Former University of Tennessee President Emerson “Eli” Fly died Aug. 7 in Knoxville at the age of 82.
“Another UT legend has left us and he will be missed by all,” said UT President Joe DiPietro. “We are thankful for his many years of service and leadership, including serving as president, to his beloved alma mater.”
Fly served as president of UT from 2001 until 2002, capping a 40-year career at the University.
“I don’t know of anybody who was more devoted to the University,” said UT President Emeritus Joe Johnson.
Fly was born in Milan, Tennessee, on Feb. 5, 1935, as he described in “pretty humble circumstances” during an interview with the UT Martin Campus Scene magazine. His father died when he was 2 years old and his mother worked in a factory.
Fly and legendary UT president Andy Holt were both from Milan, and Milan noted both on its welcome sign.
“I don’t know anyone else who has that,” Johnson said. “It’s quite an accomplishment and a well-deserved recognition.”
After beginning his college education at UT Martin, Fly earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting from UT Knoxville in 1961 and became a certified public accountant in 1962. He worked as a junior accountant for Price Waterhouse from 1961 to 1962 before returning to the University as an assistant auditor, a position he held from 1962 until 1968 when he became the internal auditor. In 1973, he became the vice chancellor for finance at UT Chattanooga. In 1977, he was named UT vice president for business and finance. In 1991, he became the executive vice president.
In 2001, Fly was named acting president, which the UT Board of Trustees later designated, for the historical record, as permanent. He retired in 2002, but in 2003 Johnson, who was interim UT president, asked Fly to return as interim executive vice president and chief financial officer. He retired again in 2004.
Johnson said he requested Fly return as executive vice president because of his intimate knowledge of UT and his good relationship with state officials and the UT family.
“I trusted Eli completely,” Johnson said. “If I went to war, I’d want to go with Eli.”
Johnson also described Fly as, “One of the most competitive people I know, but in a positive way. He wanted things to be done the best they could be done. He wanted everything done the right way.”
Fly served as the first president of the University of Tennessee Foundation and is a former president of the Southern Association of College and University Business Officers. He was the higher education representative on the advisory committee of the Governmental Accounting Standards Board and was a member of the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO) accounting principles committee. NACUBO awarded him its distinguished business officer award.
He was a charter member and president of the East Tennessee chapter of the Institute of Internal Auditors. He is past chair of the executive committee of the Council of Business Affairs for the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges. He has served as advisory council chair for the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association/College Retirement Equities Fund.
He served on the boards of UT-Battelle and University Health System. He is past president and treasurer for Junior Achievement and was active in the Knoxville chapter of the American Red Cross.
Fly was a U.S. Navy pilot and held the rank of commander in the U.S. Naval Air Reserve. He was a member of First Christian Church. He is survived by his wife, Catherine, four children and nine grandchildren.