Dortch Oldham dies at 89

GOP stalwart and former Southwestern Co. CEO shaped many lives [Updated 9:50 a.m. Sat. 28 Feb. with quote from Southwestern CEO]

Dortch Oldham, who helped turn Nashville's Southwestern Co. into a sales dynamo that influenced the lives of thousands of young people who worked for it during college, passed away yesterday after a long illness. He was 89.

Born into humble circumstances in the farming community of Pleasant Shade, Tenn., Oldham hitchhiked to Nashville at the age of 16 with a few dollars in his pocket and a notion to go to work selling bibles door-to-door for Southwestern, one of the city's oldest companies.

Thirty years later, as chairman, CEO and majority owner of Southwestern, he and fellow shareholders sold it to the Times Mirror Co. for a reported $17 million.

Oldham came home from the Second World War to work as a sales manager at Southwestern. He and a fellow manager, Fred Landers, helped engineer dramatic growth in the business, which branched out from bibles to sales of a variety of educational books. Its collegiate sales force numbered as high as 5,000 in some summers.

He bought a controlling interest in the company in 1959, remained as president after its sale in 1966, and left in 1972 to prepare a run for governor of Tennessee.

Oldham lost his bid for the Republican nomination in 1974 but went on to serve as chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party later in the 1970s. He was active in national GOP fundraising as well.

Oldham was a long-serving director on the boards of First American Corp. and Willis Coroon, among other companies. He served as president of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce and chaired the boards of the YMCA, Salvation Army, and other charitable organizations. He served as a trustee of the University of Richmond and Montgomery Bell Academy, was an elder at Westminster Presbyterian Church, and was a member of the Downtown Rotary Club for more than 50 years.

Oldham was a 1941 graduate of the University of Richmond, which bestowed an honorary doctorate on him in 1974.

He served as to the rank of captain in the U.S. Army Air Forces between 1943 and 1946, seeing military action in China and Burma.

Several people whose lives Oldham touched have offered tributes to him today.

"Tennesseans will greatly miss Dortch Oldham’s energy, initiative, and generous good works," said Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). "He helped build the Southwestern Company, the Republican Party, and Westminster Presbyterian Church. Honey and I, and many others, have lost a good friend."

Alexander defeated Oldham in the 1974 Republican gubernatorial primary, but the two remained friends. During Alexander's administration as governor, President Ronald Reagan named Oldham to Commissioner General of the U.S. Government for the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville.

"I count my time working for Dortch Oldham as one of the most important formative experiences of my life," commented Texas Governor Rick Perry, who sold books for Southwestern while a student at Texas A&M University in the early 1970s.

"There is nothing that tests your commitment to a goal like getting a few doors closed in your face" Perry said. "Mr. Oldham taught legions of young people to communicate quickly, clearly and with passion, a lesson that has served me well in my life since then. Mr. Oldham will be missed."

Nashville real estate investor and longtime Republican fundraiser Ted Welch sold books for Southwestern starting at the age of 19 and went to work with Oldham just after he finished graduate school at the University of Indiana. "Next to my parents, he had more influence on me than anybody else on earth," Welch said.

"He always set the proper example, always said the right thing, whether the situation called for a serious mood or a light mood," Welch recalled. He cited one instance when Oldham told him something he needed to hear.

"I was flying pretty high when I was selling all those books and had all those salesmen under me," Welch said. But then came an off year, with less-than-stellar sales.

"Dortch, I don't understand what's happening," Welch remembered complaining. "It's not fair. It's not right."

Oldham's reply: "Let me tell you something, Welch. For a guy like you, it doesn't hurt anything to get knocked on your ass once in a while."

Welch says he has always taken that advice to heart.

"Dortch's passing is a time for mourning and reflection and also a time of celebration and appreciation for the life of this great man," Southwestern CEO Henry Bedford said. "The entire Southwestern family, including thousands of current and former Southwestern dealers over several generations, were changed forever due to Dortch's pioneering leadership and example."

Nashville artist Tony Gerber said Oldham was the first investor when he started his first business, an art gallery and frame shop on Church Street, in 1983 at the age of 22.

"He was an amazing individual who had confidence and interest in young people, enough to put money up and help me realize my dream at the time," Gerber said. "Even though there were differences in our outlook, he saw the talent part of me and supported it."

Former Governor Winfield Dunn said Oldham was instrumental in his winning the state's top office in 1970. Oldham served as Davidson County finance chairman for Dunn, who was from Memphis and faced a challenge winning over Middle Tennesseans. "He used the same enthusiasm and sales skills he had throughout his career to help me become governor," Dunn recalled.

Dunn said he "counseled with" Oldham prior to the 1974 campaign, though the governor did not endorse a GOP candidate in the primary to replace him. (Tennessee governors were limited to a single term at the time.)

"He was an absolutely magnetic human being," Dunn said.

State Comptroller Justin Wilson echoed that sentiment. "You were around him for twenty minutes and you thought you had been his friend for life," Wilson said. "Fortunately, I was around him a whole lot longer than twenty minutes."

Surviving Oldham are his wife of more than 60 years, Lenore "Sis" Huebner Oldham, as well as five sons: Dortch (Carol); Greg (Anne) of Portland, Ore; Peter (Kim); Danny (Laurie) and Mark (Sharon). Also among his survivors are 13 grandchildren and a great-grandchild, born just this week.

The family has stated that in lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to Westminster Presbyterian Church, 3900 West End Avenue, 37205; The Nashville Rotary Service Trust, P O Box 110102, Nashville, 37222; the YMCA Foundation, 900 Church Street, 37203; or the charity of one's choice.

Visitation will take place at Westminster Presbyterian from 4 to 6 p.m. today and again at 1 p.m. tomorrow, followed by a memorial service at 2 p.m.