Published: Sat May 10, 2003When Tennessee's House Education Committee Chairman Leslie Winningham took his place on Tennessee Tech University's commencement platform Saturday, he wasn't just a visiting dignitary, but also a happy father watching the last two of his five daughters graduate from his alma mater.
State Rep. Winningham of Huntsville watched twins Jennifer and Sarah walk across the stage during commencement, just as his oldest daughter Carrie Winningham Jared and oldest twin daughters Allison and Shannon had before. He experienced good feelings similar to those he felt when he became the first in his family to earn a college degree.
"I remember graduating in TTU's old Memorial Gym," he said. "I was very excited and my mother was very relieved."
Winningham earned two degrees in education from Tennessee Tech, his bachelor's degree in 1964 and his master's degree in 1967. More than 25 years later, Carrie followed his footsteps by majoring in education and recently returned to earn a master's degree in instructional leadership.
In 2001, his now 26-year-old twins Allison and Shannon graduated — Allison with a degree in education and Shannon with one in human ecology. Twenty-two-year olds Jennifer, a journalism major, and Sarah, a political science major, chose not to break tradition.
"There was never any real pressure for us to go to Tech — it was more of an assumption," said Sarah. "Dad would say, 'WHEN you both are at Tech' a lot."
All five sisters say there was very little pressure and only an occasional trip to campus before they enrolled. Their father even remembers making a trip through campus when the girls were young. He was driving a van and the sisters ducked underneath windows so they wouldn't be seen in an "uncool" vehicle. According to her mother, Jennifer was the only one who wavered for a while, but never regretted her decision once she hit campus.
"What better endorsement could you have for a university than to send all five of your daughters to a place that means so much to you," said Peggy Winningham, Les' wife and mother of the five TTU alumni.
Because of their different majors, the girls didn't share a lot of classes or have the same professors. However, Shannon and her dad were once surprised to find that an agriculture professor Les had in college had stayed around long enough to teach Shannon the same course. All five did become sisters in another sense, joining and becoming active in Kappa Delta. The sisters also became advocates for TTU back in their home county, often speaking to high school students about going to college.
"We all have very different interests and at Tech we all found what we wanted out of college," said Jennifer. "Now that we are finishing, I'm sure my dad is both proud, and like our grandmother when he graduated, relieved.
"He has to be a little glad we're all on our way to making our own money," she laughed.
The Winninghams are very proud of each daughter's accomplishments. Carrie now teaches for the Lebanon Special School District. Allison works at the Tennessee Technology Center in Livingston and Shannon works for the Regional Health Office. Jennifer is on her way to graduate school at Louisiana Tech to become a certified athletic trainer. Sarah, the youngest daughter by eight minutes, has been accepted into law school at the University of Tennessee. She then plans to follow her father's example again by running for public office.
Winningham, who has served as a state representative since 1984, represents Clay, Jackson, Pickett and Scott counties, as well as part of Anderson and Macon counties. A former principal at Scott High School for 12 years, he has a strong interest in rural school development and education issues.
But for one day, the education issues closest to his heart were the diplomas that Jennifer and Sarah picked up as he watched from the stage.
"I'm proud of them all, and if any future grandchildren ask my advice, I'd encourage them to go to Tennessee Tech too," he said.