Development News

100-year-old Tennessee Tech alumnus, 1949 electrical engineering graduate reflects on education that led to successful career 

Jim BoehmsJames “Jim” Herschel Boehms turns 100 years young on Feb. 15, 2024.

Jim’s nephew Bill Norton says the secret to turning 100 is that his uncle has done a lot of things right in his life: a Tennessee Tech electrical engineering degree which led to a successful career as an engineer with Tennessee Valley Authority, a loving family and a fulfilling retirement. Jim says many of his life’s successes might not have happened if it weren’t for Tech.

“Tech gave me the background, education and confidence to step into a new place and a new job,” Jim said. “I couldn’t have done anything, really, without my degree from Tech. Tech has always opened doors for me.”

Jim enrolled at Tech (then known as Tennessee Polytechnic Institute) in 1941 through the National Youth Administration (NYA) program, which paid for his tuition.

“I chose Tennessee Tech because it had “tech” in its name,” Jim said. “I liked that Tech had a technical focus. The rest is history.”

Unfortunately, Jim’s college education was put on hold on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. The United States was suddenly at war, and the NYA program funding Jim’s college education was discontinued. Jim landed a job in Omaha, Neb., at a factory that built airplanes for the military. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps (now the U.S. Air Force) in 1943 and was discharged in 1946. After his military service, Jim returned to Tech on the G.I. Bill to finish his degree.

During his senior year at Tech, Jim put his electrical engineering education to practical use when he and his father Herschel wired the family’s new home for electricity. The previous Boehms family home burned down while Jim was in Omaha, and the family lost almost everything.

“This was during the war time,” Jim explained. “It was hard to get materials. Windows for the new home were actually donated by a hotel that was being torn down. Over Thanksgiving weekend, my dad and I wired the house. And this was before wiring like they have today where you just twist the wires together with a wire nut connector. All of our connections had to be soldered. We wired the house together, and it passed inspection!”

Jim credits this to his Tech education and a Sears, Roebuck guide on wiring homes.

“That booklet included step-by-step instructions on how to make connections and pull wires,” Jim said.

Jim’s son John added, “This is a good testament to Dad and Grandpa and their wiring prowess: That house is still standing and has not burned down.”

“Getting electricity was like going from night to day,” Jim said. “My mother got an electric range and an electric refrigerator right away and gradually added a few more things. Now, you can’t imagine going without electricity, but it wasn’t available to us back then, so we had to do it.”

Jim graduated from Tech in 1949 and, after working for a concrete testing company for two years, received a letter from TVA offering him a job.

Jim retired from TVA in 1984 after 33 years and is proud to say that he has been retired from TVA longer than he worked for TVA. He has enjoyed every minute of his retirement and is grateful for a successful career and retirement plan with TVA that afforded him the opportunity to travel with his wife, Lyla, until she passed away in 2014.

Jim added, “I’ve heard Max Sprouse, the head electrical engineer and later head engineer of the design division of TVA, say many times, ‘I like to get those Tennessee Tech grads. You can put them at a desk and they go to work. All they want to do is work.’”

Jim’s love for Tech and success in electrical engineering inspired other family members to attend Tech and pursue a similar career path as well, including Jim’s nephew Dennis Boehms (`78 electrical engineering) and niece Joni Batson (`78 electrical engineering).

“Tech was an easy decision for me,” Batson said. “I’d heard about it my whole life from Uncle Jim. My dad also worked for TVA and so did Dennis’s dad, so we all have this connection between TVA and electrical engineering and Tennessee Tech. Uncle Jim was always so encouraging and enthusiastic about Tech. We all did very well after going there.”

Jim’s engineering accomplishments include work on all the coal-fired plants that were in the TVA fleet as well as some groundbreaking work on TVA’s first and largest nuclear power plant, Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant. Given the nuclear regulatory requirements and the size and complexity of the plant, the project was under obvious scrutiny. Jim routinely presented design concepts and plans to the regulators as TVA’s representative for auxiliary power. 

When Jim’s son John worked at Browns Ferry decades later, he found project documents that his dad created and quickly realized what a legacy Jim had left. 

“As I moved into nuclear power, I began to learn about some of the things that Dad did,” John said. “The director of projects at Browns Ferry was a friend and close acquaintance. One day he called me and asked, ‘Is your dad James H. Boehms?’ He asked me to come over to his office. He had a presentation about how power was to be supplied to the Browns Ferry cooling towers. The presentation, which was presented to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission prior to installation, was authored and presented by my dad and another colleague. I called Dad to let him know about the conversation. His response was, ‘Why in the world are they looking at a 40-year-old paper? Don’t they have something new to look at it?’” 

John says this is one of many examples of Jim’s wit and unassuming nature. 

John added, “During my conversation with Dad, he mentioned that he had drafted the key diagram for station auxiliaries, which was the first drawing done on TVA’s nuclear power plant. I still have a copy of that drawing. In those TVA books, you see a list of key engineers at the beginning. And you see the name James H. Boehms. Dad is pretty humble, but that’s a big deal.” 

Jim has stayed connected with Tech through the decades, attending sporting events, sitting in the President’s Box at football games and serving as treasurer of the Tennessee Tech alumni chapter in his area.

“The chapter didn’t have much money, so it was fine,” Jim joked.  

Jim has also chosen to give back to his alma mater for more than 45 years, giving to numerous areas on campus including the Eagle Assistance Grant (an emergency grant for students in need) and Tech’s nursing building, Bell Hall. But the majority of his gifts have been designated for the College of Engineering.

“Tech had given me so much,” Jim explained. “Without Tech, I might have been scrubbing floors. I feel like I owe Tech, so I continue to give.”

Although 75 years have passed since Jim graduated from Tech, what set Tech apart in the 1940s remains true today.

“One great thing about Tennessee Tech is you can get to know your professors,” Jim said. “At a big university, I don’t think that’s possible. But at Tech, you can get to know them, and they will know you. Their doors are open, and you can go in and talk to them. That’s easy to do there. Tech prepared me for a 33-year career as an electrical engineer. Without Tech, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

In preparation for Jim’s 100th birthday, his nephew Bill Norton wrote a short biography of Jim’s life for his hometown newspaper, the Hickman County Times.

“Jim’s capacity to surprise has sharpened as he has added decades,” Norton wrote. “At 92 years old, when many were giving up their car keys, Jim brought a new Toyota Camry. When immobilized (or so we thought) by a recent fall, he got tired of rehab and simply left the facility and walked home. Jim’s love, devotion and loyalty to his family are legendary. You never know when your phone will ring and there will be Uncle Jim, sharp as ever, who just wants to catch up. When asked how he’s doing, his response is always, ‘Well, I don’t buy green bananas.’ How can you not love this guy? How should one pursue 10 decades on earth? Just look at what Jim Boehms is doing.”

Leave a Lasting Legacy at Tennessee Tech

Learn more about University Development

Make a Gift
How to Make a Gift