The Memphis Thirty Five

Movers & Shakers of the Past Three Decades: A Special Thirty-Fifth Anniversary Photo Essay

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What’s on the cover next month?” The staff of this magazine gets asked that question all the time, and usually it’s one that we can answer in pretty straightforward fashion. Not so this month. If you’ve already glanced at the previous page, perhaps you’ve already noted that this Memphis is a little bit different, and that the actual magazine you’re holding in your hands is but one of four variations of this, our Thirty-Fifth Anniversary Issue.

To commemorate our thirty-five-year milestone, we challenged ourselves this month to produce the lengthy photo-essay that follows, one that features thirty-five individuals whose influence, we determined, was critical to the growth and evolution of our city over the period of Memphis magazine’s existence. For these four different April 2011 covers, we chose to profile four of “The Memphis Thirty Five” whose contributions we felt were especially meaningful over this period. These four different covers have been distributed randomly throughout our press run; should you wish to obtain other variations, just call us at 901-521-9000.

In making our thirty-five choices, we tried to cover the waterfront, so to speak, featuring high-achieving Memphians from all walks of life, each of whom helped make this city a different and arguably better place. Rest assured that more than a little thought went into making these choices. Indeed, the editorial staff argued and agonized for weeks on end before coming up with the final list you see presented here.

Our selections, of course, are entirely subjective, and entirely the responsibility of this magazine’s editorial staff. A key component of our lengthy deliberations was the consideration that candidates for inclusion here had to have staying power; i.e., their influence had to extend over a significant portion of the period from 1976 though 2011. We did allow a single exception to that rule — see page 63— simply because we felt that leaving the most famous Memphian alive today off this list was not an option!

The final list is by no means exclusive; many prominent figures from the past three decades are absent from these pages, perhaps undeservedly so. We look forward to hearing from our readers as regards their opinions of who should have been included here, along with their suggestions as regards individuals that might perhaps have been better left on the cutting-room floor!

Needless to say, we welcome your comments, observations, and criticisms by mail or by e-mail at Meanwhile, we hope you enjoy what follows.

— Kenneth Neill

Editor’s note: We call our readers’ attention to the fact that three persons included on this list — Jack Belz, Ira Lipman, and Henry Turley — are minority stockholders in Contemporary Media, Inc., the parent company of Memphis magazine. None were involved in the preparation of this thirty-fifth anniversary feature.


Fred Smith

Fred Smith is to Memphis what Bill Gates is to Seattle, Steve Jobs is to Silicon Valley, and the Ford family is to Detroit. The founder and CEO of FedEx is coming up on his 40th year as head of the company that employs some 30,000 Memphis-area residents and 200,000 around the world. More than one business writer has declared that Memphis is, for all intents and purposes, a FedEx company town. The brand sprawls from FedExForum downtown to Memphis International Airport (the second-busiest cargo airport in the world) to office buildings in East Memphis and Collierville. Constantly looking ahead, not back, Smith has become one of the most influential proponents of energy sources that are not dependent on foreign oil.




William Eggleston

In 1976 The New York Times called William Eggleston’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art “perfectly banal ... perfectly boring.” But with that perfectly banal, perfectly boring show of rusty tricycles and empty fields, Eggleston didn’t just change the art of photography, he transformed the way artists frame their world. The Memphis photographer’s easy mingling of the modern and the primitive, and a well-earned reputation for hard living, have earned comparisons to William Faulkner, but ultimately his work, as showcased in international exhibitions, books, even album covers (for Big Star), may have just as much in common with Jerry Seinfeld, since both put “nothing” front and center. Word has it that a major Memphis museum dedicated to his work is on the drawing board.




Kallen Esperian

A high-school music teacher wrote in Kallen Esperian’s yearbook, “Let me know when you get to the Met.” Since then the stunning soprano has wowed crowds at opera houses all over the world — from Barcelona to Berlin, Memphis to Milan, and yes, at the Met — and performed with such greats as the late Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo. Her soaring voice can wring tears from a turnip and inspire awe in opera buffs. A Memphian since 1982, she holds benefits for St. Jude and takes part in many other charitable endeavors — proving she’s got a heart as big as her voice. What’s more, it’s not just opera; she can get down with the best of ’em. For proof, check out her CDs of rock and jazz classics.




Thomas Boggs

The driving force behind Huey’s, who in 1975 started work at the original midtown location, Thomas Boggs expanded the popular eatery into a chain of seven, and groomed his daughters to run the business. But Boggs — who gained rock-star fame in the 1960s as a drummer for Alex Chilton’s Box Tops — was also known for his generous spirit and megawatt smile, giving untold hours to local nonprofits, including the Memphis Zoological Society and Memphis in May, and to people in need. A pillar of the Memphis Restaurant Association and a partner in other dining establishments, the entrepreneur gave a hand up to struggling colleagues. We lost him too soon, at age 63 in 2008, but his restaurant legacy lives on.




Willie Herenton

Whatever you may think of him, most Memphians acknowledge that Willie Herenton is arguably the most influential Memphian of the past three decades. He stepped into the public spotlight in 1981, when he became superintendent of the Memphis City Schools, a position he held for 12 years. In 1993, he made history as the first African American elected mayor of Memphis, winning re-election four more times after that, before abruptly resigning in July 2009. That’s 28 years in the spotlight, a role he clearly loved. His final political campaign, against incumbent congressman Steve Cohen in 2010, ended in defeat, but Herenton remained unbowed and defiant. Does the former Golden Gloves boxer have another round or two left in him? Only time will tell.



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