Remembering Father Don Mowery: 1931-2018

Posted by knetzler on Jun 13, 2018

The entire BRIDGES family mourns the loss of the Reverend Donald E. Mowery, who passed away yesterday, June 12, at age 86. Our thoughts are with his wife of 35 years, Julie, and their extended family.

For generations, the name “Father Don” has been synonymous with selfless dedication to the lives of young people in Memphis. A Yale Divinity School graduate and ordained Episcopal priest, Father Don came to Memphis in 1963 to lead a new social service ministry called Youth Service Inc.—the precursor to the modern-day BRIDGES USA.

Father Don’s leadership in our organization spanned more than 30 years, and it’s because of his incredible heart for youth that BRIDGES is now celebrating its 30th anniversary of the Bridge Builders program in 2018.

“Father Don had a compassionate heart and a great vision,” said philanthropist Becky Wilson, who approached Mowery in 1988 with the idea for Bridge Builders, which would become Youth Service’s premier program. “He reached out to young people from disadvantaged circumstances and did his best to provide them with healthy opportunities to better themselves. BRIDGES benefited greatly from the foundation he built through Youth Service, and he will be missed.”

During Father Don’s tenure, Youth Service transformed from an agency that provided services out of an office to one that intentionally ventured out into communities to meet youth where they are. It also became one of the first youth agencies in Memphis to integrate its programs, and Father Don established critical relationships with government leaders and Memphis City Schools. When civil unrest following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., made it increasingly difficult to find outdoor spaces for integrated youth programs, Father Don forged a key partnership with the Naval Air Station in Millington.

“I am saddened to learn of Father Don’s death,” said Jim Boyd, who stepped to the helm at Youth Service following Mowery’s retirement in 1994. “He was a pioneer in youth work who developed powerful programs that served all youth no matter race or class and whose innovations in serving youth made Youth Service a name known nationally. But more importantly, he personally touched the lives of hundreds if not thousands of youth in Memphis with his empathy and caring. He truly made a difference, and many of us are the better for his life and ministry.”

Father Don carefully crafted a network of supporters that included Elvis Presley, four U.S. Presidents, and three Joint Chiefs of Staff. In 1970 he debuted a popular radio show called “Talk It Out,” and he helped establish four major youth programs locally and expanded three of them to over 120 military bases across the country.

“Father Don’s entire 60-year career as a priest was devoted to inspiring and helping young people build and maintain successful and rewarding lives,” said Darrell Uselton, who penned Mowery’s biography, Spiritual Networking. “However, behind every Youth Service program was his fervent Christian concern for the well-being of all people—young and old, fortunate and the less fortunate. Father Don proved to the nation how youth training and leadership development programs can transform young people into productive and positive citizens.”

“Father Don’s legacy is such an important one in the evolution from Youth Service to BRIDGES,” said Cynthia Ham, BRIDGES President and CEO. “We are reminded every day by the Father Don memorial wall in our board room of his huge heart and his incredible impact on the lives of so many young people. His generous spirit will always be with us as we develop young leaders who will continue to make Memphis, and the world, a better place for all.”