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Lyman D. Aldrich

Lyman D. Aldrich, Memphis in May founder and its president in 1977 and 2000, is executive vice president of Cushman & Wakefield / Commercial Advisors. He developed River Row, one of the first Downtown Memphis condominium projects, in 1979.

Memphis in May almost failed to launch

By Published: May 01, 2019 5:11 PM CT

In the early and mid-1970s, the United States was hit with a very serious recession, and because of the situation Memphis was already in, it felt more like a depression.

Imagine Beale Street closed and boarded up; The Peabody closed and being sold on the courthouse steps; the Orpheum Theatre running X-rated movies. No Pyramid, no FedExForum, no Harbor Town, no South Bluffs, no South Main, no Mud Island. There were more people living in the Shelby County Jail Downtown than the rest of Downtown. The Chamber of Commerce was nearly bankrupt, and to exacerbate it all, black and white citizens did not get along.

<strong>Lyman D. Aldrich</strong> (Photo courtesy<br />of Stephanie Norwood)

Lyman D. Aldrich (Photo courtesy
of Stephanie Norwood)

The assassin James Earl Ray had followed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Memphis in April of 1968, and when he took Dr. King’s life, it changed Memphis forever. There were riots in the streets, people killed and hurt, and most of the citizens of the city decided that Downtown was too dangerous to visit unless it was to go to their jobs, which drastically decreased over the next few years.

However, that same year, Alfred Alperin and his wife visited the month-long Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, and suggested to the Memphis Chamber that it produce a similar event. In 1974, the Chamber opened the new Cook Convention Center under the banner of the Memphis in May International Festival Society.

The MIM Society was organized with representatives from many arts and events organizations. I was elected in 1974 to become president of the MIM Society Board in 1977.

At the time, in 1977 and the two prior years, the Chamber was nearly bankrupt and being evicted from its headquarters. The statement was made to me that I could just “tank MIM” and that “nobody would care.”

I told the Chamber that I would think about solutions. After visits with the U.S. Department of State in Washington, as well as the international departments of Memphis State University and Southwestern at Memphis (now the University of Memphis and Rhodes College), it was decided that the MIM International Society should be restructured as an economic development entity that would honor and recruit countries to invest in Memphis. The decision was made to eliminate the word “society” from its name, and start a nonprofit organization, a new 501(c)3, under the name Memphis in May International Festival Inc.

It was important that the board reflect the makeup of the community, so I visited Harold Shaw, an executive at Universal Life Insurance Co. After assuring him that the white representatives on the MIM Board would listen to what he and other minority members had to say, Shaw recruited other African-Americans, including attorney and later Judge George Brown and educators, Sandra Burke, Lawrence Blackmon and Dr. Mose Yvonne Hooks, who began the idea of an educational program honoring each country selected to be a part of MIM.

Other key participants on the first board were Martha Ellen Maxwell, Rodney Baber, Tif Bingham, Tom Hutton, Richard Bethea, Jeanne Arthur, Robin Davis, Denise Bollheimer, Carla Meisterman, Wise Smith, Virginia Whitsitt Steele and Tom Batchelor. Without them, and others too numerous to name, there would not have been a Memphis in May.

Very few events in Memphis, if any, have had the impact that MIM has had. From its beginning budget of $52,000 in 1977, the festival in 2018 generated a $137 million impact for the Memphis economy, more than $3.5 million in city and county taxes and more than 1,300 employment opportunities. That does not include the economic impact across the state.

Japan was honored in 1977. In 1979, Bill Morris, then mayor of Shelby County, and Lamar Alexander, then governor of Tennessee, went to Japan to recruit companies and came back with Sharp Electronics and 1,200 jobs.

Dr. John Gnuschke, director of the Sparks Bureau of Business and Economic Research at University of Memphis, says, “I would hate to think where Memphis would be now if there had not been a Memphis in May. It gave the city confidence when we needed it most.”

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Memphis In May

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