After serving during World War II in the same PT boat squadron with John F. Kennedy, then returning home to coach football with the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant, and as the head football coach for Lebanon High School, the late Joe Gwynne Atkinson made a difference.
He was so revered, that when Lux Clock was lured to Lebanon from Connecticut, Atkinson was hand picked by the Lebanon mayor at the time to be the company's facility manager.
Atkinson taught life lessons at work and on the field. He made a lifetime of memories for a host of his players and students, many of whom contributed to a permanent memorial fund created at the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee when he died.
"I wasn’t lucky enough to know Coach Atkinson, but in talking with those who worked to honor his memory, it was clear that he was a man who led by example and who communicated the fact that integrity and character were the qualities he expected in his students, his players and his friends," said Ellen Lehman, president of the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, the nonprofit organization that serves as steward of the Atkinson Fund.
Lehman's comments came as the organization she leads prepares to embark on an exploratory mission in Wilson County.
Explaining the Community Foundation's role, Lehman said, "Helping to preserve legacies is one of our most important responsibilities. We consider it a sacred trust."
The Community Foundation has a record of creating charitable solutions by customizing services for those desiring to provide a "steady stream" of charitable dollars for specific causes or to support specific nonprofit organizations.
"We ensure promises are kept. We ensure the financial gifts given to The Foundation are used as their donors intended," Lehman said. “For example, the Atkinson Fund perpetuates the memory of a man who taught Lebanon High School students the importance of education. The proceeds of the fund continue to build the resources of the school's library, for both teachers and students, keeping [the] coach’s legacy alive.”
For the next several weeks the Community Foundation will be in Wilson County conducting what the organization describes as "community conversations."
"Wilson County has received millions of dollars through the work of the Community Foundation over time, but we hope to do more for both recipients and donors here. We want to listen to members of the community as they discuss issues that are important to them and seek their advice as to what we might do to better serve Wilson County," Lehman said.
The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee began serving Middle Tennessee in 1991. The nonprofit now serves some 40 counties providing charitable services to individuals, as well as corporations, civic groups and others.
The Community Foundation oversees a number of funds that provide financial assistance to a lengthy list of Wilson County charities, as well as awarding annual scholarships to deserving Wilson County students.
"In the next few weeks, hearing how we can better serve Wilson County is our goal,” Lehman said. “We believe there are enormous opportunities so members of our staff, including Belinda Dinwiddie, a former Lebanon resident, and I look forward to the chance to talk to and hear from as many Wilson County residents as may want to meet with us.
"We want to listen and we want to help you understand what we do and how we can help you help others. We want to create legacies for people like Coach Atkinson, but also discuss how we, along with the community, can ensure that there are always charitable dollars dedicated to preserving Wilson County’s quality of life.”
Lehman emphasized that it is important to get voices from the entire community and she urged anyone interested in participating in the process to call Dinwiddie at the Community Foundation at 615-321-4939.
Atkinson, who once got national recognition during an interview with Alabama's Bryant on NBC's Today Show, is just one of many Lehman said "who have legacies of caring for those living in Wilson County.
"While we have a wonderful track record of investment in Wilson County, we realize we need to invite people from every corner of Wilson County to be part of protecting the past, present and future of this community. To do so, we need to offer our help in crafting ways in which we can work together to do more to sustain important institutions and causes and, if appropriate, honor and protect the legacies of individuals who made a difference such as Coach Atkinson," Lehman said.