Elder Statesman 

Lewis Donelson, honored again Monday night, ain't going nowhere.

Mark Luttrell and Lewis Donelson

Mark Luttrell and Lewis Donelson

"I long for the days when the middle was the respected place, when [politics] was not as far toward the fringes," said Michael Adams, the current president of the University of Georgia and the man who, once upon a time, was a Republican activist in East Tennessee and a political colleague of one Lewis Donelson, whom Adams characterized Monday night as "a monumental figure ... one of Tennessee's greatest citizens ever."

Donelson, whose great-great-grandfather, Andrew Jackson Donelson, was raised by Old Hickory himself, President Andrew Jackson, was being honored by the Shelby County Republican Party before a turnaway crowd — not all Republicans — at the Racquet Club. At 94, the man, who, more than any other, is responsible for building a viable Republican Party in Shelby County and, arguably, for developing a two-party system in Tennessee, is surely entitled to his party's gratitude.

And to that of many others. Tennesseans at large should be grateful for Donelson's lifelong efforts to keep politics and government civil. As current state Safety and Homeland Security director Bill Gibbons, who served with Donelson in the cabinet of then-Governor Lamar Alexander in 1978, observed, Donelson was someone who entered public life as a reformer, not as an ideologue. And yes, as one who operated from the middle of the road.

It was not mentioned from the dais Monday night by any of the GOP eminences on hand, but Donelson was so upset a generation back by fellow Republicans' condemnations of a proposed income tax that he publicly threatened to quit the Republican Party and become a Democrat. And, for the record, the income tax proposal he was discussing at the time was that of Governor Ned Ray McWherter, a Democrat, not the later one (which Donelson also defended) made by Republican governor Don Sundquist.  

What was mentioned from the dais was the fact that Donelson was instrumental in working with the then-Democratic state establishment to bring an abrupt end to the regime of former Governor Ray Blanton, who was selling pardons, and arrange for the early swearing-in of GOP governor Alexander, who told that story to the audience via a prerecorded video. It was Donelson's job, too, to secure Blanton's office and to prevent valuable papers from being spirited away.

And it was also mentioned that Donelson, as a member of the Memphis City Council in 1968, had done what he could to resolve the fateful sanitation workers' strike prior to the tragic assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Among the many attesting to Donelson's stature were such longtime friends as Ira Lipman, Bill Watkins, and Sundquist, who now lives in East Tennessee and was returning to his own point of political origin after many years of absence.

At the end of it all, Donelson, who still runs the Baker Donelson law firm, which is arguably the most distinguished and influential in Tennessee, brought the house down by saying, with his patented Cheshire grin, "I've been so overpraised that I feel obligated to die!"

He delivered the same line and got the same delighted laugh on a similar occasion in 2007, when he was being honored at the venerable Homebuilders site, now demolished. And Lewis Donelson will probably be saying it on other such occasions in the future. "I feel good!" he said Monday night.

And so did his audience.

Comments (2)

Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-2 of 2

Add a comment

    • TN Races for Governor, Senator, Heat Up!

      At a geometrically increasing rate, aspirants for significant public office on the 2018 ballot are coming front and center with announcements of candidacy, kickoff events, and the like
    • Filling in the Blanks

      Harris jumps into county mayor’s race; Blackburn declares for Corker’s seat; other big names contemplate a race.
    • Byrd and Flinn Looking to County Mayor’s Race?

      While GOP mayoral candidates spar, surprise possibilities lurk on the Democratic side, with several big party names thinking hard about running.


News Blog

Mud Island Could be Home of New Freshwater Aquarium

News Blog

Brooks Leaders Confirm Interest in Riverfront Move

We Saw You

Foaming at the mouth at Cooper-Young Beerfest

News Blog

New Mural Installed on Highland Strip

News Blog

Terminix: A Ghost? In Memphis, Probably a Roof Rat

Beyond the Arc

Grizzlies to waive or trade Baldwin, Zagorac today

Film/TV/Etc. Blog

Music Video Monday: Eric Hughes


More by Jackson Baker

  • Filling in the Blanks

    Harris jumps into county mayor’s race; Blackburn declares for Corker’s seat; other big names contemplate a race.
    • Oct 12, 2017
  • On Politicians and Gannett's "Seat at the Table"

    Pre-arranged "exclusive" announcements by Harris and Blackburn indicate a possible competitive advantage of chain journalism in a transformational time.
    • Oct 5, 2017
  • Haslam Out of Senate Race, Blackburn In

    Governor, after pondering, says race would be a "distraction" from gubernatorial service; Congresswoman, meanwhile, says, "Bring it on."
    • Oct 5, 2017
  • More »

Readers also liked…

  • Filling the Space

    For all the in-fighting, we’re all looking for the same thing, and sometimes we can realize it.
    • Jul 14, 2016
  • Jill Stein in Memphis

    An impressive turnout for Green Party presidential nominee at Amurica.
    • Oct 6, 2016
  • Wellspring Politics in Memphis

    With a crucial deadline approaching next week, the local “Protect the Aquifier” movement picks up steam.
    • Nov 24, 2016
© 1996-2017

Contemporary Media
460 Tennessee Street, 2nd Floor | Memphis, TN 38103
Visit our other sites: Memphis Magazine | Memphis Parent | Inside Memphis Business
Powered by Foundation