Hal Bynum of Sharon in Weakley County was one of the first members of the UT Martin Advisory Board when it was formed in 2018, and he has added another university first to his name.
He is the first person to earn a UT Martin degree while serving as a sitting UTM Advisory Board member. Bynum walked the line on Dec. 9 in the Kathleen and Tom Elam Center with the rest of his fellow Fall 2023 graduates.
Bynum has worked in the agriculture industry for most of his adult life, serving as a salesman and a store manager for agriculture supply businesses.
He is currently a marketing manager for the Tennessee-West Kentucky Division of Nutrien Ag Solutions, managing the seed business for the division.
Bynum wears many hats, but on Dec. 9, he wore the mortarboard and tassel. The path that led him to cross the stage to receive his bachelor of interdisciplinary studies degree began with his graduation from Palmersville High School in Weakley County in 1978 as the salutatorian.
“Then, I started school at Murray State,” he said. “I went for a couple of years and life just kind of got in the way. I just started working, and along through the years, I took a few classes and tried to get back in it, but it was always pretty complicated. By that time, I had children and had to make a living first.”
Things changed for Bynum after he was named to the UTM Advisory Board in 2018 as a Weakley County resident.
“I had a lot more connection with people involved with the university,” he said. “I was having a conversation with (then-Chancellor) Keith (Carver). It was right around Christmas 2020, and he asked me if I had graduated at Union.
“I said, ‘No, Keith,’ and he said, ‘Murray?’ I said, ‘No, Keith. I’m a dropout.’ He said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that.’”
Bynum told Carver that he always wanted to go back and get his degree, and Carver encouraged him to do so. Carver told him that he would send him some information to help him complete his degree.
“At the time, I was living next door to (former Chancellor) Nick and Cathy Dunagan,” Bynum said. “Nick was kind of my ‘Wilson’ (from the TV show “Home Improvement”); we would meet at the fence in the back and have conversations.
“Nick and I got to talking about my academic situation, and I told him, ‘Keith is kind of encouraging me to go back to school.’ Nick just took that small fire and fanned it, was very encouraging and very supportive.”
Bynum signed up and took some online classes.
“I am very complimentary of the online availability that the university has,” he said. “That’s the only way I could ever have made this thing work.
“It was a lot of fun. I was really fortunate that I had most of my general education requirements prior to that, and I could take a lot of things that I just enjoyed.”
Those included history classes, political science and music appreciation.
“I took an industrial engineering class at somebody’s suggestion,” he said. “A lot of the people around town who knew I was doing this were encouraging and saying, ‘You should take this class; you’d enjoy that.’ I just had a good time with it.
“I had a lot of support from my family, my wife and kids. My wife and I have a blended family of five children, and four of those five have degrees from UT Martin, and the other one has a degree from MTSU (Middle Tennessee State University).”
Bynum said he was not interested in getting an advanced degree like some of his children did.
“I would like to work a couple more years, and then I’d like to just enjoy the latter years with my wife, maybe travel a little bit and do some things.
“We’ve got lots of grandkids; that keeps us occupied most of the time.”
Completing the degree brought a sense of relief to Bynum.
“But it was very fulfilling,” he said. “The last semester – this fall semester – I only had one class. and that was the interdisciplinary capstone class. I actually finished it around the first week of November, so I had time before graduation.
“There was a big sense of accomplishment. That Saturday was an extremely fun day for me. Most of my grandkids were there and my family, and it was really nice. (UT System) President (Randy) Boyd and Chancellor (Yancy) Freeman were very gracious. Chancellor Freeman gave me a big hug when I walked across the stage. He’s made me feel really welcome as a Skyhawk alumnus. It’s been a nice journey.”
Bynum said it seems more common for older people who either dropped out of college or never started to go back and earn a degree. He cited the “Drive for 55” program, the Tennessee Reconnect program and others for publicizing ways for adults to go to college.
“I think there are a lot of folks like me who either didn’t finish or delayed the start who have seen a need to add on or supplement to advance their careers,” he said. “I think we are very fortunate in Tennessee to have programs that promote that.”
Bynum said earning his college degree was something he felt he needed to do.
“It’s not going to advance my career; it’s not going to make me money,” he said. “It’s just something I felt unfulfilled about. I want that; I wanted to finish that, and I think my family felt very proud that I did, and I am really proud that I did it.
“People have been so kind. I have gotten congratulations and well-wishes from people all through the community. I highly encourage anybody who hasn’t finished their degree to go ahead and do it. (UT Martin) can make it work for you.”
Information about the Tennessee Reconnect program can be found at tnreconnect.gov or by calling the Office of Records at 731-881-7050.
Photo: Fall 2023 graduate Hal Bynum (right) gets a congratulatory hug from Chancellor Yancy Freeman at the commencement on Dec. 9 at UTM’s Kathleen and Tom Elam Center as Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Dr. Philip Acree Cavalier looks on. “I wanted to finish that,” Bynum said, “and I am really proud that I did it.”