Our Story

Kemmons and Dorothy Wilson

Charles Kemmons Wilson was born in Osceola, AR on January 5, 1913. His father died when he was 9 months old so his mother, Ruby “Doll” Wilson, moved to Memphis to care for her son. Dorothy Elizabeth Lee was born in Memphis, TN on Feb. 7, 1917. The two were introduced by a mutual friend and Kemmons and Dorothy married in Memphis on Dec. 2, 1941. They had five children, Spence Lee Wilson, Robert “Bob” Allen Wilson, Charles Kemmons Wilson, Jr., Elizabeth “Betty” Wilson Moore, and Carole Wilson West. All five children married and live in Memphis, TN. Kemmons and Dorothy were blessed to be grandparents to 14 grandchildren.  They regularly hosted Sunday night suppers and holiday events at their home on Galloway Drive for years as a way to keep the family connected.

Charles Kemmons Wilson

Charles Kemmons Wilson, Jr. was born in Osceola, AR on January 5, 1913. The only child of Charles Kemmons Wilson and Ruby “Doll” Lloyd Hall, he was raised by his mother following his father’s death when Kemmons was only 9 months old. Doll and Kemmons returned to her hometown of Memphis shortly after the death of her young husband. Even his youth, Kemmons was enterprising and contributed to the family’s income. Kemmons’ moneymaking opportunities included magazine sales, paper routes, grocery sacker, delivery boy, soda jerk and furniture builder. At age 17 he dropped out of Central High School to become the breadwinner of the family due to the loss of Doll’s job during the Great Depression. His first successful venture involved selling popcorn outside a movie theater in Memphis. When Kemmons began to make more money from popcorn sales than the theater made in ticket sales he was forced by the theater manager to stop selling his popcorn. Kemmons went on to manage pinball machines and cigarette vending machines sharing the cash he took in with the owners of the locations. In addition, he owned an ice cream store, and eventually 11 movie theaters in several cities. At age 20, working 15-hour days, he soon had saved enough money to build a home for his mother and himself. Later, he used the house as collateral to borrow funds to purchase a regional jukebox distributorship for Wurlitzer. Learning that you could build a house, then use it to borrow more money than it cost to build it, was a life-changing experience for him. Thus began a career in construction that continued until his death. Click here for a list of all the jobs Kemmons held before founding Holiday Inn.

On December 2, 1941, Kemmons married his sweetheart, Dorothy Elizabeth Lee. Five days later Pearl Harbor was attacked while they were on their honeymoon (and jukebox convention) in New Orleans. In 1944, answering the call to service, he distinguished himself as a pilot, flying the C-47 “Gooney Bird” over one of the most dangerous aerial transport runs in the world – the China-Burma-India corridor, better known as “The Hump”. By then he and Dorothy had two children; Spence Lee and Robert Allen (Bob). After his service, Kemmons returned to Memphis and continued with his construction business and other endeavors with little time for fun and relaxation other than enjoying his growing family. Another son, Charles Kemmons Wilson, Jr and two daughters, Dorothy Elizabeth (Betty) and Carole Ann rounded out the Wilson family.

After building his first two homes on the wrong lots (both quickly outgrown by his growing family) Kemmons learned his lesson and bought 3 adjoining lots to build a house the family would not outgrow. He and Dorothy resided there for more than 50 years.

In 1951, on a family vacation, Kemmons conceived of an idea that would change the landscape of America and the hospitality industry forever. He and Dorothy took their family of seven on a road trip to our nation’s capital. Kemmons describes this trip as the most miserable trip of his life. While traveling, he became increasingly annoyed at the lack of consistency and quality in the lodging available and was outraged that he had to pay extra for his kids who stayed in the same room with them.

Kemmons decided that he was going to build a chain of motels, coast to coast, so you can travel completely across the country and stay at one of his motels each night. And with that vision, Holiday Inns was born in 1952. Click here to read more about the start of Holiday Inns. After suffering a heart attack and subsequent by-pass surgery Wilson retired from Holiday Inn in the summer of 1979. The company he created and built had 1,759 inns in more than 50 countries, annual revenues of more than $1 billion, and twice as many rooms as its closest competitor. Kemmons was 66 years old, an age when many people choose to slow down and take it easy. Instead, Kemmons discovered something new on a trip to Florida – timesharing. A new idea began to form and once again Kemmons decided to do things his way and he set about to reinvent the timeshare industry.

When he entered the fledgling timeshare industry, it had a reputation of hustlers and shady operators using quickly converted failed motels or apartment buildings along with gimmicky come-ons and high-pressure sales. With the purchase of 357 acres of mostly orange trees, Wilson began building what he referred to as his “second dream” and it was right in the back yard of Mickey Mouse’s house – Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Just as he had built Holiday Inns with the family in mind, Orange Lake Country Club was designed with features to delight all ages. Kemmons’ entry into the field gave the timeshare industry the respectability it lacked at that time. Once again, leaders in the hospitality industry were following his lead. Within a few short years, Orange Lake Country Club grew to be the largest single-site timeshare operation in the world.

He was an active and faithful member of Christ United Methodist Church for 47 years where he and Dorothy funded the Wilson Chapel at Christ United.

A quiet benefactor, Wilson put his money where his heart was – in the development and education of children and providing aid to families in need.

His most notable contribution was made to the University of Memphis – the Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management opened August 1, 2002, exactly 50 years after the opening of the first Holiday Inn. The $15 million building that includes an 82-suite Holiday Inn with meeting facilities to accommodate 800 is located on the university campus. This training facility and hotel will be a living legacy that will provide its students a hands-on education and will produce key management employees needed to staff hotel, restaurant and resort industry businesses for the future. Kemmons died at the age of 90 on February 12, 2003 and is buried alongside his wife and mother in Memphis, TN.

Dorothy Lee Wilson

Known as Daughter, Sister, Wife, Mom, Friend, Aunt and Meemaw, Dorothy Elizabeth Lee was born in Memphis, TN (Shelby County) on February 7, 1917. She was the fun-loving, second of five children born to Allen Carrol Lee and Maggie Alleen (Sigmin) Lee. Dorothy attended Peabody Elementary, Messick School and Central High School. After graduation, she attended Miller Hawkins Business School.

Her business school training landed her a job as assistant bookkeeper at the William Len Hotel in downtown Memphis. Here her life changed when she met a young entrepreneur who regularly checked on his pinball machine operation at the hotel. While dating, she was often asked to help with his business ventures whether moving and servicing pinball machines or selling $1.00 tickets for ride in a 38 HP – 2 engine plane, piloted by her boyfriend. After four years of dating (and working), Dorothy married the ambitious Kemmons Wilson on December 2, 1941 in Memphis, TN.

Dorothy continued to work in the family business when Kemmons asked her to work the ticket counter at his newest venture, Airways Theater. Even Kemmons’ mother worked the candy counter. Dorothy continued to work there until a few weeks before the birth of their first child, Spence Lee. The family grew rapidly with two more sons, Robert Allen (Bob) and Kemmons, Jr., and two daughters Dorothy Elizabeth (Betty) and Carole Ann.

An unwavering supporter of Kemmons and all of his ideas, Dorothy is credited for being instrumental in the creation of Holiday Inns, America’s largest hotel chain. She is the one who insisted that they take a family vacation that ultimately lead to his idea of building a chain of standardized lodgings across the country. Kemmons asserted that her encouragement served to fuel his determination to succeed.

Dorothy was honored in 1970 as the Tennessee Mother of the Year and went on to be presented the national award as American Mother of the Year by President Richard M. Nixon in a White House ceremony For Dorothy, family came first whether it meant her own children or later their expanded families. To help keep their growing clan’s relationships strong, she hosted Sunday Night dinner at their home every weekend for 25 years strengthening bonds to last a lifetime.

She was an active and faithful member of Christ United Methodist Church for 44 years and she was also committed to making Memphis the best it could be. Her community activities included the East Memphis Garden Club, the Le Bonheur Club, The Women’s Exchange, The Community Bible Study and the TNT Investment Club.

Her love of children exceeded the bounds of family ties as she frequently made contributions to Memphis learning institutions. Dorothy died after a tragic fall at the age of 84 on February 10, 2001 and is buried alongside her husband in Memphis, TN.

​Holiday Inn Story

Kemmons, an entrepreneur and enthusiast for life, is best known for creating the hotel chain, Holiday Inn. After he and Dorothy spent a summer vacation in 1951 driving out to Washington, D.C. where they experienced inconsistent accommodations and were charged for each of their five children to stay in the room with them, Kemmons came home determined. He vowed to create a chain of hotels with standards like ice machines, on-site dining, swimming pools and all kids would stay free. He wanted a chain that would encourage families to vacation together. Family was most important to the two of them. Almost exactly a year after the infamous vacation, Kemmons established the first Holiday Inn on Summer Avenue on August 1, 1952.

By 1952, the first Holiday Inn opened in Memphis, TN and by end of 1953 he had three more open but was out of money to build more.

A lack of money did not stop Kemmons. He partnered with Wallace Johnson and they set out to “franchise” the concept. After a rocky start, their first franchised Holiday Inn opened in Clarksdale, MS in 1954.

In 1957, they had their first public offering with 120,000 shares at $9.75. This financial event truly helped get them off to the races in the world of hotel building.

1972 – Kemmons on the cover of Time Magazine – Man with 300,000 beds

1979 – Kemmons retired from HI with 1,759 HIs in 50 countries

Although Kemmons officially retired from Holiday Inn in 1979, he did not stop working. He found “ground” as he called it and bought land in Orlando, FL where he went on to establish the largest privately owned timeshare company called Orange Lake Country Club (now known as Holiday Inn Vacation Club) adjacent to what is now Walt Disney World.  The timeshare company is still owned by his children and grandchildren and continues to thrive along with the Kemmons Wilson Companies which is locally based in Memphis.

There are two ways to get to the top of an oak tree. One way is to sit on an acorn and wait; the other way is to climb it.
Kemmons Wilson