Three Questions with JLM Sustainers: Lucia Gilliland

Introducing Three Questions with JLM Sustainers – A new feature highlighting the inspiring legacies of our fellow Junior Leaguers.

As we reflect on our 100th year, we want to honor many of the Sustainers whose contributions have left an indelible mark on both Memphis and our JLM organization. Over the next few months in our Three Questions with JLM Sustainers feature, you’ll read fascinating stories of passion and dedication certain to deepen your pride in our amazing membership. 

Lucia Gilliland

Imagine driving past South Main and Beale and seeing a parking lot instead of the Orpheum Theatre. That may have been the sight if not for Lucia Gilliland, who led the charge to save the storied landmark. In today’s feature, we ask Lucia to catch us up with her answers to our Three Questions.

Q1. Lucia, tell us your JLM story.
When I think about what Junior League has meant to me, basically, it’s done everything for me.  The League is a great training ground for learning business and government and for making connections. I’ve been a Junior League member in three cities. First, I joined the Jackson, Mississippi, League after graduating from college. Then, in the late 1950’s, I moved to New York City and joined the League there. I married my husband, Jim, a multi-generation Memphian, in 1964, and moved here and joined the Memphis League. As an active member for many years, including serving as President in 1976-1977, I’ve always admired the way the League gets things done.

Q2. What is your favorite JLM memory?
My favorite memory is how the women of JLM voted overwhelmingly to have downtown Memphis be their first choice for League concern during my tenure.  I was especially glad to see this as a leader in the Memphis Development Foundation. The Junior League of Memphis, along with MDF, met in February at the Orpheum where JLM committed to go public and promote the Orpheum as the center of entertainment for downtown Memphis. The JLM also committed to support the Orpheum by holding our general member meetings there every month, and by creating a JLM Orpheum Committee. Many members of the League partnered with MDF and Bill Matthews, president of Union Planters National Bank, to help with efforts to save the Orpheum from the wrecking ball and preserve it as one of the city’s most loved landmarks.

At that time, it wasn’t easy for women to be involved in city and county projects.  Men were holding those positions and women took care of the home. But League members knew that women could do anything. When we heard the city was seriously considering tearing down the Orpheum theatre and replacing it with a parking lot, JLM partnered with MDF, Bill Matthews, and civic leaders to restore it.  The Orpheum was in serious trouble. Maintenance had been delayed for years. So, a group of volunteers from the League volunteered to go to Nashville with other civic leaders and persuade government leaders to find funding.  This was such a good example of what can happen when individual members, or several members, of the League partner with others in the city.  This is my favorite memory and I’m still so proud of how JLM voted to focus on downtown Memphis and the work that JLM did. 

Q3. What makes you smile when you get up in the morning?
I am uniquely blessed, and often think of the word “serendipity.” To have family in the same city is unusual, and I have three children that live here, and eight grandchildren, and a dog Lacey, who keep me going. My family visits me a lot, and we do things regularly. And, Memphis is a wonderful place to live. I’m still involved.  Right now I’m working with the Overton Park Conservancy to raise money for the endowment to preserve the only urban forest in the Southeast US in Overton Park.  It’s serendipity – how it’s all worked out where I am able to serve in a civic, philanthropic position, and spend time with family.

Pat Halloran, former 35-year President & CEO of the Orpheum, was happy to share a bit about his collaboration with Lucia.
Lucia Gilliland was the first and foremost important leader of what was then the Memphis Development Foundation. The foundation saved, restored, and expanded the Orpheum Theatre, which became ‘THE PERFORMING ARTS CENTER’ for the Mid-South.

In 1980, when the theatre began a full schedule of Broadway theatrical productions, opera, ballet, and concerts, the theatre began an average an annual attendance of 300,000.  That number of downtown visitors spurred the need for dozens of new restaurants, hotel accommodations, and made downtown attractive to new office spaces for corporations and small businesses and residential development.  

When the Orpheum presents a weeklong schedule, the restaurants are full, hotels are busy, businesses flourish, and the city is robust with sales tax income.

Lucia’s leadership, commitment and support has never wavered over the past half century.  Memphis has a lot to thank Lucia Gilliland for as we view the impact she is responsible for.
Orpheum Theater

Thanks for reading Three Questions with JLM Sustainers featuring Lucia Gilliland.


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