Centuries of Good

By Daney Daniel Kepple
Photography by Justin Fox Burkes


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As a founder of one of the country’s largest law firms, Lewis Donelson ’38 has handled many interesting cases and has been involved in situations that are already written into history books. A few stand out in his mind.

  • As a member of the Memphis City Council during the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike, he worked hard to forge an agreement between the city and the union.
  • He recently represented a group of 77 rural school systems in a successful lawsuit to force the state of Tennessee to fund its public schools so that children from poorer districts have the same opportunity to receive a quality education as children from wealthier districts.
  • He served as the state’s chief operating officer in the 1980s during the Lamar Alexander administration.

Then there were his duties as attorney for the Paul Barret, Jr. Testamentary Trust, which involved handling the sale of two banks and advising the trustees on the awarding of $75 million to nonprofit organizations in Shelby County, TN. The complicated bank transactions took 2 1/2 years. Then Donelson interviewed every person who submitted a proposal.

“I have just written the history of our law firm, and this case is certainly in it,” he said.

Donelson and the two trustees, John P. Douglas ’48 and Graves C. Leggett, read and discussed each application, then decided on a course of action.

“We chose to make our decision about Rhodes first, and we talked a lot about what to do here. Paul said to me, ‘Take care of our college,’ but would not specify how or which other charities he wanted to support. He wanted John and Graves to give the money away. He trusted them completely.”

The veteran attorney recalls that Douglas and Leggett were intrigued by the symmetry of funding a library at Rhodes.

“They thought it would be appropriate, that since Paul’s aunt and uncle funded the Burrow Library, the new one should be funded by Paul’s trust and named for him.”

Regarding his own feelings in the matter, Donelson says simply, “It is a great joy to know I was involved in doing this for the college.”

President Troutt agrees. “Lewie Donelson was a wonderful counsel to the trustees and to me.”

Although headed for the University of Virginia until an illness in the family changed his plans, the young Donelson refused to leave Southwestern when offered the opportunity.

“I loved Southwestern and I love Rhodes,” he said. “I had a wonderful experience here and received an amazing education.”

A shrewd business practitioner himself, Donelson appreciates the acumen of Paul Barret, Jr.

“Unlike many people who inherit an asset, Paul didn’t just sit on the bank his father founded. It was small when he took it over and he turned it into a powerhouse.”

And, he noted, the resulting assets funded many worthy causes.

“I hope the good will last for centuries,” he concluded.