Professor Tony Lee Garner (1942-1998)
Garner's work in theater and music inspired all ages
by Whitney Smith, The Commercial Appeal, June 25, 1998


In one of his last leading roles, in Stephen Sondheim's Follies at Theatre Memphis, Tony Lee Garner played an old-time entertainer who felt his life no longer had meaning. Offstage, it was quite the contrary. As a longtime singer, actor, conductor, theater director, church music director and Rhodes College professor, Mr. Garner's great passion for the arts - and for teaching - brought tremendous meaning to his life, which ended Wednesday at his Midtown home. He died of cancer. He was 55.

Many Mid-Southerners will remember Mr. Garner for his leading roles or his music directing at Theatre Memphis, starting in the late 1960s. Others know him as music director at Evergreen Presbyterian Church. Fellow choral directors around the country have been acquainted with his work since the late 1980s with the internationally known conductor Robert Shaw's Festival Singers, who have performed at Carnegie Hall and in France and have recorded several compact discs. But his longest and perhaps closest professional association was with Rhodes, or Southwestern at Memphis, as it was called when he graduated in 1965, only to return two years later as a faculty member. In recent years, he has had the unusual distinction of chairing both the music and theater departments. "Above and beyond Tony's incredible artistic abilities and the energy he brought to music and the theater, his greatest gift would have to be what hegave his students," said Loyd Templeton, Rhodes's assistant to the president for college relations. "Legions of students and parents have sent him cards and letters, talking about how he had shaped their lives and encouraged them to give nothing but their best."

During his more than three decades of conducting the Rhodes College Singers, Mr. Garner took hundreds of young singers all over the South and to Russia, Poland, Romania, France, England and Scotland. He also made two recordings with the singers. In the early 1980s, Mr. Garner helped transform an old sorority house into what is now the McCoy Theatre and was its artistic director through last year. He also was instrumental in founding the Tennessee Williams Summer Theatre Festival, which will begin its third season at the McCoy next month.

Mr. Garner directed many plays and musicals at Rhodes, among them Candide (1982, 1991), Sweeney Todd (1983), Cabaret (1993), Company (1994) and Chicago (1995). Also at Rhodes, he helped direct one of the most ambitious local stage productions in many years, a two-part adaptation of Charles Dickens's The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1985). "I still think it's just incredible that we did that," said actor-director Jerry Chipman, who was in the production. "It was Tony who told us we could. He was the one who had the energy for it. He has been the one who has had the energy for so many projects."

Off campus, Mr. Garner was music director of Evergreen Presbyterian for a decade. He has also sung for Memphis Chamber Music Society programs. At Theatre Memphis, his many performing credits included Zorba, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, 1776, Oh, Coward, A Little Night Music, Side By Side By Sondheim, The Music Man and Follies. Mr. Garner leaves his wife, Bette Dale Garner; two daughters, Misty Garner Clark and Margaret Garner; a son, Andrew Garner; his mother, Georgia Garner; and a sister, Pat Garner Stanfill, all of Memphis.

The family asks that any memorials be made to the Rhodes College music department or to Evergreen Presbyterian Church.