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Barbara and Pitt Hyde Commit to Long-Term Results for Memphis

In the field of education, Memphis may just be the new “it” city. Having won recent grants from the Gates Foundation and Race to the Top, many have dubbed it an “overnight success.”

But a proud Barbara Hyde will tell you these opportunities were not so sudden at all. In fact, they were 20 years in-the-making, starting with her husband, Joseph “Pitt” Reeves Hyde III, quietly making the rounds in the Tennessee Statehouse.

The Hyde family’s commitment to Memphis, not only in improving its education, but also in preserving its authentic natural and cultural assets, dates back even further. When Pitt’s grandfather arrived in the early 1890s and co-founded the wholesale grocery business, Malone & Hyde, he also found a city that needed his help. This led to the creation of the J.R. Hyde Sr. Family Foundation.

Two generations later, enter grandson Pitt, who dramatically expanded Malone & Hyde before founding the auto parts distributor, AutoZone. In 1992, when Pitt took the helm of his grandfather’s foundation, he also founded the J.R. Hyde III Family Foundation. Today, Barbara serves as President of both foundations, which continue their focus on Memphis.

Believing that politics stand in the way of change, the Hydes have come at education reform from every angle—relentlessly focusing on the things they can change, patiently pursing quality, and abandoning budget constraints when opportunity knocks.

Leading by example, the Hydes have rallied Memphis’ small pool of philanthropists to come to the city’s aid. A case in point is the Civil Rights Museum, which the Hydes and others helped create in the Lorraine Hotel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot. While the museum celebrates the freedom that was at the heart of King’s message, it also stands as a testament to activism, not only of Dr. King but also of the Hydes and of others who are supporting Memphis’ renaissance.

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The value that really underpins what we do in our philanthropy is about a great belief in the capacity of the individual to rise above [his or her] circumstances, and so much of what we try to do is to empower the individual. Of course, that’s why education is one of the big things, because an education empowers people. We try to work in ways that help people to be able to solve their own problems.

A value that undergirds our philanthropy is a deep sense [of the] phrase: 'To whom much is given, much is expected.'

We all roll up our sleeves, and none of us are too good to do anything. If we need to go meet with a politician [or] a bureaucrat, either one of us, or the staff -- we all jump in there, and it’s really whatever it takes to get the job done.

Perseverance is a key component in trying to change public policy, because it doesn’t happen overnight -- unlike business, where, if you have a great idea or great concept [for] how to do something better, you can usually implement that fairly rapidly. In the public sector, it’s a very different ball game. You’ve got to convince a whole group of people with strong vested interest in the status quo.

Remember that you can do things as an individual that are absolutely important...Don’t be afraid to get in there and recruit great candidates if you think the leadership’s not doing the right thing. Use your political giving in a smart way. We’ve tried to do that, for example, around School Board elections in Memphis...to encourage terrific young leaders to step forward and run for the school board and to help raise them money.

The reason we’re so focused on Memphis...we have limited resources...and because so many of those problems involve trying to change public practice and policy, which takes such a long time and so much work on the ground...we felt like if we could solve these problems...that they could become models that later could apply elsewhere. But these were such hard intractable problems to solve that we needed that kind of focus over a sustained period of time to be able to really effect change that was going to work. -- Pitt Hyde