Martha Elizabeth Donovan: 1923-2012

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‘She was everybody’s friend’

By Lisa King

From the business arena to the church community and just about every place in between, Martha Donovan touched the lives and hearts of so many in Shelby County before passing away Saturday at the age of 88.


“Most people knew her from the drugstore, and she was such a kind, giving person,” said her nephew, Jerry Donovan.

Martha Elizabeth Donovan, born Feb. 27, 1923 in Shelby County to Jerry Wise and Mary Jetta Pulliam,  was a former co-owner of Smith-McKenney Drug Co., along with Bill Borders and  William “Shug” Hickman.

The three of them purchased the drugstore from Hickman’s grandfather, Charles Bradbury. Hickman and Borders were pharmacists and Donovan did the bookkeeping.

The story goes that Donovan was attending business school in Louisville during World War II, and one day when she was waiting on the corner to be picked up by her family, store owner L. G. “Pop” Smith came out and asked if she wanted to help him with his books.

She said yes, and she didn’t leave for the next 60 years. In 1953 she became a part-owner – which was unusual for women in that era – and in 1993 sold her interest in the store to Greg Hayse, a current partner.

After several years of working part time, she finally retired in the early 2000s, leaving behind a legacy of always treating everyone like family, said Charles Hickman, Shug Hickman’s son, now a circuit court judge in Shelby County.

“I grew up in the pharmacy, so I’ve known Martha all my life,” he said. “I was born when dad was in pharmacy school, so my job, from whenever I could start working, was in the pharmacy.

“Martha was a genuine, humble person, and she was everybody’s friend. She was loyal to her family, and she treated everyone with honesty and respect.”

Joyce Bell, who has worked at Smith-McKenney for 39 years, said she has so many wonderful memories of Donovan, who was not just her employer but also a very close friend.

“She hired me thirty-nine years ago, and we worked together until she retired,” Bell said.

“There’s not enough words to tell you how special she was. I am so sad about losing her. Martha was a true friend; she really cared about people. She always took the time to say hello and ask how you were. She was so kind-hearted. You will never know how many people she helped along the way.”

Jerry Donovan shared a memory that illustrates Bell’s point.

 “Back about thirty or forty years ago, there was this fellow who was new in town, and he was down and out, and nobody would help him,” he said. “Nobody would cash his checks or do anything for him, but Martha would. And I know this to be true, because he told me so himself.”

Donovan said his aunt, who had never married and had no children of her own, took him and his dad into her home when his parents divorced when he was very young.

“She helped raise me, and I grew up living on her farm,” he said. “I was the closest thing to a son she ever had, and she did everything for me that a parent would do for a child.”

Bill Borders described Donovan as a generous, very compassionate person. She was also an astute businesswoman, he said, in a time when that was a rare quality.

“We bought the store in the forties; I think it was her first job right out of business college,” he said. “She did bookkeeping and just about everything else. She did it all.

“She wasSmith-McKenney. All the customers loved her, and everybody who came in the store wanted to talk to her.”

Donovan’s personality was robust, always cheerful and full of care for anyone she was around. She kept friends for life, and many visited her up until her last days.

Among those was Linda Pulliam, a friend of Donovan’s at Olive Branch Methodist Church, where Donovan was a devoted member.

“She was the oldest member of our church, and she would tell us stories about how she used to come to church in a horse and buggy when she was a little girl,” she said. “And when she got a little older, she would make sure to be the first one to arrive on Sunday morning so she could light the stove to get the church warm. She went to this church her entire life. She was a great lady, and we all loved her.”

Garry Polston said he has been pastor at Olive Branch for less than a year, but he had already grown very close to Donovan from visiting her at Crestview Care and Rehabilitation Center, where she had moved after breaking her hip in a fall.

“The last time I saw her was last week,” he said. “We were talking and I starting singing a hymn – it was “O Come Angel Band” – and she just raised her little hand to praise the Lord…and in that moment, I felt so blessed to know her,” he said, in a voice full of emotion. “She meant a lot to our members, and to me. We won’t forget her.”