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VOL. 133 | NO. 4 | Thursday, January 4, 2018

Attorney, Former Political Activist Lewis Donelson Dies at 100

By Bill Dries

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In a century of life that began in Memphis, Lewis Donelson was many things including an attorney, politician and strategist. In all of those pursuits and others, he was one of the city’s most influential citizens and a force in some of the most historic moments in the city’s history as well as the state’s history.

Donelson, a former Memphis City Council member, state finance commissioner and co-founder of the Baker Donelson law firm, died Thursday, Jan. 4, at the age of 100.


"In a career that spanned more than 70 years, Lewie's leadership and activism had a lasting and far-reaching impact,”’ said Ben C. Adams Jr, chairman and CEO of Baker Donelson. “While we're extremely saddened by his passing, we're proud to be a part of Lewie's legacy and are committed to carrying on the spirit of dedication and community that he exemplified and that is at the core of the culture and personality of Baker Donelson."

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said Donelson lived "a remarkable life."

"He was a force for good on the early days of the Memphis City Council, he served our entire state in Gov. Lamar Alexander's administration, and he helped lead the Baker Donelson law firm into national prominence," he added in a written statement.

Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell said Donelson was "the standard for many of us who serve the public." 

"His experience at the state and local level led him to become one of our more knowledgeable and influential leaders," Luttrell said in a written statement. "His sharp intellect, wisdom and insight into civic affairs will be missed.”

Lewis Donelson III, senior counsel and co-founder of Baker Donelson law firm. (Baker Donelson)

Donelson, originally a Democrat and a descendant of Andrew Jackson, the nation's first modern Democratic president, was among the group of Republicans who formed the modern Tennessee Republican party, wresting control of the Shelby County Republican Party after World War II from the remnants of the political organization of the late Robert Church Jr. and turning the party from a predominantly African-American political entity into a conservative white political entity.

Decades later, Donelson recalled approaching the city’s political boss E.H. Crump about holding Republican primaries for state and federal offices in Shelby County and Crump flatly and illegally directing that there would only be Democratic primaries.

After Crump’s death in 1954, Donelson served on the Shelby County Community Relations Committee, which worked behind the scenes for the racial integration of public facilities in the city following the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision that same year.

Howard Baker’s election to the U.S. Senate in the mid 1960s was a breakthrough for the local and state party Donelson helped build. The election of Memphian Winfield Dunn in 1970 as the first Republican governor in nearly half a century followed with Donelson a key advisor in the statewide campaign.

Donelson was among those elected to the first Memphis City Council following city government’s conversion from a commission form of government to the current mayor-council form of government with the 1967 city elections.

Donelson initially recruited others to run for the council seats and some of those candidates in turn said they would run if he ran. Donelson said he would run but would only serve on four-year term. If he had to run for re-election, Donelson believed he would be more likely to compromise on changes he believed needed to be made in city government.

Chief among those changes was a strong-mayor form of government outlined in the new city charter.

But in his 2012 autobiography, “Lewie,” Donelson said the sanitation workers strike that came six weeks into the start of the new city government sidelined that intent.

As the strike became much more politically than a labor issue and Mayor Henry Loeb refused to compromise, Donelson said the council had to get involved in moving toward a settlement. The settlement came only after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis.

Donelson was a key political advisor and state finance commissioner to Lamar Alexander starting with Alexander’s 1978 campaign for Tennessee Governor. And when Alexander, now a U.S. Senator, took the oath of office early in 1979 to prevent outgoing Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton from issuing further pardons to state prisoners, it was Donelson who took a phone call from Blanton and told Blanton that he was no longer governor.

Alexander and his advisors, including Donelson, acted after consulting with the legislature's Democratic leadership after federal prosecutors building a case that Blanton's administration was selling pardons and paroles came to Alexander to stop any 11th hours actions by Blanton.

Alexander put Donelson in charge of securing the state capitol.

"He was my first appointee when I was elected governor because I knew that if someone of Lewie's stature agreed to be the chief operating officer of state government that would attract other talented cabinet members," Alexander said Thursday in a written statement. "Lewie's negotiating style became well known around the state capitol. He would knock you to the floor with his first offer. By the time you had gotten halfway back up, you would have agreed with him and considered that a success."

His 1988 lawsuit in behalf of the state’s 77 rural school systems over state funding of public education set the standard for a state funding formula for education, known as the BEP or Basic Education Program. The concept of the formula remains intact nearly 30 years later although the formula itself has changed over time.

Donelson formed the Donelson & Adams law firm in 1954 and merged it with Baker’s East Tennessee firm in the 1970s. Baker Donelson became one of the largest full service law firms in the country.

Democratic state Senator Lee Harris, a University of Memphis Law School professor who once practiced at Baker Donelson said Thursday he and Donelson "couldn't have been more different" politically.

"But, nonetheless, he was a reliable and important mentor to me and probably many of the other young attorneys at Baker Donelson," Harris said in a written statement. "When I entered politics and ran as a Democrat, he even wrote a check from time to time. His death is a great loss."

Donelson, who was a Georgetown University Law Center graduate, focused on corporate and tax law in his practice.

In that practice he formed the first professional limited liability company in the state as well as establishing some of the earliest private pension and profit-sharing plans.

Alexander recalled that as recently as eight years ago, Donelson shot a hole-in-one in golf and six years ago was shooting his age in golf.

"He had his own opinions," Alexander added. "About the only thing I was ever able to tell Lewie was to stop driving his car to the capitol while reading a newspaper, and he only stopped that after he ran into the back of another car."

U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, a former state finance commissioner during the administration of Gov. Don Sundquist, said he was among those who sought Donelson's advice.

“Both as commissioner of finance for our state and as an attorney, Lewie was someone all of us who serve the people of Tennessee looked to for guidance and wisdom," Corker said. "Throughout his long life, he continually advocated for things that made our state and country stronger, and he leaves behind a great legacy.”

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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