Conservation icon, mother, and staunch friend, Shirley Caldwell-Patterson was born on November 6, 1919 to parents Meredith Caldwell and Ellen Thomas Caldwell. The second of four children, her family was rounded out by brother, Meredith Jr, and sisters Allison(Byrd) and Ellen. She died May 17, 2016.
Shirley was the last member of her generation of the descendants of her grandfather, James E. Caldwell, family patriarch and founder of the Cumberland Telephone and Telegraph Company, which became Southern Bell. Making the most of a blissful childhood, Shirley grew up next door to her grandparents’ home, Longview, at the corner of Franklin Road and Caldwell Lane and their adjoining farm, Elysian Fields. Shirley’s lifelong ability to fight for what she believed in was inspired by her grandmother, Ma May, who raised the money for the Peace Monument that now stands at I-440 and Granny White Pike. Shirley wrote, “to consider what she accomplished makes me grateful for the pattern she set — not just for the adage ‘to whom much is given, much is expected’ but the joy, the fun of getting things done that need doing — things of more import than self.”
A serious young rider, Shirley started showing horses at age seven, and through her childhood showed all over the country with her mother. At the Tennessee State Fair, she and Papa, her close friend and grandfather, entered the Parent and Child Ride. Side by side they rode into the ring, he in his farm riding clothes and she in her formal riding habit, complete with lapel gardenia, kid gloves, and top hat. Shirley wrote, “Round and round we went at top speed, passing the more sedate couples as if they were tethered.” They won, hands down, a blue ribbon and a trophy. Years of riding gave her self-confidence and a love of travel, both of which fueled her all her days.
Often she would ride the Longview property with her grandfather, James E. Caldwell. Their discussions taught her about horses, cattle breeding, the evils of smoking, and especially, how to care for the land. These lessons stood Shirley in good stead the rest of her life. Her feelings for Longview and Elysian Fields, combined with her grandfather’s ideas on looking after them, provided the foundation for her interest in conservation.
When she was 15, she went to New York City to take college preparatory classes at The Spence School. With visits to art museums, opera in Mrs. Andrew Carnegie’s box every Friday night, and stimulating classes built wholly on discussion, her high school years are an example of how good teaching can impart intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm in a relatively short time. Shirley graduated in the class of 1937 and went on to Vanderbilt, where she majored in French and graduated Magna Cum Laude in 1941.
She married David Patterson at Belle Meade, on Harding Road, in May 1942. The Meredith Caldwell’s were the last family to live at Belle Meade, which they sold to the city of Nashville to become the Belle Meade Plantation. Shirley and David had two children: David and Sheppard, joined the Junior League, and fueled her love of reading from Moon’s Drug Store’s lending collection. She took a correspondence course in bookkeeping, kept the books at her family’s Nashville Union Stockyards and was its Vice President and Treasurer.. After taking archeological studies at the University of Missouri she began her travels to Greece, where she took classes, taught English, and then began doing archeological digs in Greece and Israel. All her life, she crossed paths with Nashvillian-moved-to-Memphis Lucius Burch. Their time together was spent traveling, hunting and fishing, and always, always, eating well, reading deeply, and enjoying the company of friends, friends, and more friends — an outstanding accumulation of extraordinary people far too numerous to name. Besides her family and friends, Shirley had a great and unquenchable love for the outdoors. Her desire to protect the environment was born from these trips and a lifetime spent enjoying nature. She said, “I’m a fly fisherman. I have a particular affection for rivers.”
In 1997, at the age of 79, Shirley saw Vic Scoggin’s documentary about his swimming the entire Cumberland River and she was appalled by the river’s condition. With two friends, she started the Cumberland River Compact, dedicated to enhance the water quality of the entire 17,000 square mile watershed of the Cumberland River. Thus began her call to service.
“Shirley’s particular brand of environmental work was driven by her mantra of ‘education, cooperation and communication.’ Like everything she did, Shirley’s approach was unusual, personal, and successful. Her way of working with people instead of against them is part of what made her brand of conservation great, and, because of that, she created one of the very first watershed organizations with a collaborative model. The Compact was the first to partner with developers, when no other environmental group was willing to work with them, and this led to a grand shift in sustainability, benefitting rivers, habitat, and landscapes. Because of Shirley’s framework, the Compact was held up as a model across the country and, because of her leadership, they were welcomed into offices, where with another leader, they never could have ventured. Because of the Cumberland River Compact, her work has benefitted more than two million people who depend on the Cumberland Basin” (Contributed by her environmental conservation friend Margo Farnsworth.)
At age 87, she was honored with the highest volunteer award given by the U.S. President, the President’s Volunteer Service Call to Service Award, for nearly 6,000 hours of volunteer service.
She was also a Charter Member of the original board of trustees of the Nature Conservancy of Tennessee, helped establish the Tennessee Environmental Council, and was its treasurer for 17 years and president for two. A member of the original Environmental Action Fund, she was a founder of the Lucius Burch Center for Western Tradition in Dubois, Wyoming as well as the Lucius Burch Conservation Funds of Nashville and Memphis. Shirley was a founding member of Leadership Nashville. She received the Z. Carter Patten Award from the Tennessee Conservation League for her outstanding contributions to conservation in Tennessee. She was awarded River Network’s James R. Compton River Achievement award. She initiated the Gaia Fund at the Nashville Community Foundation, worked extensively with Tennessee Parks and Greenways, and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation awarded her its Lifetime Achievement Award.
When asked how she found time and energy to pursue so many environmental battles, she quoted Nathan Bedford Forrest, “I get up in the morning, put on my boots, and start fighting.” She often said, “One of the best things about a chronic volunteer, there’s always something that needs doing when you show up.”
Continuing the family writing tradition, begun with her grandparents’ memoirs: Recollections of a Lifetime and A Chapter in the Life of a Little Girl of the Confederacy, in 2003, Shirley edited and co-authored Lucius, the personal papers and writings of Memphis environmentalist and attorney Lucius Burch, and, at her death, was making final updates to her family biography and autobiography, Caldwell & Company, Uncle Rogers, and Me. Her golden years were spent at Richland Place where she often said there was no better place at this stage of life for me to be, surrounded by incredibly stimulative and interesting people. She did much of her late life writing here with the editing assistance of her close friend Bob Thomson. Until the end she acted as the evening dinner coordinator with her close friend Anna Durham in putting together nightly a table of their convivial friends.
Shirley stayed interested and interesting until she left us. When speaking of her childhood, and this could be applied to every aspect of Shirley’s life, she said, “If you were ever bored, it was your own fault.” In recent years, when asked how she was doing, Shirley always delighted in answering, “As I please.” This hard-won statement applied equally to her incredibly satisfying, multi-faceted life and her smooth passing from this world.
Shirley was preceded in death by her parents, siblings, former husband David Patterson, and companion of 28 years, Lucius Burch. She is survived by her son David Patterson Jr (Libby)., daughter Sheppard Speer, Stuart Florida, two granddaughters Meredith Gardner (Peter), Winter Park Florida, and Bethea Patterson (soon to be Mrs. Richard Schoenfeld) NYC. And two beloved great grandchildren Caldwell and Griffin Gardner.
When asked about her own impending and unavoidable death, Shirley said, “I may go whoopin’ and hollerin’, but I hope not. As soon as I convince at least some of mankind that we cannot continue to befoul our earth and expect to survive as a species — I’m ready to move on.”
Shirley was a great woman who will be remembered by her friends and family for her indomitable spirit, her crackling intellect, and by future generations for the green mark she left upon rivers and the land.
So many unforgettable things to so many people, she was Shirley, Miss Caldwell, Mrs. Caldwell-Patterson, Mama, Boss. She will long be remembered and long missed.
To honor her life and legendary achievements, please make any donations to the Shirley Caldwell-Patterson Wildlife Fund at the Nashville Community Foundation.
There will be a celebration of her life held at 10 A.M., Saturday, June 25, 2016 at the Bridge Building Event Center, 2 Victory Avenue, Nashville, TN 37213. Interment will be in Mount Olivet Cemetery.Print Obituary & Condolences