A Marriage of Families Committed to Service
Chris and Bubba. Bubba and Chris. They are inseparable, linked always by their love for each other and their love for this community. They are also linked by their families’ tradition of service, which stretches back generations. Ask them why they do what they do, so often and with so much joy, why they always say “yes?” The answer is how—and where—they were raised.
“My parents were involved in everything that was happening around us,” Bubba says. “Whatever would help St. Henry or Father Ryan or a family in need, that’s what we were going to do. Their example and their teaching registered with me early and showed me how giving back would make a difference in people’s lives.”
Chris’s family’s story echoes Bubba’s. “My mother was the president of the Ladies of Charity. She was always helping others, and we were involved-—my siblings and I-—whether it was gathering materials or delivering Christmas baskets. It was what we did, and I saw early in my life how meaningful that service was.”
Bubba literally grew up alongside St. Henry, his parents and other relatives among the founding members of that parish. It was school for him, church for him, his best playground and his introduction to his greater Catholic community. Over four special years at Father Ryan, Bubba received his Catholic education, earned individual and team State wrestling championships and created a rich trove of memories and friendships.
Chris received her Catholic education at St. Philip’s in Columbus, Ohio, then Our Lady of the Lake in Erie, Pennsylvania, before her family moved to Nashville and found a home in Madison at St. Joseph parish. She reveled in her high school days at St. Bernard Academy, where she graduated with an abundance of lifetime friendships and an education from the Sisters of Mercy that inspired her own mercy and service.
After a year at Morehead State for Bubba where he played football and wrestled, he returned to Nashville and enrolled at Aquinas College, putting him closer to Chris, then a student at MTSU. “The cutest boy and the most fun” (as Chris describes Bubba still today) and the gregarious young lady were married in 1972, and the union provided this area with tireless supporters who were ready to help, and at whatever level.
Today, Bubba is CEO of Athens Distributing of Tennessee, and a proud member of the inaugural class of the Father Ryan Athletics Hall of Fame. Chris is ubiquitous, responding to each request for their support, and for her time, her ideas and her now-digital Rolodex. The two of them were Co-chairs—alongside Bill ’65 and Patty Farmer in 1992 and Steve ’70 and Sue Holzapfel in 1993—of the first Galas to take place on Father Ryan’s campus. They still talk and laugh about those early days as parent volunteers.
“We put together the first wrestling newsletter,” Chris says, and Bubba quickly deadpans “it wasn’t much of a newsletter.” But they found it easy and enjoyable to be involved, and they brought people together through that newsletter and chili parties and the force of their own enthusiasm. When discussions began about having the Gala at Father Ryan, one of the issues was protecting the floors. Chris and Bubba arranged for the tarps, ones that served that night and for many events to come.
Without seeking the limelight, they just got things done. Their engagement earned them the Athletic Department’s Footsie Lenahan Award for volunteer service. To them the appreciation was nice, but they were truly having fun. “Father Ryan and Father Ryan events were our entertainment,” Chris says with a smile.
It’s also an important part of the whole family’s foundation. “When it was time for the boys—Jay ’95 and Ryan ’01—to enter high school, we knew where their hearts and concern for others would grow, and that was Father Ryan,” Chris remembers. “They were both class presidents, both won the top awards, both were active in SEARCH as SEARCH leaders, and both excelled as athletes. They received the education and the life skills along with the foundation our faith provides. Catholic education was an extension of our family and our community, and it made a difference in our lives and in our boys’ lives. Our friends from Father Ryan and St. Bernard are ones we remain connected to because they are examples of a way of life that we cherish.”
Like most grandparents, Bubba’s and Chris’s eyes twinkle (and well up a bit) when talking about their grandchildren, in part because they see them continuing to build on the family tradition. Jay and Kelli’s three sons, Jack, Holder and Patrick, are already benefiting from Catholic education, at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Chattanooga. Ryan and Erin and their two daughters, Lucinda (3 years) and Sloane (9 months), are active models of faith and service. “We are so thrilled by that,” Chris said.
Want one more examples of this family’s legacy of service? Bubba’s parents, Skipper and Rita Donnelly, were the Legacy Gala Honorees in 2003. That tradition means a lot to Chris and Bubba.
“We are honored by this recognition, and we are humbled. There is a long line of family members on both sides whom we represent,” Bubba says, “family that has left their mark on our community in timeless, important ways. It’s a powerfully built foundation, and we aren’t going to be the ones to put a crack in it by not advancing our families’ legacy for the betterment of our entire community.”
So raise your glass and join in the toast. “To Chris and Bubba Donnelly and the family legacy they enhance every day.”