MARTIN, Tenn. – University of Tennessee at Martin chancellor emeritus and WestStar Leadership Program cofounder Dr. Bob Smith envisioned a trip to Washington, D.C., for program alumni. His idea was realized 34 years later as a group of 21 alumni spent Oct. 25-28 touring the nation’s capital. Class members from across West Tennessee became the state’s first regional leadership organization to organize such a trip.
WestStar began in 1989 at UT Martin as the state’s first regional leadership program and selected its first class in 1990. The program has 945 alumni, and WestStar alumni were notified of the planned trip beginning in March. Commitments were on a first-come, first-served basis with the goal to limit the group to 30 and maximize the experience for participants. The trip happened during a historic time as the Israel-Hamas war loomed in the Middle East and the U.S. House of Representatives struggled to elect a speaker.
Stops included a private tour of the U.S. Capitol Building by U.S. Rep. David Kustoff (R-TN 8 th District) the same day that new Speaker of the House Mike Johnson was elected to the post. Toward the tour’s conclusion, the group planned to have a group photo taken on the Speaker’s Balcony. However, the photo session included an additional participant as Speaker Johnson unexpectedly welcomed the group and joined them for a picture with the National Mall in the background.
Other stops during the four days included the Voice of America studios, Arlington National Cemetery and the National Archives. Museum visits included the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Bible Museum, Holocaust Museum and National Museum of American History. A nighttime monument tour of city landmarks included the White House, World War II, Korean and Vietnam War memorials, as well as the Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln memorials.
“The key reason for anyone making this trip is to personally experience the very different culture of Washington and meet key leaders whose decisions have real impact on West Tennessee,” Smith said. “I think we watch TV news and commentary and believe we understand how Washington works. That could not be further from reality.
“Certainly, an additional benefit is being in the nation’s capital. There are so many opportunities to experience our nation’s history.” Jack Matthis with ATA CPAs & Advisors in Jackson is a WestStar Board of Trustees member and made his first trip to the nation’s capital. He was joined by his wife, Shelby, also a WestStar graduate. Memorable parts of the visit for him included the Holocaust Museum and monument tour, but the highlight was the first night’s U.S. Capitol Building tour.
“I never imagined Congressman Kustoff and his staff would provide us with such an expansive tour of the Capitol for over two-and-a-half hours,” Matthis said. “Getting to sit in the House of Representatives Chambers was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but then to top that off with standing on the Speaker of the House’s Balcony overlooking the National Mall was incredible.
“If that wasn’t enough, we got to meet the new Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, just hours after he was elected while standing on his balcony.”
Dr. Cheryl Browne, a retired California physician who lives in Fayette County, participated in WestStar’s 2020 class after returning to Tennessee. Browne, also a WestStar board member, was the second person to commit for the tour and largely attributed her enthusiasm for a return trip to the city on her WestStar experience.
“I have been to D.C. several times; however, the idea of going with a diverse group of leaders and a trip planned by WestStar got me excited because I knew it was not going to be an average trip,” Browne said. “WestStar is a well-organized, well-connected organization that knows how to have a great time.”
As for her favorite parts of the tour, “I really enjoyed the nighttime monument tour. Our tour guide was exceptionally knowledgeable and had a great sense of humor,” she said. “I learned so much about the history of the city and our country. … The simulator in the Bible Museum highlighted all the biblical references (found in and on buildings) throughout the city.”
The tone for the entire trip was set the first day, which began with a chance meeting that morning of Notre Dame and NFL quarterback great Joe Theismann at Memphis International Airport. A meal was already planned that evening at his longtime Washington, D.C., restaurant that carries his name. The famous athlete and broadcaster posed for photographs and even called ahead to assure dining arrangements were in place for the group.
Much later that day, Congressman Kustoff and his staff ended the lengthy U.S. Capitol Building tour by escorting the group down the street toward the city’s Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority boarding point before bidding farewell and heading back to work. The hospitality extended to the group had an unmistakable Tennessee flavor.
Multiple boxes were checked during this historic WestStar trip, not the least of which was paving the way for future WestStar groups to experience the nation’s capital as never before.