Single-Handed Success Story

By Dan Conaway

SINGULAR PERFORMANCE. The White Station Class of 1966, the year ahead of mine, had two Academy Award winners – one you’ve heard of and one you haven’t.

That was some class. Physicist, gray matter repository and best-selling author Alan Lightman was in it. Federal judge and arbiter of public education’s future in Shelby County Hardy Mays was in it. John Vergos, former courageous city council maverick and scion to Rendezvous rib royalty, was in it. Academy Award-winning actress Kathy Bates was in it.

And Linda Shubert was in it.

Kathy won her Academy Award for her performance in “Misery.” Linda gave birth to “Undefeated,” the current Academy Award winner for documentaries. Kathy was acting, Linda was dealing with the hard reality of a single mother.

Linda was the sweetheart of my high school fraternity, fun, funny and so full of life her personality filled rooms. And she wasn’t little girl cute, she was grown-up good looking. When most of us went off to college, she was getting married and having a baby. When we were starting careers, getting married and having babies, her husband had already walked out and left Linda with a little boy to raise all by herself.

A little boy who grew up to start a lumber business in a falling-down building in an all-but-forgotten North Memphis neighborhood, and then made it so successful that he’ll be inducted into the Society of Entrepreneurs at age 44, sharing the rarefied air of folks like Kemmons Wilson and Fred Smith.

A little boy who realized that the kids in that neighborhood had nothing to look up to but the smokestack of the abandoned Firestone factory and nothing to look forward to beyond a street corner, and then did something about it so compelling that it elevated lives and expectations and inspired a movie.

A little boy who volunteered to coach the chronically hapless Manassas High School football team for six years, brought a whole staff of volunteer coaches with him, and took that team to the state playoffs, took the players from self-loathing to self-respect, and took the story to the Academy Awards.

That little boy Linda raised is Bill Courtney, and Bill Courtney is one mother of a man.

When he told his team, repeatedly, that the measure of people is not how they handle success, but how they handle failure – when he taught them, demonstrably, about character and integrity, about others instead of self – he was telling and teaching what he was told and taught by his single mother.

Way to go, Shubert, way to go.

The 2010 census tells us that there are about 67,000 Memphis kids under 18 living in a single mother household, a total of 111,810 kids without both mom and dad at home. “Undefeated” is about all of them, black and white, and the difference love, support and understanding can make, even against great odds.

It’s about Bill, and Bill looks just like his momma.

I’m a Memphian, and “Undefeated” is a movie about us.

Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them. Reach him at