Don Bryant

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Had he lived one more day, it's no secret where Don Bryant would have been Thursday afternoon – in his recliner in front of the big-screen TV in his Charlotte home watching his beloved Davidson Wildcats play Marquette in the NCAA basketball tournament.

There was never a more passionate Davidson fan than Bryant, his friends say.

And there was never a more devoted servant of Charlotte.

"There was Charlotte and then everybody else," Cameron Icard, Bryant's daughter, said Thursday. "Nobody was a close second."

Early Thursday, Donald Grant Bryant, a long-time Charlotte funeral home operator, died at his home after declining health from Parkinson's disease. He would have been 90 in April.

He was a two-term Charlotte City Council member in the early 1960s, and a former president of the Charlotte Chamber, Charlotte City Club, Discovery Place, United Way and Charlotte Country Club. And for more than 60 years, Bryant ran the family funeral business, Harry & Bryant Funeral Home, with his father James and brother Bob.

Growing up, Bryant's family lived in a house near the golf course at Myers Park Country Club. As boys, he and brother Bob would wait until the golfers had left and sneak onto the course as night fell. For hours, they'd hit golf balls.

"He became a doggone good golfer," said first cousin Bryant Skinner of Jacksonville, Fla. "He was all his life."

After graduating from now-closed Central High School in 1941, Bryant enrolled at Davidson College, starting a lifelong love affair.

His freshman year, he and Skinner roomed together. "That's when we became close," Skinner said. "Even then, you could tell Don was going to be a leader."

After America was drawn into World War II, the cousins left Davidson for the military.

Bryant joined the Army Air Corps and was sent to Fairbanks, Alaska, where he was a cold weather test pilot on B-17 bombers.

He spent two years there and after the war returned to Davidson, where he played some football and basketball – but was a stalwart golfer. He graduated in 1948.

By then, James Bryant – who began working for funeral director John Harry in 1924 – owned the business. He wanted his sons to join him. Bob came to work in 1945; Don five years later.

"It wasn't his first choice," Skinner said. "He wanted to own a restaurant. He felt the family pull and became quite successful."

Like his father, Don Bryant also became civic-minded.

He served on city council from 1961 to 1965, during a troubling period for Southern cities.

"He asked good questions; he was a thinking man on the council," said Charlotte native Jack Claiborne, a retired Observer editor and longtime friend.

Bryant also led a long list of civic organizations. He chaired the Baptist Children's Home of North Carolina, the Mercy Hospital board and the United States Golf Association's men's amateur championship in 1972.

"Dad was always about other people," Icard said. "He always thought that you're here to help and serve others. It's just who he was."

Yet much of his reservoir of energy was reserved for golf and Davidson, his friends say.

Even when Bryant could hardly stand, he'd get longtime friend Ben Vernon of Cornelius to take him to the golf course.

"You'd almost have to hold him up, but he loved going to the course and taking swings," Vernon said. "You could see the joy on his face as soon as he stepped up to the tee."

At Davidson, he chaired search committees for coaches, and with Vernon and others helped get the school's golf program on solid footing.

He's a member of Davidson's Sports Hall of Fame. The press box at the football stadium is named for him.

When his health allowed, he'd travel great distances to watch Davidson play basketball. Until recently, wife Frances would drive him to home games. He made a half dozen home games during the season that suddenly ended Thursday.

"He loved everything about the college," Vernon said. "He bled Davidson through and through."

Perlmutt: 704-358-5061
Published in Charlotte Observer on Mar. 21, 2013
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