By Katherine Burgess
MEMPHIS, TN — Gladys Ann Hunter Sawyer was an entrepreneur, mother, wife and friend during her 72 years of life before her death Friday.
“A force to be reckoned with, she exuded grace, class, and formidability,” reads her official obituary. “She loved her family and worked hard to provide them with comfort, experiences, and education.”
A native Memphian herself, Sawyer was mother to two prominent Memphians: Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer and former Memphis City Schools board member Michael Anthony Hooks. Jr., owner and CEO of Allworld Project Management.
“In everything that I am, she played a role in shaping me,” Tami Sawyer said. “Her caring about people, number one. She was able to provide my brother and I with an amazing life, but she never let us forget we come from humble beginnings through her and that the reason we are spoiled and privileged is because she worked hard every day and never took no for an answer. … We are both community servants because of her. We can’t look the other way when people are suffering. That’s why I fight so hard for the changes I fight for, that’s why my brother worked so hard to build a company that takes care of people.”
Born in 1949 to Raymond Thomas and Bernice Hunter, Sawyer was the oldest of her mother’s nine children and the second oldest of her father’s five children. She grew up caring for her younger siblings, learning to sew, cook and love learning from her grandmothers.
Sawyer attended Memphis State University, where she was crowned the first Miss Black Memphis State, became a member of the Epsilon Epsilon Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority and was the secretary of the Memphis State 109, the 109 students, almost all Black, who went to jail for protesting unequal treatment of Black students on campus.
Sawyer eventually moved to Chicago, where she had lived before, and completed her bachelor’s degree at Roosevelt University.
While working at an accounting firm, Sawyer met and married her husband of 43 years, Andrew Benjamin Sawyer, Jr.
Her entrepreneurial endeavors ranged from owning and operating Cooking with GAS catering in Evanston, Illinois, to owning and managing the North Shore Examiner, a local newspaper in Evanston, with her husband, and Brides Today, the first bridal magazine targeted to women of color. Later, she served as senior marketing manager for Nutrasweet.
In 1994, the family returned to Tennessee to help care for Sawyer’s grandmother. She then joined Trust Marketing as a vice president, became a board member of the Women’s Foundation of Greater Memphis and Girls Inc. of Greater Memphis. In 2000, she became a member of the River City (TN) Chapter of The Links, Incorporated. In 2001, she formed HGF Inc., a marketing and project management firm. HGF Inc.’s clientele includes governmental and non-profit agencies across the country.
To her family, Sawyer was known for her cooking and entertaining, for sewing quilts for her loved ones and “for the fierceness of her editorial red pen,” according to her obituary.
She baked cookies, read and played with her granddaughters, Morgan Alise and Miranda Alexis Hooks, and was known to them as “Nana.”
Numerous people who came into touch with her received Christmas, birthday and Mother’s Day cards from her, said Joy Grizzard, her childhood friend who met when they were teenagers.
Her loved ones will all remember “her caring, loving, giving heart. The lessons that she taught all of us, even now, even still. The love she had for everyone,” Grizzard said.
Marilynn Wharton, a friend who was like a sister to Sawyer and is an aunt to her children, said Sawyer would want to be remembered as “quietly giving.”
“So much of what she did people didn’t even know about. (She was) generous with her friendship, with her skills, her talents, her involvement with people, famyou didn’t always hear her voice but she participated,” Wharton said.
Sawyer was “strong, strong, strong,” Wharton said. “She was a quiet fighter.”
Tami Sawyer laughs when she remembers how her mother was “our biggest fan and our biggest humbler” for her and her brother.
“She didn’t care that we were well known,” Tami Sawyer said. “She appreciated that, but she was more so like, ‘Be good people, take care of your personal business, take care of your family, take care of each other.’ She taught us how to show gratitude and kindness in small and big ways.”
A celebration of life service for Sawyer will be held Friday at 11 a.m. at First Baptist Church Broad, 2835 Broad Avenue. The service is open to the public and will also be live streamed.
“If there were more Gladys Ann Hunter Sawyers in the world, what a wonderful place this would be,” said Grizzard.
Katherine Burgess covers county government and religion. She can be reached at email@example.com, 901-529-2799 or followed on Twitter @kathsburgess.