Last week Cheatham County bid farewell to one of its more caring and actively engaged leaders and servant hearts in Donnie Kemp.
The community leader, 65, died on Christmas Day.
Hundreds gathered for each of the ceremonies on Dec. 28-29 that celebrated his life at First Church Nashville and at Forest Hill Cemetery in Ashland City, where his commitment to community was clearly acknowledged as a true heartfelt passion, as was his love for his family and friends.
Kemp was born on April 11, 1955, to Donald and Ruth Roy Kemp. He was a 1973 graduate of Cheatham County High School.
Whenever Kemp’s name was mentioned, many long-time county residents thought of Jackie, his wife of 45 years, and Kemp’s Foodland, the popular Main Street grocery store they owned for more than 30 years.
After retiring from the grocery business, he focused property development. The success of both businesses allowed him to support groups from church organizations to youth sports teams.
Jeff Bennett, the Director of Divisions for Habitat for Humanity of Greater Nashville, captured the ceremonies on video and reflected on his friendship with Donnie and Jackie.
“I can’t speak about Donnie without also including Jackie — they were inseparable” said Bennett. “Donnie and Jackie’s ministry has been all about hospitality. The Kemps are the quintessential southern family in that they love to make others feel welcomed, loved, and appreciated.
“Their work with Habitat is no different. For the past several years, their area of service was in fully sponsoring the meal at Cheatham Habitat for Humanity’s annual fundraising banquet, Houses of Hope. The planning for each event always began with me calling Donnie and setting up a meeting over lunch. Donnie and Jackie would pick the place, and we would talk about the event. While Jackie focused on the details, Donnie was about the big picture. Together, they selected the caterer, fully sponsored the meal, and were onsite to make sure everything went as planned. This wasn’t just a random act of kindness, but an ongoing project that helped provide much support for our local Habitat ministry. Having known the Kemps for nearly 10 years, I’ve grown to love their family. I’ve gleaned many great things from Donnie’s business acumen, in particular, his ability to pull people together to do great things well.”
Cheatham County Mayor Kerry McCarver said he was encouraged by the character and community commitment that Donnie Kemp expressed each day.
“Cheatham County businessman Donnie Kemp, age 65, left behind a huge void, not in a street, but in the heart and the soul of our community,” said McCarver. “At his celebration of life, Donnie Kemp was described as a servant responding to calls throughout his life to make a positive difference in the lives of those he encountered. Donnie Kemp worked throughout his fruitful, productive life to bring light to darkness. His influence will be felt for generations.
“Donnie Kemp will be remembered for the lifelong investment he made in people who deserved a second chance. Donnie Kemp will be remembered in the Christmases to come as exemplary of one who saw the best in people and wanted those people to see it in themselves. Donnie Kemp invested his time, money, and his life to build and improve the lives of those whom God directed into his path.”
Kemp was a former board member of First Church Nashville and also served on the boards for Center House Ministries and World Revivals, Inc.
Former Ashland City Parks and Recreation Director Tony Young reflected on Kemp’s dedication to serving community.
“The most time I spent around Donnie was when he and Jackie were active in the Cumberland River Bicentennial Trail,” said Young. “They were active in trail growth, helped raise money and donated money to the trail. They were always interested in improving the community for their kids and grandkids.”
Besides supporting recreation programs in the county, Kemp also was an enthusiastic sports fan, following the Atlanta Braves, Tennessee Titans and Vanderbilt baseball team. His published obituary said that some of his favorite sports moments were sitting in the bleachers to cheer for his six grandchildren
Pleasant View resident and businessman Bob Keenan also noted Donnie Kemp’s heart for the community.
“He was always very kind and receptive to me,” said Keenan. “If I called him, he would immediately call me back, willing to be of any help needed.”
Each of Kemp’s three daughters wanted the community to know about their father’s loving presence.
“Daddy was a mentor and friend offering sound advice or a word of encouragement to so many. The outpouring of prayers and support our family has felt from this community lets us know how much he was loved. We find comfort in that,” Valerie Kemp said.
“It’s hard to pinpoint one specific moment because it feels like more of a culmination of many moments. One thing I feel certain of though is that he, and the example he’s given me, will be shaping my character for years to come,” Melinda Ruffin said.
“My dad had the distinct ability to make everyone feel loved and valued. He made each person he came in contact with feel like the only person in the room,” Joanna Melton said.
The family has requested that donations be made to Cheatham County Habitat for Humanity or Center House Nashville, a recovery home sponsored by First Church Nashville.