Eric Barton at Villa Collina

Belief in the Mission

Eric Barton’s passions for learning motivated his transformational $3.14 million gift.

“Education is important,” says Eric Barton. “It makes me a more rounded person, and it sets an example. Education has always been big for me, personally and professionally, so whenever I have free time, I’ll start another degree or do courses. I try to read a book a week, every week. I can’t be 5,000 years old, but my mind can have 5,000 years of wisdom. I say that to my kids all the time.”

Raised in Sandoval, Illinois, he enlisted in the Marines out of high school, earned his associate’s and bachelor’s degrees while in the military, and thereafter earned four more degrees—an MBA, an MPA in knowledge management, a Master’s of Divinity, and a DBA in business administration in leadership.

At 44, Barton credits his deep desire to learn as much as he can about everything he can for the divergent paths his life has taken, including his postmilitary life starting businesses serving the US Armed Forces in the Middle East and his burgeoning philanthropy.

Talking with Barton at Villa Collina, his ornate Italian villa perched on a bluff above the Tennessee River on Lyons View Pike, presents a study in contrasts: Amid the marble floors, antique clocks, Renaissance paintings, and sculptures, Barton is casual and unpretentious in jeans, a polo shirt, and a sport jacket. With his solid frame, neatly trimmed goatee, and gentle eyes, he could pass for a hard-nosed-but-kind high school football coach who also teaches art and does good works in the community.

When asked what motivated his generosity to the School of Music, he takes a moment to reflect, then answers from the heart: “Music changes lives. Music education is not just for music majors. I love the way it makes us feel. The melodies connect us to our memories.”

A Transformative Connection

When Barton met School of Music Director Jeffrey Pappas at Introduction Knoxville, he enjoyed hearing Pappas’s stories about how the school is shaping lives. “I invited Eric to tour the Natalie L. Haslam Music Center,” says Pappas. “He was intrigued by what we were accomplishing in developing the talents of our students.” Barton offered to host a couple of Holiday Musicales at Villa Collina and got to know more of the students and faculty. “As Eric learned more about our ambitions,” says Pappas, “he decided to help us make a number of ideas a reality.”

In October 2018, Barton gave the School of Music a $3.14 million gift.

“That gift will have an enormous impact on our ability to continue to develop our programs and to attract and retain the very best faculty,” says Pappas. “For starters, it will support an annual visiting artist lecturer series, which will give students the opportunity to meet and learn from world-renowned musicians and scholars.”

At the time of the gift, Barton was asked by a student at the 2018 colloquium, “Why is this business guy making this gift to our school?” His answer: “I joined the band in seventh grade. Like many junior high school boys, I wanted to get to know a girl. I played the largest and lowest-pitched instrument in the brass family, the tuba, from seventh grade through high school.

“I view education as a key indicator of a community’s health, and music connects us all. Music is the life of the party, and I like a party. As different as we may be, music unites us all. This school’s energy is contagious. I am impressed with you academically. Today we celebrate the many philanthropists who came before me. My message is simple: as we look to our future, remember the impact of philanthropy, and whatever God gives you, remember to pay it forward.”

Biased Toward the Marines

Barton was born in December 1975, in Centralia, Illinois, and grew up down the road in Sandoval (pop: 1,434), about an hour’s drive east of St. Louis. “My mother was 13 years old when she got pregnant with me,” he says, “and I’m her only child. She had a tough upbringing. Growing up, she drank and did all the things she shouldn’t have been doing, but she told me I could do anything, told me I was the best thing that ever happened to her. That’s the first memory that I have. That brought me a lot of confidence. I am completely, 100 percent confident in myself, and I want everyone to be that way.”

He graduated from Sandoval High School in 1993 as a junior at age 17, one of a class of 31, and enlisted in the Marine Corps. “My father was a Marine. That really influenced me.” He looked at the Air Force first, wanted to be an electronics technician, a satellite technician, but chose the Marines. “I’m a little biased toward the Marine Corps. They expect more from a person. You know, ‘the few, the proud.’ It’s what they hang their hat on.”

Following boot camp and combat training, Barton attended school for 13 months to be a satellite technician. Stationed in Okinawa, Japan, he was able to travel to other parts of Asia during his tour. He also began his associate’s degree in computer studies, through the University of Maryland’s Asian Division, finishing in 1996 when he returned to the United States.

While he was stationed at Camp LeJeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, Barton began a Bachelor of Science degree in electronics management from Southern Illinois University, finishing in 2001. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant after attending the Basic School, the Marine Corps’ officer candidate school in Quantico, Virginia.

When he finished, he was assigned to ground Intelligence Military Occupational Specialty and, in the aftermath of 9/11, spent the next two years on a ship in the Persian Gulf as an antiterrorism/force protection officer, rising to first lieutenant and then captain and senior analyst with the Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa National Intelligence Cell in eastern Africa. “I was in charge of briefings in the evenings,” he says. “We would gather intelligence on transregional terrorism: people, equipment, and weapons of mass destruction, as they were moving throughout eastern Africa, across the Gulf into Yemen, the Saudi peninsula, and into Iraq.”

A Tug at the Heart

While deployed, Barton earned his MBA in information technology, and he and his wife decided to adopt two boys from Ethiopia. “I got out in 2003, went back home that next summer, and brought them to Georgia, where the family was living at the time, in November of 2004.” Barton keeps portraits of his adopted sons, the youngest of his five children, in their William Blount High School football uniforms on display amid the rococo of Villa Collina.

Starting in 2003, Barton was with the USMC Individual Ready Reserve. “I’d been active for 11 years, and I loved it. I’d had a great career, just a wonderful career. The reason I got out was just a tug at my heart, something calling me. It was a scary decision to do that.”

He earned a master of public administration in knowledge management, began working as the youth director at Bethany Presbyterian Church in Conyers, Georgia, and started working toward his Master of Divinity degree at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.

In 2005, Barton became an ordained minister and attended the US Army Chaplain School at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. He was also offered a one-year contract as a project manager in Baghdad, Iraq. “The offer was $250,000 for the year. I’d never made that kind of money before. It would definitely help us out, as we were trying to get out of school debt and adoption debt and get me on track to find a more stable job in the States.”

An Opportunity

A private security team picked Barton up at the airport in Baghdad and transported him to the Green Zone to help manage an IT contract for a Forward Operating Base. “I’d been in seminary for two years and then all of a sudden, I was in a war zone.” When the job was finished, he was offered another opportunity to assist the US military’s transition to private security contracts, devising a security plan for truck convoys that were moving fuel and materials all over Iraq. “Over two hundred places we’ve gotta deliver,” he says. “It was dangerous. So the idea was to see if contractors could do it cheaper and more effectively.”

He ran the convoys at night with a mixture of American and Kurdish personnel. “We delivered everything on time, or early, with few casualties. A few bombs blew up in front of us, or hit the back of the truck, but our people were rarely hurt.” As a result, Barton contracted for the next three years, growing to 25 teams. That experience led him to starting Critical Mission Support Services in Maryville, Tennessee (sold in 2010).

“That set a foundation,” he says. In 2007, he started Vanquish Worldwide LLC., which in 2011 won a $985 million contract with National Afghan Trucking, delivering fuel and materials to all of the US forward operating bases in Afghanistan and the Middle East. He was running multiple companies at the same time and employing about 11,000 people. He also fell into the restaurant business, buying into Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Froots, and helping the company win a contract to provide a healthy alternative to fast food on US military bases.

“Didn’t mean to, just saw an opportunity,” is Barton’s business mantra for these and other business endeavors, which have often led to philanthropic ones. For example, Barton’s companies hire lots of veterans and former military members, so in 2010 he got involved with the Tennessee Veterans Business Association, supporting veterans as they become entrepreneurs themselves and hosting a veterans’ job fair each January.

Barton has also sponsored refugees from Iraq and other countries; is a member of various philanthropic boards; and donates millions to charities, foundations, scholarships, and endowments. He received the Blount Partnership’s Large Business of the Year and Philanthropist of the Year awards in 2014 and the Knoxville Chamber’s Entrepreneur of the Year award in 2015.

He attributes his success mostly to his theological and military backgrounds. “My personal faith has helped me understand and love and cherish differences and not be, in any way, shaken by someone else’s faith.” The Marines provided him with the experience of working around people with lots of different cultural and religious traditions. “It’s the majority of the foundation of who I am. From 17 on, it was the experience and the leadership that the Marine Corps gave me. Some of it’s haphazard, some of it’s not.” Barton’s experience provided a network of people and potential business contacts, and it taught him that if something needed to be done, he should learn how to do it himself.

“We needed weapons,” he says, “so I became pretty proficient at understanding the Department of Defense trade controls and licensing process. I go to a country to do logistics, but I need security, so I find out how to do security. And I’ve gotta have good communications, so I figure out how to have a communications system, based on my background as a satellite technician. I had a trucking company [Vanquish Express] and I needed drivers, so I started the school in 2009 [Peak Technical Institute in Maryville], and we graduated 50 students a month.” He himself qualified for a commercial driver’s license so that he would know what was involved. In 2016, he received his Doctorate of Business Administration in leadership from Walden University.

Making the World a Better Place

In 2019, after his gift to the School of Music, Barton gave UT another $1 million to create the Barton Silver Shield Scholarship Endowment to support scholarships for children of law enforcement officers in nine Knoxville-area counties, with preference given to students pursuing an undergraduate degree with a concentration in law enforcement, intelligence, or forensics. Preference is also given to those with financial need. This gift came about because Barton, in his various enterprises, had grown to respect the contributions of law enforcement officers and the financial challenges facing them and their families. He also pledged a total of $867,000 to endowed athletic scholarships for football ($250,000), women’s basketball ($250,000), and VOLeaders ($367,000).

“These gifts, on top of his earlier gift, will make an enormous difference in the lives of many students at the University of Tennessee,” said Chancellor Emeritus Jimmy Cheek, who worked with Barton on both major gifts. “UT continues to emphasize the importance of providing scholarships to worthy students. Gifts like his help us fulfill our land-grant mission of making a UT education accessible to the young people in our state.”   

Back in his Villa Collina library, Barton continues to reflect about what motivates his philanthropy. “The relationships with Jeff and me, and the university, with both athletics and the faculty,” he says, “they have made me aware of the importance of, along with being successful in business and in life, of striving to be a better person. It sets an example for my children to continue to give back.”

“As much as I enjoy making the money, I enjoy giving it away even more. It’s about leaving the world a better place. It sounds a little cheesy, but it’s what drives me.”

Article by Brooks Clark