In our race to embrace the future, to figure out how we can encourage the young creative class to settle here and make Memphis a better place to live, often we forget to stop for a moment and appreciate some of the folks who already have spent a lifetime trying to make Memphis the kind of progressive city it ought to be.
I thought about that earlier this week when I learned of the death of Herbert Rhea. If Herbert had been in his twenties instead of his eighties in recent years, he would have been the poster child for the the kind of person we’re trying to attract to Memphis. Smart. Energetic. Enthusiastic. Visionary. Compassionate. Honorable. And an all-round great guy.
Herbert was an accountant by trade and a financial advisor by profession. He belonged to The Greatest Generation and was a charter member of the creative class. He was born in Memphis, educated here, fought overseas during World War II, and returned home to do exactly what we hope so many young people will do these days: help to build a more livable community.
He always seemed interested in politics and whether our elected leaders were doing what they promised. But Herbert didn’t have time to actively participate in the political process. He spent his time doing what we always hope our politicians will do. He used his creative energy and love for community to build a better city.
Now he’s gone, but his legacy will live on through the many people and institutions he touched. The countless businessmen and women who benefitted from his advice. Tthe many businesses that thrived because Herbert invested in them – his time, his knowledge, and, yes, even his money – because he cared.. The Dixon Gallery and Gardens. Rhodes College. Second Presbyterian Church. The list goes on and on.
Herbert Rhea didn’t build buildings. You won’t see his name on street signs, either. But in his own quiet way he made sure that many people succeeded in our community because he knew how to help and he understood that it was the right thing to do.
In his obituary in The Commercial Appeal this week, it was telling when John Buchanan, the former director of The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, was quoted as saying that Herbert Rhea’s devotion to The Dixon Gallery and Gardens – where he served as chairman of the board — didn’t begin because he loved art. It began because he loved his city. “His perception of the Dixon was that it was a spot of beauty and charm and grace that is unique in our world, and his devotion to it was to nurture it and see it thrive.”
Herbert didn’t build the building that houses The Dixon and he didn’t donate great works of art to hang in its galleries. He did more than that. He made sure that The Dixon would flourish in Memphis for generations to come.
Those of us lucky enough to have known Herbert Rhea — and those who didn’t – have one thing in common: all of us are better off because he was here.