Lewis R. Donelson III has been in the public eye in Memphis for as long as many of us remember. He sat on the city council during the sanitation workers' strike more than four decades ago. He served as financial adviser to Governor Winfield Dunn, and Governor Lamar Alexander appointed him commissioner of finance and administration in Nashville and later named him to the Higher Education Commission.
In the civic arena, he's been an outspoken and effective board member of a number of organizations and institutions, including, during times of crisis, the Med and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. In the religious sphere, he's been a prominent member of Idlewild Presbyterian Church. And in Republican Party circles, he was at the forefront in broadening that party's role in Memphis and statewide politics.
Throughout it all, Donelson the lawyer represented the locally well-known and lesser known, bankers and business leaders. And in time he grew his law practice into one of the largest firms in the South — today's Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz — with offices across the state and beyond. What you don't know about Lewis Donelson, however, is perhaps even more impressive than what you do know, and Donelson remembers his life and times in Lewie (published by Donelson's alma mater, Rhodes College).
"If there's one thing that frosts my butt," Donelson once told a colleague, "it is long, wordy, complex forms with provisions no one understands."
Donelson was reviewing a legal document when he said those words, but the same can be said of Lewie, which reads effortlessly, whether he's reviewing important court cases or political infighting. So it just goes to show, as Donelson writes, "One of my strengths as a lawyer is to keep it simple and understandable to the client."
Simple and understandable for his readers too, and that's the case from the very beginning of Lewie. Donelson's family lineage? It's complicated.
That lineage traces back in this country to the early 1700s and includes Andrew Jackson, who married the sister of Donelson's great-great-grandfather. His great-grandmother, wife of Andrew Jackson Donelson, was once married to Thomas Jefferson's grandson. And the daughter of Andrew Jackson Donelson (by his first wife) was the first baby born in the White House.
Donelson's mother's side of the family? One member served twice as U.S. senator; another is reputed to have brought the first Jersey cow to East Tennessee.
As for "Grandfather Donelson": He arrived in Memphis with "two bits and no job." By 1881, he founded a merchandise food brokerage business, and later in life he served as a director of the First National Bank of Memphis. Donelson's father served in that food business all his life.
A "golden childhood" Donelson calls his upbringing in Midtown, and it came with an education second to none: Pentecost ("as fine a school as you could find anywhere") and Central High in Memphis; Choate in Connecticut; what was Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College); and Georgetown University Law School.
Donelson remembers his schooling fondly. But readers need to remember Donelson's stand on segregation as far back as the 1950s: He wouldn't stand for it — not inside his church, not in Memphis, period, and he's proud of the city's relatively smooth path to integration. He's also right to be proud of his winning fight for fair funding of Tennessee's public schools.
As Lewie tells it, it's been an eventful life. Add in Donelson's 65-year marriage to his late wife, Jan, and their three children, and it's been a wonderful life. Time to retire? No. Lewis R. Donelson III is still at it, in his office, age 94.
Lewis Donelson will discuss and sign Lewie at the Booksellers at Laurelwood on Thursday, April 12th, at 6 p.m. For more information or to reserve a signed copy, contact the store at 683-9801.