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Memphis Is Better For Having Had Father Don Mowery

The founder of a Memphis-based organization committed to grooming diverse young leaders has passed away.
Father Don Mowery

The founder of a Memphis-based organization committed to grooming diverse young leaders has passed away.

Father Don Mowery, the founder of Bridges, died Tuesday night at the age of 86.

Father Mowery lived a non-judgmental life, committed to changing young lives. He even started a radio-show in the 70’s to give the youth a voice.

It was his agency Bridges that took his work for youth-led social change to a national level.

Bridges CEO sent the following statement:

The entire BRIDGES family mourns the loss of the Reverend Donald E. Mowery, who passed away yesterday, June 12.

For generations, the name “Father Don” has been synonymous with selfless dedication to the lives of young people in Memphis. A Yale Divinity School graduate and ordained Episcopal priest, Father Don came to Memphis in 1963 to lead a new social service ministry called Youth Service—the precursor to the modern-day BRIDGES USA. 

Father Don’s leadership in our organization spanned more than 30 years, and it’s because of his incredible heart for youth that BRIDGES is now celebrating its 30th anniversary of the Bridge Builders program in 2018. 

“Father Don had a compassionate heart and a great vision,” said philanthropist Becky Wilson, who approached Mowery in 1988 with the idea for Bridge Builders, which would become Youth Service’s premier program. “He reached out to young people from disadvantaged circumstances and did his best to provide them with healthy opportunities to better themselves. BRIDGES benefited greatly from the foundation he built through Youth Service, and he will be missed.”

During Father Don’s tenure, Youth Service transformed from an agency that provided services out of an office to one that intentionally ventured out into communities to meet youth where they are. It also became one of the first youth agencies in Memphis to integrate its programs, and Father Don established critical relationships with government leaders and Memphis City Schools. When civil unrest following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., made it increasingly difficult to find outdoor spaces for integrated youth programs, Father Don forged a key partnership with the Naval Air Station in Millington.

I am saddened to learn of Father Don’s death,” said Jim Boyd, who stepped to the helm at Youth Service following Mowery’s retirement in 1994. “He was a pioneer in youth work who developed powerful programs that served all youth no matter race or class and whose innovations in serving youth made Youth Service a name known nationally. But more importantly, he personally touched the lives of hundreds if not thousands of youth in Memphis with his empathy and caring. He truly made a difference, and many of us are the better for his life and ministry.”

“Father Don’s legacy is such an important one in the evolution from Youth Service to BRIDGES,” said Cynthia Ham, BRIDGES President and CEO. “We are reminded every day by the Father Don memorial wall in our board room of his huge heart and his incredible impact on the lives of so many young people. His generous spirit will always be with us as we develop young leaders who will continue to make Memphis, and the world, a better place for all.”