Lewis Donelson, 100, eulogized as churchman and city leader

Lewis Donelson, 100, eulogized as churchman and city leader

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Rev. Dr. Stephen Montgomery, pastor of Idlewild Presbyterian Church stepped up to the pulpit to offer his homily in memory of Lewis R. Donelson, and did his best "Lewie" imitation.
"I love this church," said Montgomery impersonating Donelson's gravelly voice.
The crowded sanctuary burst into laughter in memory of Donelson, who once said those very words at the same pulpit during his testimonial about his entire life at the Midtown church.
Donelson, 100, died January 4th.  "He was baptized at Idlewild back when it was on the corner of Union and McLean --- any of you remember that?," queried the pastor. 
Over the years, Donelson, born October 9, 1917, shared his memories of Idlewild with Montgomery who recounted many of them in the eulogy.
"He remembers coming to the groundbreaking of this building in 1927. But he also remembers he wasn't allowed to attend the dedication of this building a year later because, apparently, his behavior at the groundbreaking nullified his presence at the dedication, partly because his father was in charge of the dedication service," Montgomery said to more laughter.
Those were the days of racial segregation, especially inside houses of worship. Eventually, the Idlewild congregation debated about where African Americans should be seated were they to attend. "Some thought a compromise would be to allow African Americans to sit in the balcony or some special place," Montgomery said.
During a long lunch at the nearby Cupboard Restaurant, the pastor said Donelson recalled the back and forth of the debate and his father's brave proposal. "Finally his father stood up, " Montgomery said Donelson remembered,"and said I move that our policy be to seat anyone wherever they want to sit regardless of color. The motion passed overwhelmingly but not unanimously," Montgomery said. 
Remembering his father's courage, the pastor said, "Lewie pulled out a handkerchief to wipe the tears away. He was so proud to be a part of that family, to be a part of that tradition," Montgomery said. The pastor said Idlewild lost about 1,000 members over the next few years as a result of the decision to integrate. Montgomery says Donelson always said of the change, "But it was worth it."  
Donelson, left Memphis in the 1930s to attend a prestigious boarding school, The Choate School
in Wallingford, Connecticut.
Montgomery said, "Even when he went off to Choate in the northeast at the boarding school, the headmaster there noticed his leadership abilities and put him in charge of overseeing and mentoring a young man who was a year behind Lewie who was somewhat you might say rambunctious. His name was John F. Kennedy."
Donelson went on to college and then Law School at Georgetown in Washington, DC. 
On his return to Memphis in the 1940s, Montgomery said Donelson taught junior high school. "That ought to merit a few stars in his crown. He was here when his father began teaching what was then the Young Marrieds Class in the 1940s, which Lewie took over in the 1960s, he taught that class until about 2014.
He was 97 years old and he finally retired," Montgomery said.
Donelson became a prominent Memphis lawyer and his firm, Baker Donelson, has become one of the most prominent and powerful in America.
In the 1960s, Donelson ran for the first Memphis City Council and served in the tumultuous year of 1968.  Donelson and his wife of 65 years, Jan, invited the entire city council to their home for a dinner and opportunity to become better acquainted.
Montgomery said the dinner was, "something that was not done back then because there were three African Americans on the council. Fred Davis (an African American council member) was a little late. He opened the door and said Lewie! East Memphis! I made it! (laughter). That broke the ice. They played ping-pong."
But later that year came the Sanitation workers strike and the events that led to the arrival of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Memphis and his martyrdom at the Lorraine Motel.  
Montgomery says Donelson and the city council tried to mediate the labor dispute before Dr. King's assaination "He would say to me wistfully, you know, Steve we were only one vote short. One vote and history would have been different," Montgomery said Donelson told him.  
Credited with helping to shape the modern Republican party in Tennessee, Donelson served as Commissioner of Finance and Administration under Gov. Lamar Alexander from 1979-1981. Later, the lawyer took the state to court and demanded that school districts in rural Tennessee counties be funded fairly. Donelson eventually won the hard fought case as the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled Tennessee's school funding formula was unconstitutional.
Donelson favored a state income tax to help improve schools. "I think he stood for something that was unpopular, not politically expedient but what he felt was right," Montgomery said.
The pastor noted Donelson's love of scripture, including the Book of Job which Donelson taught numerous times in a six week course at Idlewild and other congregations.
The lawyer was also a fan of St. Paul and Montgomery said he would read the Pauline Epistles with Donelson and reflect on their meaning.
Montgomery says evidence of Donelson's faith was borne out in a bond the lawyer had with federal district Judge Harry Wellford in the early 1960s.
"They agreed if anyone made a racial or ethnic slur in their presence, they would call them on it and then they would walk away. Both were members of the country club. Both were Republicans. Both were leading citizens of our city. Talk about a trickledown effect, a ripple effect: if they were at the law office or the golf course or some outing or at church, after a while, everyone knew they had to make a decision if they were talking to Judge Wellford or Lewie Donelson. That's the tradition that he was able to pass on," Montgomery said.
One day the pastor received a phone call inviting him to offer the invocation at a dinner honoring Donelson, his church's oldest and most loyal member. Montgomery says he readily agreed only to learn the Racquet Club dinner was a fund raiser for the Shelby County Republican Party.
Nonpartisan from the pulpit, it's widely known that the Idlewald pastor is not a member of the GOP. So Montgomery said a series of dinner guests approached him with Donelson seated right alongside and questioned him. "So Steve, what are you doing here?"  Montgomery says he  responded, " I'm here to honor Lewie."  The pastor said after the third dinner guest approached him with the same question, Montgomery remembers Lewie saying, "Hey, Jesus ate with sinners, too you know." 
The congregation burst into another bit of laughter and Lewis R. Donelson, III got the last laugh at the church he loved so much for so long.

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