Jan Kercheval

Helping Students Succeed: A Family Tradition

JAN KERCHEVAL (HCB, ’64) grew up surrounded by the inner workings of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Her father, George Wagoner, taught for 32 years at the Haslam College of Business, and many of her parents’ friends also were professors and administrators. For Kercheval, entering the university as a student was a natural progression. 

“I chose to major in accounting because at the time, it was a field women could participate in,” she recalls. “I always knew I wanted a career.” Kercheval worked for many years in public accounting and as a financial officer with a real estate management and development company. 

As an undergraduate, Kercheval registered for one of her father’s courses. “He taught one of the first computer classes back when you wired boards and used punch cards,” she says. At home, Wagoner was often reserved, but Kercheval remembers seeing a new side of him when he became her professor. She felt her father was in his element when teaching, becoming vibrant and animated. Clearly having fun, he radiated a love for teaching and for his students. 

Wagoner and her mother made her a part of their university life. The couple hosted gatherings at their home for both students and professors and included their children. “I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know professors from many different colleges on campus,” says Kercheval. “I felt very much a part of everything.” 

Wagoner often was so focused on his work at the college that his family teasingly called him an absent-minded professor. Kercheval recalls one Sunday morning when he proved their point. “We were in the car dressed to go to church, and he pulled into the parking lot at the College of Business,” she says. “He got out of the car while the rest of us just sat there. Then he looked around, realized his mistake, and said, ‘Oh, it’s Sunday.’” 

Elise Palmer-Schneider (HCB ’58, ’60, and ’63) was one of Wagoner’s students. After starting out in the secretarial program, she became one of the youngest women ever to complete a doctorate in education at the university and later became the first female president of a community college system in California. “Without Professor Wagoner’s genuine interest in my skills and his encouragement to continue my education, I wouldn’t have moved forward,” Palmer- Schneider says. “When someone truly believes in your abilities, the sky is the limit.” 

Kercheval’s son, Mark Willis (HCB, ’92), studied accounting at Haslam and his daughter, Meg, continues the tradition today as an undergraduate in business analytics. Willis describes his grandfather as a lifelong learner who drew tremendous joy from teaching others. “He was both patient and kind in his teaching, yet he loved to challenge students.” 

Recently, Kercheval established an endowment in her father’s memory. She hopes to honor her father, whose life was so connected to helping his students succeed, through the gift. Her father’s greatest strength, after all, was his passion and love for his work. “That spirit was very contagious and he inspired his students to achieve,” Kercheval says. “That’s one of the most important traits you can have as an educator.” 

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