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A river of ideas
by Blair Dedrick

For John Stokes, it all begins with the Mississippi River.

“I've had a view of the river for about 30 years, and I don't believe I could possibly work without being able to look at the river,” he says, looking out the window of his 12th-floor office in the Morgan Keegan building on Front Street. “The reason I chose Memphis was because of the Mississippi River and the Mississippi River fly-way.”

  John Stokes

John Stokes, U of M Board of Visitors

Loving the river and the duck hunting that the river makes possible, Stokes saw an opportunity to give back when the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) was founded in 2003.

“The river is our greatest natural asset,” he says. “There's so much potential. It's an opportunity to create a world-class asset for Memphis.”

The way he speaks of the river is oddly similar to the way he speaks of the University of Memphis, where he serves on the Board of Visitors.

“As a citizen of Memphis, I grew to really appreciate what a wonderful asset the University is here,” he says. “It produces good folks who complement Memphis and it certainly adds to the quality of life for all of us who live here.”

Stokes, who is one of the founding partners of Morgan Keegan and currently vice-chair of the firm, has adopted the U of M over the years and taken it upon himself to ensure it continues to thrive and grow within the community.

“There are all sorts of things that I don't think the average citizen of Memphis thinks about as to how wonderful it is to have the University of Memphis in the community,” he says, mentioning the Ground Water Institute's research on the aqueduct, the Blue Crush partnership with the Memphis Police Department and a recent documentary on Winslow Homer produced by a University professor. “I'm so impressed with everything that's going on at the U of M.”

U.S. Postal Service Customs House  

The acquisition of downtown’s U.S. Postal Service Customs House, which will serve as the U of M School of Law, was helped along by Stokes.

With that in mind, when Stokes heard that the University's Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law needed a new building, he wanted to help and he knew just where the law school ought to be — the old U.S. Postal Service Customs House situated right across the street from his office on a piece of land deeded to the city in such a way that it can never be commercialized.

“The law school situation is sort of a bridge in a way to what I think the law school really needs and what the river really needs,” he says. “There was never any doubt that if we could pull this off, it would be so wonderful for the University of Memphis, the students who would be enrolled in law school, the entire region, the downtown area and the riverfront — it just made all the sense in the world.”

Stokes became involved when the law school was on the brink of losing its accreditation, mostly due to building flaws, in spite of a 98.5 percent job placement rate nine months after graduation and top bar exam scores.

“Something had to be done,” he says. “It became apparent to me the University of Memphis could move into the old Customs House, which is without a doubt one of the greatest architectural buildings in the South, and maybe the whole country.”

The land on which the Customs House sits was given to the city by the Overtons with the stipulation attached that it was only to be used for public purpose. Today, that property is home to the Customs House, a library and a couple of parking garages.

Stokes and the RDC believe moving the law school to the Customs House would be entirely within the public purpose requirements in addition to showcasing a beautiful building and stimulating more development downtown.

“Hopefully, having these students there will activate the riverfront and riverfront amenities,” Stokes says. “Hopefully, the pull there will be enough to get things started.”

Stokes went to University President Shirley Raines and committed himself to helping achieve that goal by pledging personal financial donations, fund raising among his friends and colleagues and helping influence the necessary political forces.

“Because it's such an attractive building, it would be so appealing to you or me or anybody else to go to school in this building overlooking the Mississippi River and be in downtown where the courts are and most of the law firms,” he says. “So, we set out to make that happen.”

The process involved many meetings with government officials, including one in Washington D.C. for which Stokes flew University officials on his private plane since there wasn't a commercial flight that would meet their schedule.

Together, Raines, Stokes and University and RDC officials convinced Governor Phil Bredesen that the law school would be better off downtown and the postmaster general to move the occupying postal workers out.

“Without the RDC really working hard in partnership with the law school, I don't think this move would be happening,” he says. “The RDC and the riverfront and Memphis law school all won when this thing happened.”

The law school isn't the first U of M project that Stokes has taken on. A few years ago, without knowing Athletic Director R.C. Johnson, Stokes wrote a letter to him suggesting that the University recruit a “big-time, nationally known coach.”

When John Calipari joined the Tiger basketball team, Stokes became an ambassador to help the program.

“It's so exciting to be a part of the University of Memphis ,” he says, adding that he never misses a home game. “It's enhanced the quality of my life. I get so excited about basketball and about football.”

Stokes is a third-generation Vanderbilt graduate, but has “adopted” the U of M.

“As just a citizen living here without any ties like an alumnus might have, I've realized how important the U of M is for the whole community,” Stokes says. “It's an opportunity for me, and I appreciate the opportunity to work with the University and do what I can.”

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