K nown to most people in Memphis as simply “Father Don,” the Rev. Donald Edgar Mowery spends much of his time these days reflecting on his legacy of service to others, especially during the three decades between 1963 and 1995 when he led the Episcopal-based Youth Service in Memphis, Inc., and later the nationally recognized Youth Service, USA.
Now, at age 83, Mowery is sharing the story of his life’s work with these social-service organizations in Spiritual Networking: Father Don Mowery and Youth Service, a newly released book written by local authors David Yawn and Darrell B. Uselton. The pioneer youth-training programs that Youth Service developed here in Memphis and all across America were largely the result of this one man’s efforts.
Mowery grew up in Chattanooga, attending Baylor School for Boys, a military school for grades 7-12, developing an exemplary work ethic that went well with a sense of determination derived from his parents and grandparents.
Early on, Mowery also had an uncanny sense for selling. At age 10, he sold magazines and Christmas cards; at 14, he began selling ice cream from a pushcart. He soon purchased a panel truck, which enabled him to add a line of frozen-food products to his door-to-door business. Mowery also held jobs in his father’s businesses, gaining a broader perspective of commerce and trade. In fact, he worked in the funeral home business while attending the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and maintained his funeral director’s license for more than 50 years.
After graduating from UTC in 1953, Mowery studied for the Episcopal priesthood at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. He was ordained a deacon in 1956 at St. Paul’s Church in Chattanooga and then was assigned by Bishop John Vander Horst to St. Andrew’s Church in the Green Hills neighborhood in Nashville. There, Mowery assisted in transforming a struggling mission into an active and thriving congregation. On January 18, 1957, he was ordained an Episcopal priest at St. Andrew’s. It was from this church that Mowery became known for his work with young people who attended several Nashville high schools. Partly on account of his influence in the Green Hills community, then-Mayor Ben West named Mowery chaplain for the Nashville Police Department.
In January of 1963, Mowery was asked to come to Memphis by the board of directors of Youth Service, a then-fledgling social-services agency sponsored by the Episcopal Church and supported by United Way, to take charge of operations. Mowery spent the next three decades building Youth Service Memphis into a viable and dynamic organization, one that over time became a model for dozens of similar programs across the country.
In the beginning, however, Youth Service’s reach was limited, like many other church programs for young people in the city. But in the summer of 1963, Mowery developed a series of youth camping programs designed to provide urban boys a chance to experience the outdoors and learn valuable life lessons. Mowery’s ambitions extended beyond the Episcopal Church; he began working closely with the Memphis Police Department, Memphis Juvenile Court, and the Memphis City Schools, recruiting youth for his summer camps.
His timing was perfect, given the upheavals urban America was experiencing during the 1960s. From the beginning, Mowery worked with both white and black youth; his camps were integrated in 1964. The camping experience by itself promoted discipline and helped disadvantaged young people direct their energy into constructive rather than destructive pursuits. But Youth Service also brought black and white adolescents together, in many cases for the first time. Today, Mowery’s work as a pioneer in the area of youth integration does not always get the recognition it deserves.
Mowery’s success with innovative youth training programs under the Youth Service umbrella was a direct result of what he calls his “spiritual network.” He worked tirelessly to build bridges with influential people in the Memphis community, both to generate funding for his programs and to increase their visibility throughout the community.
Elvis Presley, for example, became a key supporter of Mowery’s work; after all, Elvis had grown up in Lauderdale Courts, one of the many Memphis housing projects well served by Youth Service during this period. Interestingly, Elvis’ donations always came with a catch; he insisted that they never be put into the general-operating fund, but instead set aside for “special projects.” No one knew at that time how much of an impact Elvis’ contributions would have on the future of the organization.
The year 1968 was not one of Memphis’ best, as fear and confusion gripped the city following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The unrest obviously had a considerable impact on Youth Service’s programs, which had already become a stabilizing force in the community, reaching out as they did with compassion and innovation to both the black and white communities.
After King’s death, however, Shelby County Sheriff Bill Morris warned Mowery that his interracial camping groups were at some risk, gathering as they did then at T.O. Fuller State Park. As Mowery reached for a safe haven for his young people, his Youth Service Board president, Lester Crain, a former Navy pilot, suggested contacting the Naval Air Station in Millington, as a possible relocation site. After much “spiritual networking,” Mowery persuaded Navy officials to allow the agency to use the base for its camping program.
The move was wildly successful, so much so that Mowery took the Millington model to other American cities located near military bases, traveling around the country convincing generals and admirals to embrace his youth integration programs. As a result, Youth Service, USA was born. By 1985, Memphis-style programs were operating in dozens of cities all across America. Mowery’s concept is generally considered the most innovative social-service effort developed between the military and civilian sectors in the late-twentieth century. Ironically, much of the funding for this national expansion came from that “special projects” fund that Elvis Presley had supported in the 1960s.
Mowery’s work with Youth Service, USA became the premier template for a viable national program designed for underprivileged and troubled youth that enjoyed accolades from the highest levels. The growth and expansion of Youth Service, USA across this myriad of military bases is unparalleled. No other civilian organization, before or since, has been awarded the use of military facilities in both the manner and scope that Youth Service was allowed. In the process, Mowery and Youth Service garnered 13 Freedom Foundation awards for their efforts.
Mowery also garnered support from four U.S. presidents in his effort to build a national program. Three members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, representing the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force, actively supported the agency and served at various times on the board of directors for Youth Service, USA. Legendary coaches Bud Wilkinson and John Wooden also served as board members, among the many notable contributors who helped forge the success of Youth Service programs.
But Mowery has never forgotten his Memphis roots. He put his “spiritual networking” on the air on radio station WHBQ in 1970. Talk It Out with Father Don was designed to let teenagers share their concerns. Talk It Out is now one of the oldest continuing radio programs in the country, and over the decades, Mowery has hosted thousands of celebrity guests.
As the winding down of the Cold War brought about the closing of numerous military bases across the country, Mowery refocused his efforts in the Memphis market. Under the Youth Service umbrella, Memphian Becky Wilson founded the Bridge Builders program in 1989, which became the capstone program of Youth Service. Mowery continued to preside over Youth Service until his retirement in 1995. Since then he has been a consultant for The Urban Child Institute, continuing to work with young people and families in the Memphis area.
In 1996, Youth Service in Memphis became BRIDGES, Inc., led by a new president and CEO, Jim Boyd, who successfully ran the organization for 12 years. In 2012, Cynthia Ham was chosen as president and CEO of BRIDGES. She continues the Mowery legacy of supporting youth in the Memphis community, providing year-round high-quality programs and workshops in diversity, leadership, human relations, and community impact for the young people of Memphis.
Mowery’s “spiritual network” has thus been transformed, and yet it endures. From his early days in Nashville to the BRIDGES program of today, his legacy continues to influence countless lives of young people in need of support, direction, and inspiration.
On January 20, 2014, Mowery received the 2014 “Be The Dream” Martin Luther King Jr. Legacy Award from Memphis Mayor A C Wharton at the Mason Temple in Memphis. The award was an appropriate recognition for Father Don’s lifelong devotion to the youth of America.