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McKenzie Native, World-Class Talent Promoter

Kathryn Gilbert Varnell

1917 - 2018


SEWANEE, Tenn. - Kathryn Gilbert Varnell was born in McKenzie, Tenn. to T. Graves and Lottie Everett Gilbert on October 3, 1917. She had three siblings. She was a straight-A student and valedictorian of the McKenzie High School class of 1935. She grew up in the Methodist Church and was a member all her life. She attended Bethel College, again making straight A’s, and graduated with a degree in Chemistry. She was an outstanding guard on the basketball team. She became the principal, math teacher, and girls’ basketball coach at the Saltillo,Tenn. high school. There she met Lon Varnell and they were married on April 9, 1939. They moved back to McKenzie where they began their family. They acquired several small businesses, including a café and hotel.

Three children were born in McKenzie: Larry, Gilbert and James. In 1946, Lon entered Southern Methodist University Perkins School of Theology and moved the family to Myra, Texas. There, Linda, their fourth child, was born at the hospital in Gainesville, Texas. Kathryn and Lon moved to Sewanee, Tenn. in 1948 when Lon accepted a coaching position at the University of the South. Sewanee became their lifetime home.

In 1949, Kathryn and Lon owned a DeSoto - Plymouth automobile dealership in Cowan, Tenn. They then acquired a Chevrolet dealership in Tracy City, Tenn. in 1953 which they owned until 1970. Kathryn managed the finances for both automobile businesses, and a budding promotion business.

In 1970, Lon retired as the basketball coach at the University of the South. They sold the Chevrolet agency and engaged full-time in the promotion business. Founding Varnell Enterprises, Kathryn executed the financial responsibilities, as well as, details for the concerts and tours, while Lon oversaw promotions, bookings and purchase of talent.

Varnell Enterprises became the exclusive promoter for Lawrence Welk on tour. Together, they successfully promoted hundreds of acts and entertainers. Kathryn took over management of Varnell Enterprises following her husband’s death in 1991. Ben Farrell became the key promoter. They promoted acts such as George Strait and Alan Jackson. Varnell Enterprises became the main promoter of Garth Brooks, having worked with Mr. Brooks since 1988. Kathryn managed Varnell Enterprises with great success from 1991 until 2016 when her health required her to step down.

Kathryn was a member of the Order of The Purple of the University of the South, a Methodist and founding member of the Cowan Fellowship Church. She maintained homes in Sewanee and Nashville. and Thousand Palms, California.

Kathryn is survived by her sister, Lanier Gilbert Mabry of McKenzie, Tenn., her brother Dr. Thomas G Gilbert of Rapidan, Virginia, her four children: Dr. Larry S. Varnell (Ingrid) of Pasadena, Cal., Dr. Gilbert L Varnell (Nancy) of Saratoga, Cal. and James L. Varnell(Becky) of Seattle, Wash., and Linda Varnell Farrer of Sewanee, nine grandchildren, 14 great grandchildren and nieces and nephews.

She was predeceased by her parents, sister, Jeane Gilbert Tucker, son-in-law Dr. Richard James Farrer, her grandson, James Robert Matthew Farrer, and her great-grandson Ogden Hammond Fenwick Farrer. The family wishes to thank Al Thomason, Dr. Roy Elam, Dr. Benjamin Womack and the many caretakers who aided Kathryn’s family. Funeral services will be held at the Cowan Fellowship Church at 11:00 AM on Thursday, January 3. Burial and reception in Sewanee will follow. Funeral arrangements are being made by Moore-Cortner Funeral Home; Winchester,Tenn.

Moore-Cortner Funeral Home

300 1st Ave NW * Winchester, TN 37398

Office:  (931) 967-2222 * Fax: (931) 967-3049



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