Bucky Wolford

The wall supports the Foundation Room, located on Level 2 of the University Center in the heart of campus.

Adorning the wall are pictures of all the past chairs of the University of Chattanooga Foundation, business-style portraits surrounded in suede blue matting with gold frames – the blue and gold colors of the university. Below each picture is a metal plate announcing the name of the board chair and the years that person served in that prestigious position.

The outgoing chair is still in awe of the images on the wall – the faces of Chattanooga – and the position itself, saying that serving as chair of the board of the UC Foundation was one of the greatest accomplishments of his life.

And now his picture and name will be joining that wall for future business leaders to view and admire.

“You look at the people on the wall … these are some of the top businessmen that have come through Chattanooga, and they have done a great, great job in the overall development of the Chattanooga community itself,” said Bucky Wolford, who has served as chair of the UC Foundation since 2015. The UC Foundation is an organization supporting academic initiatives and educational excellence at UTC while managing a private endowment. The position of chair of the board is a two-year term. “To be on that wall with them is truly an honor, and it means the world to me.

“To my knowledge, I think I'm the first athlete to ever be chair of the UC Foundation. I would have to say to you … this is probably the most rewarding thing I've done during my life.”

And that’s saying something, considering his humble beginnings as a poor kid from small-town Alabama in the 1960s.

Wolford is in a reflective period now as his time as chair comes to a close. The UC Foundation is very important to him – in fact, he has served on the board since 2000 – as are his feelings for his alma mater.

The Bucky Wolford narrative is a true rags-to-riches tale, complete with the Hollywood script of punching one’s ticket out of town … being a football hero – and playing for a coach named Scrappy … finding love at first sight … and building a better life. It’s a story of what coming to Chattanooga for college did for a person who grew up in poverty – and what that person has gone on to do for his university and adopted hometown.

 “There’s nobody more driven than Bucky. He was a little all-American at UTC, and that’s how people in Chattanooga got to know him,” said his longtime friend, Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Truly, nobody is self-made; everyone in life has had somebody who helped them along the way to be who they are and to be where they are. But he’s one of those guys that deserves everything that’s happened to him because he’s worked so hard to make it happen.

“Bucky is an American success story.”

– – –                                                                                            

Born December 1, 1946, James L. “Bucky” Wolford grew up in Kimberly, Alabama – a rural community half an hour north of Birmingham. Kimberly’s population hovered around the 1,000 mark until well after Wolford left town.

During his formative years, coal mines were the primary employers in Kimberly. His father, Woodrow, was a coal miner; his mother, Ethelene, was a housewife.

Bucky was the middle child of five. Sister Monte and brother Woody were the older siblings; brother Greg and sister Darlene – who had Down syndrome – were younger.

“I don't know how familiar you are with coal mining towns, but my family … we lived in what they called a shotgun house,” Wolford recalled. “You know, you supposedly go to the front door and you shoot a shotgun and you could hit every room in the house. They're small, and we had a four-room house and five children. My mom and dad slept in one bedroom, and all five children slept in the other bedroom.

“My dad had a fifth-grade education and my mother had an eighth-grade education, but they really stressed going to high school. They definitely wanted us to get a high school education, which we all did – except for my younger sister.

“At the time I signed my football scholarship to come to Chattanooga, we did not have indoor plumbing. They finally got indoor plumbing after I'd left and gone off to college.

“I took a bath in a #3 washtub. A #3 washtub heated the water on a wood-burning and coal-burning stove, and that's the way I took a bath. That's the reason I tried to play all sports in high school because I could take a shower at the high school.

“The way I grew up was a way of life; that’s what I knew.”

He also knew that wasn’t the life he wanted for himself.

Heeding his parents’ advice, Wolford took his education seriously – becoming president of Mortimer Jordan High School’s National Honor Society. He also took his athletics seriously, participating in football, basketball, baseball and track. The combination of being a good student and an outstanding football player would become his ticket out of Kimberly.

“Our high school was what you’d call a feeder school; there weren’t other high schools in the area,” he said. “Since you had that many feeder students coming in from all over, a lot of students came from better areas. There was a little town about 10 miles away named Gardendale, Alabama, that fed into our high school – and all the kids growing up in Gardendale were much, much better off than I was. I’d be lying to you if I didn't admit that I was envious; I was envious of what they had and what they were able to do.

“I realized then that someway, somehow, I had to make sure I did go to college. Like I said, I was envious of them. My goal was always to accomplish what they had done and always – if possible, in sports and in the classroom – to outdo them.”

– – –

You can’t move forward if you never look back. Wolford was determined to move forward – and not return to his coal mining town.

At 5-foot-11, 175 pounds, in high school, Wolford had dreams of playing football in the Southeastern Conference – known as the SEC. He visited the campuses of in-state Auburn University and the University of Alabama. He talked with the University of Tennessee. He received an offer to attend the Air Force Academy in Colorado. “Of course, I had never been to Colorado in my life. I'd never been on a plane or anything – so that sounded like the end of the world going out there,” he said.

The University of Chattanooga was a much more viable option – only about 150 miles from Kimberly by car, but light years away. The university offered him a football scholarship and an opportunity at a different life, and Wolford gladly accepted.

“I was very fortunate to get a scholarship to play football at the University of Chattanooga,” he said. “I came up here, and as a result of that and what the university did for me, I have always had a strong feeling and a strong commitment to give back to the university. I don't feel I would be where I'm at today had it not been for the opportunity they gave me.

“I played as a freshman, and we went down and played Auburn. I returned a fumble against them about 55 yards or something like that for a touchdown and overall had a good game. Auburn tried to get me to transfer down there after we played them.

“I stayed down there for the weekend because I knew a bunch of people that went to school at Auburn. I told my dad about that and he said, ‘Listen, when you were trying to get a scholarship, Auburn didn't give you one and Chattanooga gave you one. You just stay where you're at.’ My dad felt very strongly about making a commitment to somebody that gave you an opportunity. So I stayed in Chattanooga.”

A lot of people can leave home to go away to school – but that doesn't mean that new city or town will become a permanent home. But there was something about Chattanooga that just called out to him … “This is where you were meant to be.”

“Once I was here a few months and started meeting so many people – and I don’t want this to come across in a bad way – but I realized there wasn’t a whole lot for me to go back to Kimberly, Alabama, for,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a coal miner. Even driving a truck from the coal mines, I didn't want to do that. I realized there wasn’t much of an opportunity there for me.”

Chattanooga, though, was bursting with opportunities.

On the football field, Wolford was known as a tough, hard-nosed player who was very, very competitive – traits that he would later take into the retail development profession. He was a four-year starter, playing both offense and defense his freshman and sophomore years – and returning punts and kickoffs all four years.

What was it like playing almost every down?

“Well, it was pretty tiresome,” he recalled. “After my sophomore year, they just had me playing offense only – and that was a pretty good deal. They finally had enough players to do substitutions as far as offense and defense, and I didn't have to play both ways. I'd guess you'd say … they now they have this terminology about a player on a team being an athlete. I guess that's what you would have qualified me as … I was an athlete.”

As a running back, Wolford still ranks seventh in school history in career yards per carry (5.2). Despite playing just two years on defense, his 13 career interceptions tie him for first in the university’s record book. His career highlights include the fourth-longest kickoff return in school history, galloping 94 yards for a touchdown November 9, 1968, at Ole Miss. He was a co-captain and an honorable mention Little All-American.

When he arrived on campus, Wolford played for legendary football coach Andy “Scrappy” Moore – who served as Chattanooga’s head coach from 1931-1967 and was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1980.

“Scrappy Moore … he would play anybody, anywhere, anytime,” Wolford said. “It didn't matter who it was, he would play them. He particularly liked playing the big schools – Auburn, Ole Miss and Tennessee – those were what he'd consider money games, I guess you'd say. We did that the whole time I was there. We played really good competition and I was proud of that fact.”

It had to be something when one week, he was playing on Chattanooga’s Chamberlain Field – smack dab in the middle of campus – and the next week he could be playing at one of those big SEC stadiums.

“That's right … I played at Tennessee, played at Auburn, played at Ole Miss. It was quite a thrill to get to play at those places,” Wolford said. “But I think there's a lot to be said for having a stadium on campus. I really enjoyed playing on Chamberlain Field.”

And it was on Chamberlain Field where he first laid eyes on his future wife.

– – –

On September 15, 2016, UTC Chancellor Steve Angle was giving his annual State of the University address – and the location was the new talk of the campus – a green space between Vine and Oak streets connecting the new UTC Library to Crossroads and Cardiac Hill.

Following the chancellor’s speech, he turned the microphone over to Wolford – who shared a “love at first sight” story before cutting the ribbon to officially open the new Chamberlain Field.

Thanks to UTC TV, Wolford’s personal tale was captured for posterity: “Let’s talk a little bit about the personal aspects of Chamberlain Field and what it means to us. To every football player, cheerleader, majorette, or member of the marching band that performed on Chamberlain Field, the rebirth of Chamberlain brings back many memorable moments.

“On a more personal note, many of us chose our partners in life, husband or wife, as a result of the relationships we developed here at Chamberlain Field. I, for one, can attest to that … my wife was a majorette, and the first time I ever saw her … we had come up from MacLellan Gym dressing room that we had at that time to practice right before a game. The band was up here practicing beforehand, and they were marching down the field. She was up in front with her baton twirling, and that was the most beautiful lady I had ever seen in my life.”

Diane Kilgore went to the university on a music scholarship and was a majorette in the band. She was from nearby Rossville, Georgia – a suburb five miles south of Chattanooga, just across the Tennessee/Georgia state line. After Bucky first saw her practicing, he made it a point to find a way to get introduced to her in some form or fashion. They met … he asked her out … and the rest, as they say, is history.

Diane and Bucky dated for two years, and they were married in May 1969. They have two sons – Clint and Chad.

“I feel very strongly about family,” he said. “My mother and dad felt very strongly about family and the family bond and ties of staying together, and I feel very strongly about that, too. I guess that's the reason we’ve just had our 48th wedding anniversary; a lot of people don't have the privilege of saying they've done that. So it means everything to me. My family is what I've tried to do all this for … to make sure they're taken care of well.”

Wolford’s undergraduate experience was just as successful in the class room, setting the tone for his business career.

He majored in mathematics, graduating with a grade point average over 3.0, and became a member of the Blue Key Society – a premier honor society that recognizes college students at senior institutions of higher education for balanced and all-around excellence in scholarship, leadership, and service. He also was a cadet battalion commander in the ROTC and served in the U.S. Army Reserve corps.

“Being here and doing well in school meant a lot to me,” Wolford said. “Of course, my mother and father pushed me to make sure if I was going to get the opportunity to go to college … that I made the best of it and took advantage of it.

“I'd like to think that I took advantage of the opportunity they gave me. It's one of the reasons I majored in math. I did not want to be classified as a dumb jock. Majoring in math was a pretty difficult task. It’s unusual, I guess, to have a math degree and be in the business I'm in – but at least I know how to calculate pro formas and things of that nature.”

During Wolford’s first three years on campus, the school was still known as the University of Chattanooga. In 1969 – his senior year – the university merged with the UT system and became the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. At the same time, the UC Foundation was created.

The name change was significant for Wolford at the time; the creation of the UC Foundation would have a profound effect on his future.

“When I was a graduating senior, they gave me the option to take either a UTC diploma or a UC diploma. I took the UC diploma,” he said. “I just felt like I had a stronger bond and a stronger tie to the University of Chattanooga. That was the name of the school when I came here.

“We played against Tennessee and it was – as far as we were concerned – a big rivalry to get to play against them. I don't know if they looked at it the same way or not, but it sure was to us. I guess, in a way, since you're competing against them you didn't like them too much, so UC meant a lot to me.”

And don’t forget … the Chattanooga school colors ran through his veins.

“I never bled orange,” he said with a laugh. “I remember this one time, I was as a UT Board of Trustees meeting and everybody was introducing themselves. Most of them were saying who they were and what they did and they said their blood runs orange. When it got to me, I said, ‘I'm from Chattanooga … graduated from Chattanooga … played football at Chattanooga … and my blood runs blue and gold.’”

– – –

One of the skills Wolford learned as an undergraduate was the importance of creating connections. Being a star athlete didn’t hurt.

“As a result of my football career, I'd made a lot of contacts and knew a lot of people,” he said. “It opened up a lot of doors for me. It gave me the opportunity to meet people that had graduated from Chattanooga.

“As a matter of fact, when I got into the real estate development business, the gentleman I interviewed with – Mr. Moses Lebovitz was his name – also had gone to UC.”

Wolford first joined Lebovitz’s company – then known as Arlen Shopping Center Group – in 1972.

It was during his early years there when he first came across another young aspiring businessman in his early years in the workforce.

“I’ve known Bucky since 1974,” said Sen. Bob Corker – whose road to Washington D.C. included a stretch as mayor of Chattanooga. “A lot of people don’t realize this, but I was a construction superintendent down in Sarasota, Florida, working for EMJ Corporation when I was 22 or 23 years old – and Bucky was a project manager on a big mall down there. That’s where I got to know Bucky well. I was down there for 17 months.

“I really got to know him building that mall. I was the guy out on the job site in the trailer drinking day-old coffee building these projects. I remember Bucky, being the athlete that he is, and being short and stocky … I can still picture him strutting through Sarasota Square Mall large and in charge.”

When told of that remark, Wolford laughed and said, “That was back in the days when I was a lot younger and a lot more cocky.

“When Bob and I were just starting out ... we'd play golf on Saturday mornings together and neither one of us at that time had made enough money to be a member of any of the big country clubs or anything – so we went out to the public course and played. It was a routine for us and we had a great time, and I really think the world of Bob. He's really a special person in my life.

“I think in our situation it was really great, because he was starting out on his career, too. I think we fed off each other and drove each other to be more successful.”

As Corker said, “Going out early on Saturday mornings to the Moccasin Bend Golf Course … and just the kind of things we did in those days for entertainment … we still have so many tales now that we laugh about. We really had a great time in those early days when both of our careers were getting going.

“I’ve watched him all the way through and I admire him. I could not be happier for him and his family with all the good things that have happened.”

In 1978, Wolford joined four others, including Lebovitz, as principals in CBL & Associates, Inc. His role was senior executive vice president, and during his time there, he was involved with growing 22 million square feet of malls.

In layman’s terms, “our primary goal was to develop malls, and we were doing malls in any southeastern city or southwestern city that we could find an opportunity to do them,” Wolford said. “My assignment was … I went out and had the relationship with the department store tenants to get them to go into our malls. Without the tenants, you didn't have a project. So I made the deals with department store tenants, went out and found the land, got the land under option, and took it through the zoning process and that type of stuff. I got the projects ready to be built.

“The one that stood out to me – as much as any of them – was Hamilton Place here in Chattanooga, since it was our home town. It was very fulfilling to be able to do something in my home town of Chattanooga. The other one that really stands out is CoolSprings Galleria in Nashville – which was a very difficult build to do. We had three other developers competing with us and we ended up winning out on the deal. It was in a high-income area and it's been a very successful mall.”

Wolford retired from CBL in 1997; two years later, he formed Wolford Development, Inc., his own retail shopping center company.

“It's a similar situation except it's a much smaller company,” he said. “We do more of what I'd call power centers – where you have Walmart or Target, then you have Old Navy, Marshall's, TJ Maxx, places like that. That's the kind of centers we do now.”

In his younger days, he spent a lot of time out of town on these projects, typically leaving on a Monday night and getting home on a Thursday night. That work/life balance was tough on the family life, “but my wife did a great job of raising our family and keeping everything organized. She gave me a great opportunity to go out and be successful. Had she not been supportive like she was, it would have been very difficult to do it,” he said.

“She was a true trooper; she really supported me and for that I'm appreciative. I don't do that kind of traveling any more but I sure did it for a long time there with CBL. I had no other alternative if I wanted to become successful.”

And when he returned to Chattanooga for weekend visits, he made sure to keep up with UTC athletics.

“I stayed in contact with the university,” Wolford said. “I still loved everything about the university. I went to all the sporting events when I got back in town on weekends. I didn't get involved in the aspects of the Foundation and things of that nature until I got to be a little older and things calmed down a little bit. But I always felt strongly about supporting the university and remembering what kind of opportunity they gave me.”

– – –

The question had to be asked … How did he get to be known as Bucky?

“Back when I was growing up, there was Ipana toothpaste; they had advertisements on TV and stuff like that,” Wolford said. “And there was this beaver – his name was Bucky Beaver – and he sang a little song, you know, ‘Brusha … Brusha … Brusha’ about brushing with Ipana toothpaste. That was big at the time that I was growing up. And when I was young, five or six years old, I had two big front teeth – kind of like that Bucky Beaver.

“So I got nicknamed Bucky. My brothers and sisters called me that. And no matter how mad I got, they still kept calling me that. I didn't like it at first but, unfortunately, I had to learn to live with it because everybody started calling me that. Nobody knew my actual real name. Everybody called me Bucky.

“By the time I went away to school I'd learned to live with it and really just kind of taken it on as my name. Today, everybody calls me Bucky. I mean, nobody calls me James or anything like that.

“I guess it's kind of ridiculous to be at this age I am now and still be calling myself Bucky Wolford. But that's the way everybody knows me.”

– – –

Dr. Bryan Rowland has worked with Wolford on an almost daily basis since he arrived in Chattanooga in 2014 as UTC’s Vice Chancellor for Development and Alumni Affairs and the Executive Director of the UC Foundation. Rowland said it’s essential to have alums with the love and tenacity for their alma mater that the former football player has.

“One of the reasons he's so committed to us is because he understands the impact that we're having on students every day,” Rowland said. “One of the missions of UTC is that we are what we are in terms of we're bringing students in here that are good academically – and adding value to make them great on the way out. Bucky is the perfect example of that. He was a good student. But that applied knowledge he learned here helped turn him into an exceptional businessman.

“Bucky epitomizes the experiential opportunity that our students are getting even today. He's a member of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Entrepreneurial Hall of Fame. These are people who have made it on their own. He brings great passion to everything he does. In terms of business deals, he really grasps numbers so quickly and understands the return on investment better than anybody I've ever been around – and makes good business decisions that are in the best interest of the university.”

Wolford has never forgotten the opportunities in life that have come his way as a direct result of his college education. Over the years, he has increasingly devoted time to UTC athletic programs and alumni programs while serving on the UC Foundation board and the UT Board of Trustees.

A lot of people can say that they felt like they owed their university for giving them a scholarship or giving them a chance, but … people being people, they do a couple of things, then move on to something else. Wolford has never deviated from his commitment to UTC.

“I've tried to support the school financially, too,” he said. Case in point: The Wolford Family Strength and Conditioning Center, part of the Brenda Lawson Student-Athlete Success Center. “I just feel like it's something that I should do … that I should give back to the university.

“I think it's something that every student that comes from a background like I came from – and is then able to be successful … I just think it's something that you should do.”

– – –

Think about some of the achievements bestowed upon him since his arrival on campus as an 18-year-old freshman over 50 years ago. Along the way to earning his spot on the Foundation Room wall, Wolford was:

·         named to the UTC Athletics Hall of Fame in 1989.

·         the recipient of the Joe Morrison Award in 1993. The Joe Morrison Award is given annually by the UTC Athletics Hall of Fame to a former student-athlete or coach for notable accomplishments and life experiences.

·         inducted into the university's Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame in 2004. The College of Business Administration at UTC created the Hall of Fame to honor the entrepreneurial heritage of Chattanooga with both contemporary and pioneering local entrepreneurs. The Hall of Fame also is designed to serve as an inspiration to current students who may have aspirations toward owning their own business.

·         honored as the UTC Distinguished Alumnus Award recipient in 2005. The award was established in 1969 by the UTC Alumni Council to recognize alumni who have made significant contributions to the community and society, and whose accomplishments and career activities have reflected glory on the university.

But his crowning achievement took place in 2015 when he was named chair of the UC Foundation.

“I’ve had some great things that happened in my life,” a contemplative Wolford said. “I thought it was great when I returned that kickoff 94 yards against Ole Miss. I thought it was great when I got honorable mention Little All-American. I thought it was great when I set some of the records at Chattanooga that still stand today for football. But nothing could outdo or exceed being chair of this UC Foundation for these last two years.”

Wolford then talked about what he considered his greatest accomplishment as board chair, a cause that was very near and dear to his heart.

“When I became chair, our affiliation agreement expired, so we had to negotiate a new agreement with the University of Tennessee System,” he said. “We had to negotiate a new affiliation agreement and a new employment services agreement – and I've handled all that these two years. The way we've negotiated it and the way it will operate will be a tremendous asset to the UC Foundation going forward.”

In essence, Wolford has placed the Foundation in a position to control its own destiny in terms of its ability to manage money and raise money to support UTC. As a one-time University of Chattanooga student, that was very important to the school’s heritage.

Rowland also talked about Wolford’s project leadership in taking over a principal role in the Probasco South Campus real estate holding.

“The Foundation owns 1,744 beds and then leases them to the university, who in turn subleases them to the students,” Rowland said. “Bucky took over that project in 2009 when it was losing money – in the neighborhood of $1 million a year. Now it turns a profit. He took his real estate experience and his ability to negotiate and do leases and turned it into a thriving, successful entity that supports the university in an amazing way – by providing high-quality housing options for our students close to campus. He figured out what was wrong with it … fixed it … and provided the leadership to turn it into a profitable investment for the UC Foundation.”

And now, thanks to his contributions as chair, there’s a spot waiting for him on the Foundation Room wall.

“Coming to the University of Chattanooga just opened up so many doors for me … so many opportunities,” Wolford said. “I've been blessed. There's no other way to say it.

“When I say my prayers each night I thank God for the family life that he's given me and the opportunity he's given me. I've tried to do the best with it that I can, and I'm not going to forget the institution that helped me accomplish all these things that I've accomplished.”