit over there," added Creekmore, who grew up two houses away. "She did not wish to have children come wandering around. She was not a cookies-at-the-back door person."

During that initial visit, Miss Williams gave in to Boling's coaxing and took him on a grand tour of her mansion. He could see, he said, "she was quite proud of it."

Boling would see her again only once, briefly. He would periodically send her notes and flowers, though she never acknowledged them. "It was a very strange relationship," Boling said.

Built in 1940-41, the two-story brick house has 6,000 square feet but only three bedrooms. Also, a living room, dining room, gallery, library, kitchen, servants' quarters and three-car garage.

"But it is just big. I mean the rooms are huge," said Lee Sherbakoff, the university's real estate manager.

Miss Williams left the house in 1983 and spent her last years in a private hospital room. The nearest thing she had to family was the Roddys, a Knoxville family.

The Roddys had the mansion boarded up, the furnishings removed and the gates locked. When Miss Williams died at age 98, she left an estate of more than $20 million and no heirs. Her parents, a sister and a brother all died before her.

Her personal belongings were divided among the grandchildren of J.P. Roddy, Knoxville's original Coca-Cola distributor. The Roddy family, like other beneficiaries, won't discuss Miss Williams.

Her father, Dr. David H. Williams, a physician, made his fortune underwriting the Coca-Cola distributorship in Knoxville, and Miss Williams inherited most of it when she was 29.

She left endowments to a hospital, to a printing house for the blind, and to Vanderbilt University for medical scholarships.

And she left her home and grounds to the University of Tennessee as a memorial to her father, although he had no connection to the university.

The will stipulates that the property, worth $4 million to $6 million, can never be subdivided or sold. Likewise, the will of Miss Williams' father stipulated that the only way she could dispose of it was to will it to inheritors.

Tennessee's current president, Joe Johnson, is delighted with the property. He lived in a university home as chancellor of UT-Memphis and visited presidents' homes at other universities. To him, an official residence is a necessary perk.

"A president has to entertain, to have people in, to establish relationships, that will be of value to the University of Tennessee," Johnson said. "And most of us cannot afford a house in which you can do that."

UT hasn't had a president's residence since 1989, when then-President Lamar Alexander sold the chancellor's house and moved the chancellor into what had been the president's house. After eight years in the governor's mansion, Alexander wanted to live in his own home.

And Johnson is ready, too.

"We felt that if we didn't do anything other than use it for Frisbees and whatever, having 24 acres of land on the river, seven minutes from campus, it made sense to accept it."