The University of Memphis held its spring Commencement Sunday, May 8, awarding a total
of 2,170 degrees in two ceremonies at FedExForum. The U of M also presented an honorary
doctor of letters degree to businessman and philanthropist Bert Bornblum at the 5
p.m. ceremony. Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell was the speaker at both ceremonies.
In a 1 p.m. ceremony, the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Communication
and Fine Arts, and the University College conferred degrees.
At 5 p.m., Commencement was held for the Fogelman College of Business & Economics,
the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences, the Herff College of Engineering,
the Loewenberg School of Nursing, the School of Communication Sciences and Disorders,
and the School of Public Health.
The Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law awarded 115 degrees at its graduation May 8 at
3 p.m. at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts.
Born in Warsaw, Poland, Bert Bornblum didn’t have the opportunity to attend college
at a traditional age. Starting at age 13, he left school to help support his family.
Sensing turbulent times ahead, his parents sent Bert and his younger brother, David,
to the United States in 1938. The family they left behind – mother, father and two
younger brothers – all perished during the Holocaust.
Just 18 years old and with only a few dollars in his pocket, Bornblum made a life
for himself in his adopted country. His sense of duty and justice led him to enlist
in the Air Force, where he volunteered for overseas duty and served in France. He
came home a staff sergeant and a United States citizen.
After the war, Bornblum worked in a shoe store to support himself. He attended the
University of Memphis, but left for California, where he hoped to finish his degree.
While he was working and waiting to gain in-state status, David asked Bert to begin
a partnership in a clothing business.
The first store they opened was called Bert’s, which eventually grew into eight stores
– six in Memphis and two in Nashville. Bornblum became the first storeowner on Beale
Street to hire African-American sales clerks and cashiers. He endured much criticism
from other storeowners and lost customers for his decision. However, during the 1968
sanitation workers’ strike which sent Memphis into turmoil, Bert’s business was spared.
His financial success also helped him to do what he loved – to study. After he sold
his stores and retired, Bornblum began taking classes at the U of M through the Senior
Audit program. He took courses in history and psychology, but his passion was philosophy.
It’s believed that Bornblum has taken every class the department offered.
The Philosophy Department continues to benefit from his involvement. Bornblum, along
with his friend, the late Murray Spindel, created an atmosphere of excitement, warmth,
and welcome for the faculty, staff, students, and visiting lecturers. His engagement
with the University has also translated into generous financial support, with his
cumulative financial donations topping $1.5 million. He is one of only a small number
of donors who has given to the University every year for almost 30 years.
Bert’s support for the University has encompassed not only financial gifts but also
gifts of time. He has served as a volunteer in numerous advisory positions, including
the University of Memphis Foundation, Friends of the University Libraries, the College
of Arts & Sciences, and University College. He has been a sponsor for a variety of
events on campus, including the Distinguished Alumni Awards, the College of Arts &
Sciences Outstanding Alumni Awards, and Great Conversations. Bornblum’s involvement
earned him a Distinguished University Friend Award in 1998.
Most significantly, Bert and David were responsible for the creation of the Judaic
Studies program at the University. Their gifts support a chair, scholarships, and
other needs for the program. The brothers’ intent was to foster an appreciation of
the Jewish history and Judaic studies. Today the Bornblum Judaic Studies Center’s
mission is to explore the experience of the Jewish people within the contexts of world
Bornblum has received many awards and accolades, including an honorary doctorate of
Humane Letters from LeMoyne-Owen College. He and David, who passed away in 2004, received
the Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor’s Award for Excellence of Philanthropy and
the Tennessee Council for Resource Development Benefactors Award.
Luttrell took office as Shelby County mayor in 2010, continuing an extensive career
in public service. A graduate of Bartlett High School, he received a bachelor’s degree
from Union University and a master’s degree in public administration from the University
Luttrell began his career in criminal justice at the Shelby County Penal Farm, serving
as the vocational training director. He joined the U.S. Bureau of Prisons in 1977
and served with that organization until 1999. The last 10 years were spent as the
warden of federal prisons in Texas, Kentucky, and Memphis.
After his retirement from Federal service, he was appointed director of the Shelby
County Division of Corrections, serving there until his election as sheriff in 2002
and again in 2006. During his tenure, the men’s and women’s jail facilities have received
national accreditation from the American Correctional Association. At the same time,
the medical units and the Law Enforcement Division have also earned national accreditation.
In 2009 Luttrell received the prestigious Sheriff of the Year Award from the National
Sheriffs Association for his achievements. He is a graduate of the FBI National Executive
Luttrell has served on the U of M College of Arts and Sciences Advisory Board and
has received the college’s Outstanding Alumni Award. He has extended his community
service through such organizations as the Germantown Kiwanis Club, Operation: Safe
Community, and Memphis Second Chance.