MARTIN, Tenn. — Postcards seem headed the way of film cameras in these changing times, but the images that both capture can be a part of history. Portions of a vintage postcard collection now have a new home, thanks to a gift made to UT Martin’s Paul Meek Library.
Ridley Wills II, well-known Nashville historian and former senior vice president of the National Life and Accident Insurance Co., gave the library more than 1,000 postcards from his personal collection of some 28,000 unduplicated Tennessee cards.
The gift includes all of his Weakley County postcards, which covers cards featuring photos and information from Gleason, Dresden, Greenfield and Martin. The donation also includes all of his Lake County cards, many of which highlight Reelfoot Lake. Tom Pulliam, a personal friend and UT Martin graduate who also lives in Nashville, connected Wills with the university.
Wills’ passion for postcards and his extensive collection had humble beginnings.
“Well, when I was a boy, I collected Tennessee postcards, and I kept them in a shoebox at my mother’s house,” Wills said. “And after I came back from the Navy after college to Nashville, I wanted to take pictures of old Nashville buildings, and I thought at first that I would use a camera to do it.” He quickly realized that most of the buildings he wanted to photograph were no longer there.
“So I thought about that childhood postcard collection,” he said. “I went to my mother’s house and found a postcard dated 1908 (still one of his most valued cards) showing Jacob McGavock Dickinson, Justice Howard Lurton of the United States Supreme Court and President William Howard Taft in front of Belle Meade Plantation. And I said, ‘This is wonderful. I wonder if there are any more of these?’”
From there, his postcard collecting began in earnest. Early on, he collected cards from tourist homes and flea markets. “Then more recently, I’ve gotten them off the Internet,” he said, adding, “I still collect some, but I’m giving more away than I’m collecting.”
Today, thousands of postcards and decades later, he’s returning his collection to the areas portrayed on the cards. Museums and libraries are the main recipients of his generous gifts, noting “it’s been fun to get them back to where they belong.”
“We’re grateful to Mr. Wills for donating these postcards to the Paul Meek Library,” said Sam Richardson, UT Martin assistant professor of library science and head of Special Collections and Archives. “These postcards provide snapshots of history that will be preserved and enjoyed by future generations, thanks to this generous gift.”
A Vanderbilt University graduate, Wills has given back to the Nashville community in many ways since leaving the insurance company. He has served on boards, raised money for charitable organizations and written 18 books, several copies of which he’s donated to the Meek Library.
His own family is steeped in Nashville and state history, starting with his family home that became the Tennessee governor’s mansion in 1949. A West Tennessee tie includes his great grandfather, Howell E. Jackson, a U.S. Supreme Court judge who was born in Henry County and was elected U.S. senator from Tennessee in 1881.
While the number of postcards donated to UT Martin is impressive, he’s quick to put the gift in perspective. “Well if I’ve got that many Martin cards, you can imagine how many cards I’ve got (from) places like Memphis,” he said, laughing.
The postcards will be available for the public to view and research in the Meek Library’s Alliene and Jimmie S. Corbitt Special Collections.
PHOTO CAPTION – Ridley Wills II shows some of the vintage postcards that he donated to the University of Tennessee at Martin.