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Senior Counsel & Co-Founder Of Memphis Law Firm Baker Donelson Has Died

Memphis law firm Baker Donelson announced Thursday that senior counsel and co-founder Lewis R. Donelson III has passed away. Donelson was 100-years-old.
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Memphis law firm Baker Donelson announced Thursday that senior counsel and co-founder Lewis R. Donelson III has passed away. Donelson was 100-years-old.

Details surrounding his death have not been released, except to say he died Thursday.

Below is a release from the firm:

Baker Donelson is deeply saddened to announce the passing of Lewis Donelson, senior counsel and co-founder of the Firm. Mr. Donelson, who was 100 years old, died on January 4, 2018.

A native Memphian, Mr. Donelson began his legal career in 1941 after earning his law degree from Georgetown University Law Center. In 1954, he founded the Memphis law firm of Donelson & Adams. His vision was to create a full-service firm with broad scale expertise. More than 60 years later, that vision has been realized in what has grown to become the 55th largest law firm in the country with more than 750 attorneys and public policy advisors in 23 offices across 10 states and in Washington, D.C.

“Lewie Donelson dedicated his life and career to outstanding service to the legal profession and his community,” said Ben C. Adams Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of Baker Donelson. “In a career that spanned more than 70 years, Lewie’s leadership and activism had a lasting and far-reaching impact. 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.”

Co-founding one of the largest law firms in the country was just one of many notable achievements in Mr. Donelson’s legal career. In his practice, which focused on corporate and tax law, he formed the first professional limited liability company in Tennessee and established some of the earliest private pension and profit-sharing plans. He won one of the first family partnership tax cases, a leading case involving the taxation of cotton futures trading and hedging, an early case involving multiple corporations, and many others.

Mr. Donelson also played a key role in increasing funding for rural schools when in 1988 he represented a group of 77 rural school systems in Tennessee Small School Systems v. McWherter, et al. The lawsuit was filed to force the State of Tennessee to fund its public schools in a more equitable manner so that children from poorer districts would have the same opportunity to receive a quality education as children from more privileged districts. The case eventually reached the Tennessee Supreme Court, which in 1993 unanimously ruled that the state’s education funding system was unconstitutional. As a result of the case, state lawmakers created the Basic Education Program (BEP), an education funding formula designed to be fairer to counties with smaller tax bases.

Beyond his legal career, Mr. Donelson is also widely known for his lifelong political involvement at the local, state and national levels. In 1954, shortly after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Mr. Donelson served as a member of the newly formed Shelby County Community Relations Committee, which was established to arrange the peaceful integration of all public facilities in Memphis. In 1967, he was elected as one of Memphis’s first councilmen.

He is frequently credited with helping build the Tennessee Republican Party, effectively creating a two-party system in a city that had long been held under the control of “Boss” E.H. Crump, the Democratic mayor of Memphis who controlled all of Memphis politics as well as much of the state’s politics. He served on the Republican State Executive Committee from 1964 to 1974, and served as a member of the Platform Committee at the Republican Convention in 1968 and as a delegate of the Tennessee Constitutional Convention in 1971. From 1979 to 1981, he served as Commissioner of Finance and Administration under Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander.

He was active in Republican campaigns from 1956 until 2006 and served as chair of many campaigns, including the 1978 re-election campaign for Senator Howard Baker. In 1994, Senator Baker’s law firm, Baker Worthington, would merge with Mr. Donelson’s firm to form Baker Donelson.

Mr. Donelson also played an active leadership role in the community, giving his time and energy to numerous organizations. He served on the boards of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the National Rural Schools Trust, and served as chair of the National Advisory Council for The Hermitage, the home of President Andrew Jackson. He served as president of Travelers Aid in 1945, as president of Shelby United Neighbors, predecessor to the United Way, in 1961, as a member of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission from 1982 to 1992, and served as chair of the Regional Medical Center in Memphis from 1996 to 2006.

Mr. Donelson earned numerous accolades in recognition of his achievements and contributions. In 2012, the Memphis City Council honored him with the Memphis City Council Humanitarian Award, and the City of Memphis passed a resolution to name a street in his honor. That same year, he was also named the Memphis Bar Association’s “Judge Jerome Turner Lawyer’s Lawyer”. In 2010, he was named by UNICO Memphis as the recipient of its Civic Award, which recognizes an individual who has demonstrated a lifetime of service for the betterment of the community. In 2006, Mr. Donelson, a former Scoutmaster and Life Scout, received the Distinguished Citizen Award from the Chickasaw Council, Boy Scouts of America, in recognition of an individual who has given service to the community, state and nation.

Mr. Donelson authored Lewie, an informal account of his life and esteemed career in law, politics and public service, which was published in 2012.

Mr. Donelson was preceded in death by his beloved wife of 65 years, Jan, who was his partner and inspiration throughout his life. Mr. Donelson is survived by his children Lewis IV, Janice and Loring, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Statement from Shelby County Mayor Mark H. Luttrell, Jr.:

Mr. 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.  His sharp intellect, wisdom and insight into civic affairs will be missed.”

United States Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) released the following statement:

“During his 100 years, Lewie Donelson was one of Tennessee’s most accomplished lawyers and finest public servants. 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.

“No other family’s thread runs more proudly through Tennessee’s history than Lewie’s — from his ancestor John Donelson’s river trip to Nashville in 1779 to Andrew Jackson’s marriage to John’s daughter, Rachel, to Jackson’s founding of Memphis and then to Lewie’s life of distinguished public service.”

“Lewie and his late wife Jan were close friends. Honey and I send our sympathy to members of the Donelson family.”

“I had been sworn in three days early on January 17, 1979, to prevent the incumbent governor from issuing pardons to prisoners whom the FBI believed had paid cash for their release. Lewie offered the prayer at that surprise inauguration. One of my first acts was to direct him to take charge of and secure the state Capitol. Someone said, ‘Lewie has been waiting his whole life for someone to ask him to do that.’

“Eight years ago, when he was 92, Lewie shot a hole-in-one in golf. Six years ago, he was still shooting his age in golf. He told me then that his doctor could find nothing physically wrong with him and that he took no medicine.    

“He had his own opinions. 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.

“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.

Mr. Donelson served as Commissioner of Finance and Chief Operating Officer for the State of Tennessee under Governor Lamar Alexander from 1979 to 1981.

U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) released the following statement: 

“Lewis Donelson was an outstanding public servant, and I am sad to learn of his passing,” said Corker. “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. Throughout his long life, he continually advocated for things that made our state and country stronger, and he leaves behind a great legacy.”

U.S. Representative David Kustoff (TN-08) released the following statement: 

“Lewis Donelson was one of the finest Memphians I have ever known. A true statesman and a titan in the legal community, Lewie spent a century working to better the state of Tennessee. Lewie practiced law for nearly 70 years and is widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of the modern Tennessee Republican Party. In 1968, he helped establish the very first Memphis City Council at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and led the charge for peaceful integration and racial equality. I will always admire Lewie’s remarkable public service and will look back fondly on our memories together. Roberta and I send our deepest sympathies to the Donelson family.”

On September 26, 2017, Congressman Kustoff honored Mr. Donelson’s 100th birthday on the House floor. Click here to watch. 

TN St. Senator Brian Kelsey released this statement:

“Mr. Donelson was a highly respected man, legal scholar, and public servant.  I am very grateful for having the pleasure of knowing him for the past fifteen years. I first worked for Mr. Donelson in 2002, and I especially enjoyed attending the GOP Statesmen’s Dinner with him that year.  He stayed in good shape by running each day, a habit he inspired me to pick up. Mr. Donelson was a founding member of the Republican Party in Shelby County.  I always appreciated his wisdom and advice, even on issues over which we disagreed.  He will be greatly missed.”

TN St. Senator Lee Harris released the following statement:

“I met Lewis Donelson as a young attorney at Baker Donelson. In many ways, Lewis Donelson and I couldn’t have been more different. He was Republican, seasoned (but not old), and a legendary advocate for rural counties. But, nonetheless, he was a reliable and important mentor to me and probably many of the other young attorneys at Baker Donelson. He offered advice on life and law. He generously invited the people he worked with to lunch with him at Little Tea Shop. When I entered politics, and ran as a Democrat, he even wrote a check from time to time. His death is a great loss.