All of us at Memphis Theological Seminary were saddened to hear the news that Mrs. Jeanne Varnell passed away last week. A longtime philanthropist, Jeanne Varnell committed her life to making a difference in Memphis. She received her B.A. from Rhodes College, her M.A. from Whitworth College Leadership Institute, and an honorary doctorate from Lambuth University in Jackson, TN. A Trustee and Secretary of the Hyde Family Foundation, Mrs. Varnell was a Human Relations Trainer and Consultant for non-profit organizations, as well as a Spiritual Director. 

Following the death of Martin Luther King Jr., Mrs. Varnell joined a group of women called the Panel of American Women consisting of white, black, Protestant and Jewish Women who did groundbreaking work on race relations. Mrs. Varnell was an active board member of The National Civil Rights Museum for 15 years; served as a board member of the Board of Trustees of Rust College; was a founding member of the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis; and was the first woman chair of the Board of Trustees of Lambuth University. 

Mrs. Varnell received the Legend Award from the Women’s Foundation for Greater Memphis and the lifetime achievement award from the Memphis YWCA. Mrs. Varnell and her husband, Henry D. Varnell Jr., received the Crystal Award for Philanthropist of the Year and the Henry Logan Starks Humanitarian award from Memphis Theological Seminary.

Rev. Emily Matheny (MDiv, ’91), says, “I had the joy of knowing Jeanne as a friend and mentor for fifty years.  She was such a vibrant person in every way and truly took much pleasure in quietly enabling lots of people from all walks of life to reach toward their dreams.  When I felt called to pursue ministry and enrolled at MTS, Jeanne was quick to offer not only financial support, but also the gift of interest in the classes I was taking and the people with whom I was studying.  She and her beloved husband Henry soon recognized that MTS is a treasure in the heart of Memphis. They loved the opportunities they saw the Seminary providing for church leaders of different ethnicities and denominations to gather in a safe space to talk and become friends. They believed this was so urgent for the well-being of the whole Memphis community.  Over the years, Jeanne not only helped fund creative initiatives at MTS, she also delighted in learning from the artists, musicians, and theologians who were brought to our campus. She welcomed many of these into her home.  Jeanne’s legacy will long continue as an historic blessing in the life and mission of MTS.”

In November 2019, Mrs. Varnell attended a celebration of the Hamilton and Varnell Chair in Wesleyan Studies, the first fully-endowed chair at MTS. 

Dr. Michael Turner, Associate Professor of the History of Christianity and Director of the Methodist House of Studies, holds the Hamilton and Varnell Chair in Wesleyan Studies. He says, “Jeanne Varnell was a beautiful person; she was a dedicated student of Christian spirituality and a steadfast supporter of our work at Memphis Theological Seminary. She was forthright, visionary, and deeply committed to embodying her love of God in her every action, words, and deed. She and her late husband Henry made contributions to the school over the years that helped support students, theology and the arts, and Wesleyan/Methodist studies. Because of the Varnell’s generosity, we were able to support the Methodist House of Studies in 2016 and endow the Hamilton and Varnell Chair in Wesleyan Studies in 2019. Jeanne will be dearly missed.”

MTS President Dr. Jody Hill says, “Mrs. Jeanne Varnell was an embodiment of the Christian faith with her commitment to humility, generosity, and diversity. Her legacy predates my time here at MTS and will live on through the Hamilton and Varnell Chair in Wesleyan Studies. We are truly blessed to be one of the fortunate recipients of her love and grace.”