When Ralph Moles stepped onto the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, campus as a new police officer in 1992, the Lady Vols basketball team was enjoying its third national championship and UT was on its way to appointing its fifth chancellor.
During his almost three decades of service to UT, Moles worked just about every patrol shift and position in his duty to protect the university. In that time, he also saw the Lady Vols clinch five more championships—including two for which he accompanied them as an escort officer—and the appointment of four more chancellors.
For the past 12 years, Moles has had his hands in security and traffic planning for every special event on campus—from ball games and concerts to presidential candidate visits and commencements.
Today Moles, who is lieutenant over special events and currently the longest-serving UT Police Department employee, will walk out of his office for the last time. He retires from the university after 29 years of service.
A native of Anderson County, Tennessee, Moles graduated with an undergraduate degree in business management from what is now Tennessee Wesleyan University.
“I got a job as an assistant manager at McDonald’s and decided it wasn’t what I wanted to do,” Moles said. “I was interested in trying to help people and taking care of bad guys.”
He applied for various police openings in the region and received an offer from the UT Police Department. He began his UT career on January 6, 1992. He attended police academy with now-Deputy Chief Jeff Severs who had been hired in February that year. Now-Lieutenant Jim Underwood was hired in March. The trio served on different shifts and bicycle patrol together before eventually moving along to various leadership roles.
“Ralph is genuinely the nicest guy I’ve ever met in my entire life,” Underwood said. “In the 29 years we’ve known each other, we’ve never had a cross word. We’ve disagreed, but it’s always been lighthearted. He’s always been a good supervisor to the people that worked for him.”
In a profession often rife with the use of colorful language, the fact that Moles shied from it is notable, Underwood said.
“In that time, I’ve known Ralph to say half a dozen cuss words and none of those are cuss words anymore. He’s very level-headed,” Underwood said. “The worst thing I’ve ever heard Ralph say is that he was pissed off. I was like, ‘Wow, you must be really mad to use that word.’”
Severs, who has known Moles since the fifth grade, roomed with him at police academy, and rode with him on night shift and bicycle patrol before becoming his supervisor, noted that Moles’s work ethic was evident early on.
“He’s dependable and he cares about people,” he said. “Ralph has always been one of those guys that was solid.”
When Moles was assigned to special events in 2009, it was not in the best shape. He transformed the unit to be more efficient and streamlined its processes, said Severs, who is now deputy chief over operations.
“He made it better to where I never had to worry about special events,” said Severs.
In spite of his diligence with his work, Moles did—and still does— have a penchant for mischief.
“Believe it or not, Ralph used to get in trouble with Shift Lieutenant Tom Freels because his hair was too long,” Underwood said. “Back at that time, cops wore a thing called a mini mullet—you cut sideburns off, short on top, short on the sides and longer in the back. Ralph would let his grow too long in the back.”
In 30 years as a UTPD officer, Moles went from using an old 400 MHz radio system to a faster 800 MHz system. He went from carrying a revolver to a semiautomatic.
“When I started there were no cameras in cars or body cams,” he said. “Now in courts you have to have video of when you did a DUI stop. Back then you went by the officer’s word in court. The cameras put you under more scrutiny but helps to hold you more accountable.”
The Strip used to be more eventful than it is now, Moles said.
“There were times us and KPD had to close Cumberland from 17th to 20th Street because of all the fighting going on,” he said. “During bar closing time, we had to block off the streets to try to get people out. It was crazy.”
There were arrests and patrols that came with routine police work. There were also comical encounters.
“One time we got a call from a guy in the Fort who said there were people skinny-dipping in the pool next door. He didn’t mind the view, but the noise was disturbing,” Severs said. “We get there and there are naked butts running around everywhere. It was the reddest I’ve ever seen Ralph’s face.”
For about five years, Underwood and Moles rode bicycle patrol together during football season.
“Ralph knew every tailgater up there and we ate all day long,” Underwood said. “We could ride all day during a game and still gain weight.”
On a normal office day, Moles began the morning with roll call with the department’s motorcycle officers. He then hopped into his truck for the first of several patrols around campus, sometimes stopping by the Pilot gas station on the Strip for a Mountain Dew on the way back to the police department.
Many days, however, found Moles out of the office coordinating security and traffic for an event. Pre-pandemic, he worked 700 hours of overtime a year.
“The events all run together, and they become less exciting over the years,” Moles said. “My job was to keep everybody safe.”
A favorite memory was a Garth Brooks concert held over three nights.
“We were setting up security and he walked up, introduced himself and said, ‘Garth Brooks. Appreciate what you guys are doing.’ That was something,” Moles said. “That he took the time to introduce himself and say thank you. I’ve never had anybody else do that. There have been others that were friendly and say ‘How are you doing?’ but not introduce themselves.”
Before his appointment as special events lieutenant, Moles was a police escort for the men’s and women’s basketball teams. He accompanied the Lady Vols to their 1997 and 1998 championship games.
“Me and Pat Summitt were on a first-name basis. She would call me by my first name and I would call her Coach,” he said with a laugh. “I just always did. Some of the players called her by her first name, but I just never did.”
Moles was a fixture at commencement’s multiple ceremonies. The long hours meant opportunities to develop relationships with campus partners like Beth Gladden, UT director of special events and university protocol.
“Campus events have always been more fun with Lieutenant Moles,” she said. “During spring commencement, the working staff spends a lot of time in the bowels of Thompson-Boling Arena. We all eat meals together and there are hours of down time in between ceremonies where we talk and joke around. Even though it’s a long few days, it’s always fun to spend time with that group. I enjoyed getting to catch up with Ralph during those times, especially hearing about wherever he was going on his next big vacation. I’ll miss his ability to keep things under control no matter the circumstances. He always kept a straight face along with a good sense of humor!”
Slowing Down, Moving Forward
Moles said he decided to retire because “I’m getting older and it’s just time to slow down and take it a little bit easier.”
Thanks to more than a year and a half of unused sick time, which counts toward retirement at UT, he is retiring with 30 years on the books. He anticipates more time with his family, which includes Christine, his wife of 31 years, along with his 27-year-old son and six-year-old grandson. He plans to continue refereeing high school football, a passion for more than 20 years.
He also starts a new job at the Knox County Sheriff’s Office at 40 hours a week—a significant reduction in the hours Moles has worked for years.
He’s most proud of being a dedicated worker at UT. “I’ve tried to be fair to everybody,” he said.
Moles hopes to eventually return to help UTPD with special events on a limited basis. This next chapter of his life feels exciting and uncertain, he said.
“I’m nervous about the whole thing,” Moles said. “For the last 29 years it’s been the same thing. It’s a big change. I’m looking forward to it and nervous about it.”