Thursday, January 29, 2009

Cummings Inc. founder dies at 89

Thomas L. Cummings Jr., a local businessman and community leader, died Monday morning.

The son of a Nashville mayor, Cummings, 89, was best known for the company that he founded, Cummings Inc., which he built into one of the world's biggest sign makers. He was a Nashville native, and he graduated from Hume-Fogg High School and Vanderbilt University, where he was a member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity.

Polite yet direct, given to wearing monogrammed shirts with French cuffs and suits with impeccably folded handkerchiefs, Cummings was described in a 1989 Tennessean profile as the quintessential businessman of Nashville's "old school."

Twenty years later, some who knew him said the label still applied.

"If by that you mean reaching agreements on a handshake, if you mean with integrity, if you mean your word is good and taking care of people, then those are the things that come to mind," said Stephen Lynn, one of the two Nashville businessmen who bought Cummings' company a decade ago.

Cummings first came to public attention during World War II, when as the son of then-Mayor Thomas L. Cummings, he successfully fought to join the U.S. Army after having been rejected for service for poor eyesight.

Cummings entered the service as a second lieutenant and was stationed in the Pacific, where he rose to the rank of captain. He would retire from the Tennessee Air National Guard in 1967 as a colonel and deputy wing commander.

Cummings and a friend from Memphis founded his sign company in 1946, one year after returning from combat. Each put in $7,500, and at first the company operated out of the Cummings family garage.

Cummings bought his partner out in 1954. He would take his firm through a public offering in 1967 and return to private ownership two decades later. He eventually sold the company to Lynn and Stephen Kerr in 1998.

He worked with hotelier

It was a Memphis company, Holiday Inn, that would help Cummings get established. For several decades, Cummings held the contract to supply the chain's iconic green sign, with the hotel's name in white script beneath a golden arrow. Cummings would manufacture 1,700 of the signs, which were placed in front of Holiday Inns nationwide.

The company also supplied signs for General Motors, Ford, Domino's Pizza, Taco Bell and Kentucky Fried Chicken, among others. His company placed the L&C letters atop Nashville's first downtown skyscraper.

From his wood-paneled office at Demonbreun Street and 12th Avenue South, Cummings' influence extended far into the Nashville business and social community. He was a board member of several local banks, three private schools and two colleges.

Cummings also worked with several local charities. Most notably, he was a leader in the United Givers Fund, a predecessor to the United Way of Metropolitan Nashville, and in 1960 he served as campaign chair.

Cummings is survived by four children, Tamara Lee Haggard, Tina Cummings Huggins, Thomas Leon Cummings III and Timothy James Cummings Sr.; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Visitation will be held Thursday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Covenant Presbyterian Church. The family will receive friends at 10 a.m. Friday, with a service to follow at 11 a.m. Burial will be at Woodlawn Memorial Park.

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