"To know him was to love him for his personal charm and ability as a teacher. His untiring instructions laid the foundation for the leading photographers of today." Quote from former student of W. S. Lively published in The Southeastern Photo News in June 1936.
The old three story gothic structure in McMinnville which originally was Cumberland Female Academy, stretching across the hill at the North end of College Street and almost the entire length of Donnell Street in 1904 became the home and symbol of W. S. Lively's world renowned Southern School of Photography. The Southern School of Photography, which existed for 25 years, emerged as an extraordinary educational endeavor due to the enormous photographic talents and vibrant personality of its founder W. S. Lively. On January 4, 1928, the school was destroyed by fire, started from an overheated coal stove.
William Spencer Lively was born in McMinnville on November 19, 1855. He grew up in the white frame Lively home on East Main Street just west of the railroad. His father, J.P. Lively, was a proprietor of a flourishing undertaking and furniture business located halfway between the Lively house and the Courthouse Square. This building is in the process of being restored and will become the permanent home of the Southern School of Photography Museum in the future. The LIVELY inscription still exists on the front of the building today. The Heritage Alliance and Main Street McMinnville are working on this major project along with many others. The First National Bank of McMinnville owned the building, which resides next door to the bank, for many years in case the bank wanted to expand in the future. The building was empty and deteriorating. When the bank learned that the Heritage Alliance wanted to have the building restored, the Board of Directors donated the building to the Heritage Alliance in 1999. The Heritage Alliance did not have the funds to restore the building, so the organization sold it to Karen Kerce, a woman who had restored more than 30 homes in Nashville. She has replaced the roof and performed the necessary construction to date which secure the building from further deterioration until the funds can be raised for the permanent museum home.
One of his earliest memories was visiting a photographic studio darkroom with his grandmother. As a teenager he set up a tent studio in the front yard of the Lively home and made tintypes of passersby every Saturday morning. Picture taking became an obsession with young Lively. It became his career by the age of twenty. He married Lela Jones and had three children, Lee, Nancy and Joe and also took over management of the Lively furniture store and opened a photographic studio on the top floor of the furniture store. In 1900, he founded the regional photographic association, know as the Kentucky-Tennessee Association. Lively became known as a genius in the photographic world and was well respected by all in the industry. Following the death of his wife, Lela, Dad married Ethel Cook, and in 1922, Ethel gave birth to Dad's fourth child, W.S. "Billy" Lively, Jr. Billy Lively, a pharmacist in McMinnville, has so graciously loaned us photographs taken by his father, camera's and personal effects to display in the museum. Included in these photographs, is one of the three remaining life-size photographs of Dr. Meadows, taken with his invention of the largest camera. Dad Lively retired at age 75. Throughout his retirement years Dad graciously accepted the many accolades, which were appropriately bestowed on him for having served his profession so well and for so long. The tribute that may have meant the most to him, however, was not related to his photographic career. On October 6, 1939, the McMinnville-Tullahoma High School Football Game was dedicated to Lively. A record crowd attended Dad Lively Night and cheered McMinnville to a 14-6 victory. The halftime tribute to Dad included the following:
"He is not a young man in years but his spirit will grow old because he takes an interest in youthful affairs. Mr. Lively has never lost interest in his love for mankind and he is making the evening of his life both useful and beautiful. We honor him as a man, a friend, as a loyal booster and as a good sport. I nominate Dad Lively as not only McMinnville's number one football fan, but it's number one citizen."
W.S. Lively died October 26, 1944, at age eighty eight. He was born in McMinnville; he died in McMinnville. As a measure of his national prominence, his death was reported in the November 6, 1944, issue of TIME magazine. He was proclaimed by the photographic world as the Dean of American Photographers. He was a genuine photographic artist who produced pictures at the beginning of the twentieth century, which are unsurpassed today as examples of the art of portraiture. Dad Lively served his profession and humanity with a vigor and ingenuity of rare quality.
One of Dad's many beloved school classes, shown below, pose for a picture at the Southern School of Photography:
In a featured article in 1936, the Southern Standard said, "Few citizen's of McMinnville fully realize Mr. Lively's contribution to the advancement of photographic art. Today, in every state in the Union and many corners of the world will be found studios owned or conducted by students from his institution. "
Information contained in this article are taken from the book, W.S. Lively & The Southern School of Photography, written in 1984 by Pat Bonner (Bigbee) and Charles Nunley for The Warren County Historical Society and published by Womack Printing Co., Inc. McMinnville, Tennessee.
This page last updated February 1, 2012