Benmark and Conner Blaze Trails that Meet on UT’s Alumni Board of Directors

Category: News

Leslie Benmark and Harold Conner

Though they took some of the same engineering classes in the late sixties at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Leslie Benmark (’67, ’70) and Harold Conner (’68, ’78) first met last year as members of UT’s Alumni Board of Directors. Their shared desire to support the university and provide input and action toward UT’s advancement brought them to the board. There, they discovered how they had each thrived through adversity and blazed particular trails in their education and remarkable careers.

Benmark became an expert in supply chain engineering and led where few women had gone before her. Conner is regarded as a leader in nuclear safety and national security and was the first African American undergraduate to earn a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at UT.

Leslie Benmark was told as a prospective college student that a woman shouldn’t study engineering. This only steeled her determination to succeed when she was accepted to the industrial engineering program at UT. She went on to become a leading expert in supply chain engineering and the first female president of the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, among numerous other honors. She enjoyed a highly decorated career at DuPont where she held many key corporate-level and engineering positions over her 37 years at the company, retiring as Six Sigma black belt for global information technology and solutions.

Harold Conner attended segregated schools in Tennessee before becoming the first African American to earn a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from UT. Through UT’s co-op program, he worked at East Tennessee Technology Park where he found full-time employment after graduation and eventually worked at almost every one of its facilities. His award-winning 55-year career took him to nuclear facilities around the country, serving in leadership at multiple sites before he returned to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to work at UCOR as senior advisor to its president and CEO. He is currently the senior engineering advisor for Strata-G and is nationally lauded and sought after for his experience in nuclear safety and national security.

The pair recently reflected on their time as board members and why it’s important to lend their unique voices and perspectives to their alma mater.

What do you enjoy about being part of the Alumni Board of Directors?

Benmark: I have thoroughly enjoyed getting a much broader view of the wide complexity of the university. As a co-op engineering student, I had few opportunities to see beyond alternating quarters of taking courses and working in industry. At every board meeting, we see a different aspect of UT through presentations from experts across the university.

Conner: I enjoy being a part of UT’s journey to become the best of the best as an institution of higher learning in the US and to train the next generations of students to lead the way.

How does being part of the Alumni Board of Directors enrich your life and your alumni experience?

Benmark: The Alumni Board has provided new opportunities and new friends for me. I enjoy the interactions and learning about areas of UT that are different than my past experiences. I was given a one-year presidential appointment through 2022, which was extended for three additional years. I have a very busy life but was thrilled to have been given an additional three years on the board.

Conner: I am truly a Vol for Life and cannot imagine not being connected with this great university in several ways that enables continued growth.

How has your UT education impacted your life?

Benmark: Without a doubt, my life has been strongly impacted by my UT engineering experiences. While at UT, I benefited from strong support from engineering faculty and fellow students. This was particularly important since another institution told me that females could not major in engineering. At UT, I always had help and advice when needed. For instance, after graduating I was offered a number of career opportunities with the support of the strong UT industry recruiting program.

Conner: UT provided me with the tools that were necessary to lead and manage top national industrial entities that have been vital in the accomplishments of the US Department of Energy objectives in the security of our nation and energy independence.

Why is it important to you to give back to UT as part of the Alumni Board of Directors and through other volunteer opportunities?

Benmark: I have been fortunate to have had a number of interesting positions with DuPont during my 37 years of employment. In addition to DuPont employment, throughout the years I have had the opportunity to serve on many boards—now including UT’s Alumni Board of Directors. I believe I have a moral obligation to give back for all the opportunities I have had; as long as I am capable, I plan to continue with my volunteerism.

Conner: I want to pay it forward and give back. I want to help develop the next generation of engineers in our country. I continue to give back by my commitment to multiple boards at UT and through two endowments aimed at the next generation of engineers and an office I named in the Zeanah Engineering Complex in the Office of Professional Practice. I continue to provide lectures to students and to aid student chapters, interns, and co-ops.

The Alumni Board of Directors represents one of many special interest councils where you, too, can make a difference for UT, its students, and your fellow alumni. Find your passion and support your university.