Charles Kemmons Wilson, Jr. was born in Osceola, AR on January 5, 1913. The only child of Charles Kemmons Wilson and Ruby “Doll” Lloyd Hall, he was raised by his mother following his father’s death when Kemmons was only 9 months old. Doll and Kemmons returned to her hometown of Memphis shortly after the death of her young husband. Even his youth, Kemmons was enterprising and contributed to the family’s income. Kemmons’ moneymaking opportunities included magazine sales, paper routes, grocery sacker, delivery boy, soda jerk and furniture builder. At age 17 he dropped out of Central High School to become the breadwinner of the family due to the loss of Doll’s job during the Great Depression. His first successful venture involved selling popcorn outside a movie theater in Memphis. When Kemmons began to make more money from popcorn sales than the theater made in ticket sales he was forced by the theater manager to stop selling his popcorn. Kemmons went on to manage pinball machines and cigarette vending machines sharing the cash he took in with the owners of the locations. In addition, he owned an ice cream store, and eventually 11 movie theaters in several cities. At age 20, working 15-hour days, he soon had saved enough money to build a home for his mother and himself. Later, he used the house as collateral to borrow funds to purchase a regional jukebox distributorship for Wurlitzer. Learning that you could build a house, then use it to borrow more money than it cost to build it, was a life-changing experience for him. Thus began a career in construction that continued until his death. Click here for a list of all the jobs Kemmons held before founding Holiday Inn.
On December 2, 1941, Kemmons married his sweetheart, Dorothy Elizabeth Lee. Five days later Pearl Harbor was attacked while they were on their honeymoon (and jukebox convention) in New Orleans. In 1944, answering the call to service, he distinguished himself as a pilot, flying the C-47 “Gooney Bird” over one of the most dangerous aerial transport runs in the world – the China-Burma-India corridor, better known as “The Hump”. By then he and Dorothy had two children; Spence Lee and Robert Allen (Bob). After his service, Kemmons returned to Memphis and continued with his construction business and other endeavors with little time for fun and relaxation other than enjoying his growing family. Another son, Charles Kemmons Wilson, Jr and two daughters, Dorothy Elizabeth (Betty) and Carole Ann rounded out the Wilson family.
After building his first two homes on the wrong lots (both quickly outgrown by his growing family) Kemmons learned his lesson and bought 3 adjoining lots to build a house the family would not outgrow. He and Dorothy resided there for more than 50 years.
In 1951, on a family vacation, Kemmons conceived of an idea that would change the landscape of America and the hospitality industry forever. He and Dorothy took their family of seven on a road trip to our nation’s capital. Kemmons describes this trip as the most miserable trip of his life. While traveling, he became increasingly annoyed at the lack of consistency and quality in the lodging available and was outraged that he had to pay extra for his kids who stayed in the same room with them.
Kemmons decided that he was going to build a chain of motels, coast to coast, so you can travel completely across the country and stay at one of his motels each night. And with that vision, Holiday Inns was born in 1952. Click here to read more about the start of Holiday Inns. After suffering a heart attack and subsequent by-pass surgery Wilson retired from Holiday Inn in the summer of 1979. The company he created and built had 1,759 inns in more than 50 countries, annual revenues of more than $1 billion, and twice as many rooms as its closest competitor. Kemmons was 66 years old, an age when many people choose to slow down and take it easy. Instead, Kemmons discovered something new on a trip to Florida – timesharing. A new idea began to form and once again Kemmons decided to do things his way and he set about to reinvent the timeshare industry.
When he entered the fledgling timeshare industry, it had a reputation of hustlers and shady operators using quickly converted failed motels or apartment buildings along with gimmicky come-ons and high-pressure sales. With the purchase of 357 acres of mostly orange trees, Wilson began building what he referred to as his “second dream” and it was right in the back yard of Mickey Mouse’s house – Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Just as he had built Holiday Inns with the family in mind, Orange Lake Country Club was designed with features to delight all ages. Kemmons’ entry into the field gave the timeshare industry the respectability it lacked at that time. Once again, leaders in the hospitality industry were following his lead. Within a few short years, Orange Lake Country Club grew to be the largest single-site timeshare operation in the world.
Kemmons earned many awards for his accomplishments in the hospitality industry. He was named by the London Sunday Times as one of the “thousand makers of the twentieth century. He was inducted into numerous halls of fame and received awards and honors by organizations such as Junior Achievement, Horatio Alger Association, Al Chymia Shriners, Travel Industry Association, International Franchise Association and the Home Builders Association of Tennessee, to name just a few. The high school drop-out collected honorary degrees from such institutions as University of Alabama, Rhodes College, Northwood University, William Woods College and Christian Brothers University.Click here for a link to his most notable awards. His many community activities included The Memphis Area Home Builders Association (he served as president in 1955), Economic Club of Memphis, Park Avenue Lodge #362, Al Chymia Shrine Temple, Memphis Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, Variety Club International – Tent 20, and Royal Order of Jesters – Memphis Court #130.
He was an active and faithful member of Christ United Methodist Church for 47 years. Kemmons and Dorothy funded the Wilson Chapel at Christ United. He donated the music chimes for the church sanctuary in honor of his mother.
A quiet benefactor, Wilson put his money where his heart was – in the development and education of children and providing aid to families in need. Contributions have included Bridges, Inc., Christian Brothers University, Junior Achievement, Inc., Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, Memphis Union Mission, Memphis University School, Mississippi College, Quachita Baptist University, Rhodes College, Salvation Army, Mike Rose Soccer Complex, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, University of Alabama, University of Houston-Conrad Hilton College and YMCA.
His most notable contribution was made to the University of Memphis – the Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management opened August 1, 2002, exactly 50 years after the opening of the first Holiday Inn. The $15 million building that includes an 82-suite Holiday Inn with meeting facilities to accommodate 800 is located on the university campus. This training facility and hotel will be a living legacy that will provide its students a hands-on education and will produce key management employees needed to staff hotel, restaurant and resort industry businesses for the future. Kemmons died at the age of 90 on February 12, 2003 and is buried alongside his wife and mother in Memphis, TN.
*The Junior designation is shown on Kemmons’ birth certificate but was never used by Kemmons. It is possible he was unaware of the title, which resulted in the naming of his third son, Charles Kemmons Wilson, Jr.