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VOL. 131 | NO. 96 | Friday, May 13, 2016

Wilson Urges Family Philanthropic Efforts at Dunavant Awards

By Bill Dries

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When most people think of the Kemmons Wilson family, there is an image that comes to mind. It’s a black and white photo from the 1950s of the five children – three boys and two girls – of the Holiday Inn founder cutting the ribbon on the very first Holiday Inn at 4925 Summer Ave.

But when Spence Wilson, one of the boys in that famous picture, talked about the Wilson family Wednesday, May 11, at the 13th annual Bobby Dunavant Public Servant Awards, he used a different picture made just recently in color.

It’s a group of 78 Wilson family members – the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. They are part of not only Kemmons Wilson Inc., the private real estate and investment firm that Spence Wilson is chairman of. They are also part of the Kemmons Wilson Family Foundations.

Families can have an impact on public service, Wilson told the 600 people gathered at the Holiday Inn University of Memphis for the awards, sponsored by The Daily News and the Rotary Club of Memphis East.

The hotel is also home to the Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality & Resort Management, which is a product of the family’s philanthropy.

“I had to admit it was a different kind of gift,” he said of the gift from his father and mother to the University of Memphis. “He did not make a gift of money.”

The university at the time was expecting money.

“He told them he would give them the keys after he built it for them,” Wilson said.

His father was famous for having definite views on standardized hotel room sizes and features that came from his experience building Holiday Inns into a worldwide brand.

“He did agree on the specifications,” Wilson said of the hotel rooms that are part of the hospitality school. “They didn’t use the state architects and they didn’t use the state contractors. They used his architects and his contractors.”

Wilson said other families can make the same kind of impact on the city.

“As a family, I have to say we have been blessed in many, many ways,” he said. “We are fortunate to have the resources to be able to dedicate time, and most importantly, we have a strong desire borne out of the influences of my parents to serve and to help unique organizations and many programs make Memphis a wonderful place to live and raise families.”

But Wilson said there is plenty of community work to be done for families of all kinds of means.

“Just think about what we can accomplish together if we will coordinate our conversations as families, as funders, and as business leaders to ensure our city’s greatest needs will be met when our gifts and our time are being spent in the best possible way,” he said.

Wilson’s remarks were a reminder that often, public service is a combination of government and private or philanthropic concerns.

The Dunavant awards, named for the late Shelby County Probate Court Clerk Bobby Dunavant, are given by a committee of Rotarians and members of the Dunavant family who select the two winners from nominations submitted by the public.

One award is given to a local elected official, another to a local non-elected public official.

Lisa Geater, chief of staff to Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, was honored for her 27 years working in the Memphis City Council office – 20 of those years as the administrator of the council office.

Geater called the job “an opportunity and a great responsibility.”

State Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville was honored for his tenure in the Legislature as well as on the Shelby County Commission starting in 1994.

Norris recalled being mentored by Dunavant as an attorney when he would have matters in Probate Court, and Dunavant’s example of carrying forward the “nuts and bolts of good government.”

Norris said he considers the award “an aspirational goal.”

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