William B. "Billy" Dunavant Jr., world-renowned revolutionary Memphis cotton merchant who loved his family, his God, his dogs, his business, his city and somehow happily and flawlessly intertwined them in his 88 remarkable years on earth, died on September 11, 2021.
When Billy spoke, people listened if they wanted to learn something. He had a computer-chip mind that worked a million miles an hour and enabled him to consummate lucrative business deals from anywhere he had access to communication, from his Dunavant Enterprises office in Memphis to a trout stream in Montana.
He was a man with layers of brilliance mixed with admirable, unpretentious simplicity. He was at ease and as interested in kibitzing with a security guard or a waiter or any hard-working average Joe as he was schmoozing with presidents of countries and CEOs.
Billy liked to be called "Billy" rather than Mr. Dunavant, favored blue jeans instead of a business suit, enjoyed a good steak and one-scoop of vanilla ice cream in a dish rather than a five-course meal and preferred George Strait songs over any other music on earth.
He was often the smartest person in the room who already knew the answers before he asked the questions. In areas of business that he needed expertise he didn't possess, he hired the best of the best.
Billy was a man of action, not reaction. Once upon a time, he couldn't find a daily place to play tennis in Memphis. So, just like that, he developed The Racquet Club into a world-class facility that attracted an annual pro tennis tournament. And he suddenly found himself playing exhibition doubles matches with such all-time greats as Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Jimmy Connors and the list goes on.
Billy wasn't intimidated. He ALWAYS enjoyed the challenge, whether he was trying to close a multi-million business deal with hard-drinking Chinese businessmen or outshooting his friends and family in a duck blind.
Billy loved to compete, whether it was in tennis (which he played collegiately at Vanderbilt), golf (he was a 4-handicap who quit the sport in his 30s because it was too time-consuming) or beating high school kids in basketball shooting contests.
He was the first to admit he was a terrible loser.
Billy's father Buck not only gave his son the gift of knowing how to choose quality cotton, but also his love of the outdoors. Buck and his fellow cotton merchants formed a bond through hunting, fishing and selling.
Billy, an only but not a lonely child, knew from the time he was nine years old it was the life he wanted and the one he eventually lived.
While Billy took the family cotton business to unprecedented heights – he was the first American merchant to expand his business to the international market – his secret of his success remained grounded in two things his dad taught him.
First, if you have a bad business day, you shake the dust from your feet, you learn from it and move on.
Secondly, a man's handshake on a business deal is his word and contracts are merely formality.
Anybody who received a Billy handshake knew this, whether it was closing a business deal or him donating money whether he was asked to or not.
He was a tough, demanding boss who held his employees accountable as he did himself as he was always the first to admit when he made a mistake.
Billy trusted his hires would perform up to task and he generously rewarded them monetarily and with respect and fairness. It was why many of his employees worked 25 or more years.
His business competitors admired and respected him because he never took shortcuts and did everything with class.
As he acquired wealth and fame, he learned to work hard and play harder.
Few people had more fun than Billy. His mother Dorothy taught him to laugh, joke, play and love and it became part of his D.N.A.
Nobody enjoyed practical jokes more than Billy, whether it was sending fake snakes in the mail to a nephew or throwing a niece's sandal up in a tree. And those were the tame pranks.
Billy and his close friends enjoyed adventures around the world, from getting stopped by armed guards while hunting in Cuba, to having the Canadian Royal Mounties search his plane looking for illegally breasted geese, to trout fishing in Alaska.
His friends also learned that if you were his friend, you were his friend for life and he anointed you with a one-size-fits-all-his friends-nickname.
His loyalty was legendary, but so was his generosity.
In the early 1980s, he bought the Memphis Showboats, a USFL franchise, because he thought it would benefit the city of Memphis and prove to the NFL that Memphis deserved an expansion franchise.
The city didn't receive one, yet Billy continued as an avid financial supporter of the annual AutoZone Liberty Bowl game.
He was on the ground floor of donating money to help Memphis land the headquarters of Ducks Unlimited and aided the PGA tour in helping build the World Golf Hall of Fame in Florida as well as donating $1 million to start the PGA's First Tee program for underprivileged youth.
Billy had always had a giving heart – he donated millions to various organizations no matter how big or small – but his love and benevolence expanded 30 years ago when he married his wife Tommie and added daughter Kelli to his well-rounded life.
It was the perfect match. Tommie was a highly educated, financially secure, go-with-the-flow drama-free woman who provided Billy with an endless supply of love, laughter, support and timely guidance.
She smoothed his sometimes brusque and rough edges. She was his rock, his life partner and daily organizer and his protector to the very end.
Billy is survived by Tommie, his eight children, 22 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.
A private service is scheduled for Billy as he wished, which is a request reflecting exactly who he was.
A big deal who didn't think he was a big deal.
Published by The Daily Memphian on Sep. 13, 2021.