A Man For All Seasons
A political and civic force in Memphis for three-quarters of a century, Lewie Donelson has seen – and done – it all.
Lewis R. Donelson III as a young lawyer, circa 1945.
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Way back when it was first formed, his Sunday School class was called “Young Couples,” which is something of a misnomer now, inasmuch as the relative handful of surviving members are in their 90s and mainly single now, time having amended the status of most of them to that of widows or widowers.
As they have for decades, the group continues to meet each Sunday before formal worship services, these days in a basement room of Idlewild Presbyterian Church, the venerable Midtown church on Union Avenue whose Gothic architecture resembles greatly that of Rhodes College, né Southwestern at Memphis, and may indeed, according to one class member, contain stones from the same quarry.
The class members, too, look to be hewn of Memphis history. One of them is a dapper good-humored gentleman named Gene Reynolds, who calls himself a “newcomer” to the class, having been talked into joining by his wife some 55 years ago. A mere 90 years old, Reynolds’ well-combed white mane and seersucker suit give him an almost preppy look. At Rhodes College (then Southwestern at Memphis) he was four years behind fellow graduate Lewis Donelson III, who for at least a generation has been teaching this class, the same once taught by Donelson’s father and namesake.
As Donelson gets ready to present, Reynolds warms up the class members for this morning, the second Sunday of June, with a riddle or two. “What was Boaz before he married Ruth?” he asks. And the answer, to the general delight of the audience, is “Ruthless.”
The lone female member present, a winsome lady named Regina, responds with another, “How did Moses make tea in the desert?” And the answer to that one is more than a bit subtle: “Hebrewed it.”
Soon enough, when the five class members present decide that they, and they alone, are going to be the quorum for this particular week, Donelson, who is also dressed in seersucker today, makes his way to the front of the room. He is fitted with a headset-and-mike arrangement which is connected to a small speaker so as to amplify his remarks and, as this is going on, the group deals with the absence today of the member who normally functions as pianist for hymns.
“Let’s don’t sing!” suggests Regina, a realist besides being perky. “I thought you were going to play the piano,” one of the gents suggests. “Yes, and dance, too!” she responds.
Meanwhile, Donelson, a small man all his life and now, at 94, looking like some wizened wizard out of the Star Wars chronicles, is ready to go, standing at a lectern and beaming the toothy grin that has captivated friends and disarmed antagonists for well over half a century in the worlds of law, business, politics, and government. The confidante of presidents, the sponsor of governors and U.S. Senators, the virtual creator of a two-party system which has led to today’s statewide Republican dominance, and the founder of Baker Donelson, the largest law firm in Tennessee and one of the most influential in the nation — all this merely for starters — he could, if he wished, insist on seigneurial status. But Lewis R. Donelson III, who derives from several distinguished lines, including that of President Andrew Jackson, who raised his great-great-grandfather, is content for the most part to be addressed as “Lewie,” which is also the title of the sprightly 332-page memoir he published earlier this year.
Why “Lewie,” and not Lewis? Because his mother had needed to differentiate between him and his namesake father, Donelson explains when asked.
A collection plate is passed, and, as class members drop a dollar or two each, someone asks Donelson about “that woman, that friend of yours you told us about who’s a multibillionaire.” He recalls the Nashville woman who is meant, one Martha Ingram, who, he says, once donated $10 million to The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s Nashville-area home, now a museum. “And for her that was a tip,” he says, flashing his Lewie smile, just this side of a Cheshire grin.
The class has been working for some weeks on the Gospel of John, and Donelson asks Regina to begin by reading the first 15 verses of John 16. This is the chapter in which Jesus confides to his stunned disciples that he is about to depart from their company and their mortal world.
In a clear voice, Regina reads the passage, which includes the verse, “But now I go my way to Him who sent me, and none of you asketh me, Whither goest thou?” Lewie launches into a homily in which he interprets the passage, wherein Christ warns His followers of the trials they will shortly be put to on His account, as calling for Christians to examine and strengthen their faith.
And he recalls his own spiritual journey, including the years at Southwestern, where he was required to take basic courses in the Bible (still part of the main curriculum at today’s Rhodes). Straightaway, he discounts the need for Biblical literalism. “Human beings wrote the Bible,” he declares, and all their “prejudices, lack of knowledge, and influences” are necessarily reflected in it. “This is what it is, the inspired Word of God, but it’s a human document.”
Thereafter Donelson interweaves glosses upon John’s text with events from his own life, including the death in late 2010 of his beloved wife, Janice, a lifelong sufferer from juvenile diabetes, who told him before dying, “I want you to be sad, to miss me, but I don’t want you to be moping around,” rather to “stay active in church and community,” and of a stillborn son, and the passing of various friends and various hardships experienced by him and others. He recalls when he was “younger, very busy, and very hard-driving,” and how he had learned from “this class” about “the need to be concerned about others, the need to be loving.”
Toward the end of his homily, he says, “I have grown in faith over the years. My faith is wiser, deeper, more understanding. I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to be in Heaven. I do know that I’m not immortal. I tease my children who have a fit when I get sick, and I’m never sick . . . . I say, What? You realized that I wasn’t immortal?”
He jokes about the examining physician who declared him 4-F on the eve of World War II, after learning of a youthful cholecystectomy (gall bladder surgery) and telling the young Donelson, “You’ll be an invalid the rest of your life.” Lewie laughs, showing the Cheshire teeth. “I’m 94, and I don’t even take medicine . . .
“I have been praying in recent months about what I’m going to do with the rest of my life. The doctor tells me I’ve got another 10 or 15 years to live. And I said, ‘What in the world am I going to do with all that time?’ That’s what I’m struggling with right now.”
One thing he’s certain of. He’ll “keep moving and try to be a better Christian.”