Our Purple Lady, Sonia Young, has died. She was a Chattanooga institution. She was a solid gold character, unmatched. She was a force to be reckoned with. She was a matriarch to many of us, and friend to all she met along the way.
Early in the morning hours of December 22, my dear friend Sonia fell peacefully asleep in the home that she designed and built with her late husband, Mel. She was exactly where she wanted to be. She was comfortable and peaceful. And, this makes me happy to know.
It’s hard to use the word happy as I contemplate the passing of someone so special to me, but damn, didn’t Sonia bring happiness to so many of us?
How can I not remember her humor, her joy for all of the best things in life, and her boundless generosity?
When I was 25-years-old, Sonia Young adopted me. Sure enough, she flat-out adopted me into her tight-knit, rag-tag, good-humored group of chosen family.
For quite some time, our little family knew that Sonia was failing, and for months we spoke on the phone daily to her and to each other, prepping for that time when our Purple Lady would go on to her great reward. The support system has been invaluable.
Though I kept my emotions about the matter to myself, I was convinced that her passing would leave a Texas-sized hole in my heart. I was convinced that there would be weeks - if not months - of rudderless wandering, and a possibility I might break under the grief. After all, my adopted mother had passed away. She was my best friend. We spoke on the phone two or three times a day for the better part of two decades.
But in fact, my PL’s passing has not only bolstered my spirits, it has given me pause in all of the very best ways. Pause to embrace gratitude. Pause to embrace friends and family (adopted family especially). Pause to bring joy to others when I can. Pause during the day to make an off-color joke at no one’s expense. Pause to love and pause to improve the things and people around me.
In all of these things, my heart hasn’t diminished; in these things - these gifts - my heart has grown, and it has become much richer in character. And, our Purple Lady is responsible.
Sonia’s volunteer fundraising efforts to benefit local nonprofit organizations are legendary. She raised millions of dollars to build the Chattanooga Theatre Centre, a community gem where she founded the Youth Theatre; where her father’s name is memorialized on the Circle Theatre; and where the Main Stage lobby is named after Sonia’s late husband, Mel.
In recent years, she spearheaded an effort to build a giraffe exhibit at the Chattanooga Zoo, and, by golly, in her 80s, she made it happen.
I remember a story about the fundraising push to purchase a permanent home for the Chattanooga Ballet. Mel was one of the founding directors of the Ballet, so the Youngs were particularly interested in the organization’s success.
Potential donors seemingly dragged their feet too long for Sonia’s taste, so she went to the longtime, much-beloved executive director (now executive director emeritus), Bob Willie. She told Bob that she had created an ad hoc committee to raise the final $300,000 to purchase a building off North Market Street to be the Ballet’s permanent home. Bob, graciously thanked her and asked, “Who’s on your committee” to which Sonia replied, “I am. I only work on committees of one.”
So, for the ensuing two weeks, The Purple Lady went around town telling business leaders and philanthropists exactly how much money they were going to contribute to the effort.
Ten days into the fundraising effort, Sonia had single-handedly raised $290,000 by cobbling together $10,000 here and $5,000 there. She needed $10,000 to reach the goal, so she called an old friend.
She arrived at Joe Decosimo’s office with Bob Willie in tow. They sat down and Sonia did all the talking. Mr. Decosimo, always the gentleman, listened to Sonia’s plea and graciously explained that his firm’s philanthropic budget was exhausted for the year and he simply didn’t have the money for a nonprofit donation of $10,000.
Sonia leaned back in her chair, folded her hands in a very assured manner and said, “Joe, do you have any other meetings in this office today?” Mr. Decosimo said, “Yes, I do.” Sonia retorted, “I guess you should find a conference room for those other meetings because I’m not getting out of this chair until you give me $10,000.” Mr. Decosimo chuckled, excused himself from his own office and came back a few minutes later with a check made out to the Chattanooga Ballet for the prescribed amount.
When the HIV/AIDS epidemic raged in the 1980s and 1990s, Sonia was on the forefront locally, raising money for Chattanooga CARES (now CEMPA), a medical resource center that helped the afflicted when many people and organizations would not.
During one of CARES’ fundraising pushes, Sonia approached a preeminent Chattanooga philanthropist for a donation, who declined. Sonia politely thanked him, and immediately drove home and called his wife. By all accounts, her performance was Oscar-worthy - tears and all. She explained to the wife that her husband had hurt her feelings and that she didn’t know he had the capacity for cruelty. By the end of the conversation, the wife was in tears and was infuriated with her husband. The next day, a personal check from the wife for $25,000 was delivered to Chattanooga CARES.
Sonia raised a lot of money for Chattanooga Symphony and Opera over the years. For several years after Mel died in 2009, The Purp (the late Will Montague’s nickname for Sonia) and I attended the CSO’s opening night in September. This particular year, the late West Oehmig had just sold his town car and limousine fleet to a fellow who was one of his drivers. Sonia wrote an article on the business and made friends with the new owner. She called me up the Saturday morning before the evening concert and said, “Don’t worry about picking me to go to the Tivoli. I’ve arranged for a ride. I’ll pick you up.”
I was a bit confused, but Sonia worked magic on a pretty regular basis, so I didn’t ask any questions. That night she arrived at my house in the longest limo in the city of Chattanooga. As we came up Broad Street she told the chauffer to slowly pull in front of the Tivoli and to take up both lanes of traffic. When the behemoth came to stop under the glimmering marquis at our much-loved Jewel of the South, I hopped out and offered my hand to her. She refused and said, “Go on, darlin’. I’m going to sit here for a minute.” As I walked toward the box office, concert-goers on the sidewalk gawked, asking, “Who’s in that limo? Who in the world could it be? It must be someone famous!”
A group of wonderful grande dames, Hedy Davenport, Susie Bryan, Sarah Moore and Harriet Chipley, stopped me under those twinkling lights and asked, “Who is in your limo?” Each one asked, each one more demanding than the last.
“That would be The Purple Lady’s limo,” I finally answered. Susie playfully and lovingly rolled her eyes and chuckled, “Well, that’s Sonia for you!”
And, dear readers, did you know that little Sonia (Winer) Young, the Mountain Mirror’s rapscallion publisher emeritus Billy Parker, and Elder Mountain’s Morton Center were in the same class at Normal Park Elementary School?
If my math serves me right, those three would have entered first grade together in 1939. I can only imagine the scene with those three characters in the same classroom. Sonia must have been organizing her classmates for a Tootsie Roll drive to raise money for homeless pets. Billy must have been charming all of the girls and making everyone laugh with his inimitable wit. And Morton was probably chewing a cigar while causing laughter all around.
The laughter that Sonia brought is priceless, and will be the hallmark of her character in my memory.
My best friend is gone. I’m saddened. But, my gratitude for being loved by a splendid soul named Sonia Young far outweighs any grief I may feel. Let’s all raise a glass in her honor, and celebrate her spirit of generosity and Lavender Love!
by Andrew Clark