Bedford native founded national firm

Sunday, August 13, 2017
Edward Willingham Arnold was a Wartrace native who helped found real estate firm Coldwell Banker.
Submitted photo

Although Edward Willingham Arnold spent most of his time in San Francisco boardrooms and driving past the Golden Gate Bridge, his heart remained at home in Tennessee.

Arnold was an original founding partner and chairman of Coldwell Banker Real Estate, one of America's greatest companies. He brokered million-dollar transactions and shaped the skyline of San Francisco through commercial real estate development. His moral character, strength and desire to achieve good things in life were deeply tied to his family roots in the South.

Wartrace native

Arnold was born in Wartrace, Bedford County on October 14, 1895 on a farm owned by his father, Oliver Perry Arnold. The Arnold family, of English heritage, were early pioneers of Tennessee.

His mother, Anna Louise Willingham, was a member of the Willingham family of Lincolnshire, England, established in America by Thomas Henry Willingham who settled in South Carolina in 1790. She was also a member of the Lawton family, originally from Cheshire. Both families owned large rice and cotton plantations in South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.

Arnold was named after his grandfather, Edward George Willingham, a Confederate commander during the Civil War. The Willinghams were among the wealthiest plantation owners in South Carolina and immediately enlisted in the Confederate Army when war broke out. Edward George fought as a cavalry officer in Hampton's Legion and led troops under Gen. Wade Hampton III.

Edward George survived combat in the major battles of the war, but he and his family lost more than half their property and assets. Gen. Sherman's troops pillaged and burned down the family plantations. Not one to accept misfortune, Edward George moved to Atlanta and used his leadership skills to become a successful businessman in lumber and real estate. He died in 1922 at the age of 83. Doubtlessly he was an influential role model in the life of his grandson and namesake.

Moving to California

Arnold spent his formative years in Wartrace. He was about 14 years old when his father Oliver moved the family to Riverside, California in 1909. It was an agricultural area at the time. Oliver worked as a wagon driver. His son distinguished himself through leadership activities at school and his athletic abilities. Arnold was admitted to Stanford University, where he studied law and belonged to university honor societies. Drafted into the U.S. Marines during World War I in 1918, he achieved the rank of second lieutenant.

Despite meeting many charming girls at Stanford University, Arnold did not choose a Californian for a wife. Instead he found a beautiful bride from Tennessee -- Annie Wickliffe Lowrie, born in Nashville. Annie attended Ward-Belmont College in Nashville, a small school for young ladies that focused on high-quality education and personal refinement. Annie majored in music and was a gifted pianist.

Her father, Harold Watkins Lowrie, was a Nashville lawyer and Civil War orphan. His father, Patrick Johnston "P.J" Lowrie, was a bookstore owner from North Carolina who died of malaria as a Confederate soldier when Harold was 2 years old. Harold's two uncles were killed in action at Sharpsburg and Gettysburg. These losses in his family deeply affected Harold. He attended Vanderbilt University and later moved to Colorado, where he became a judge and a division commander in the Sons of the Confederacy organization.

Arnold and Annie lived in Hillsborough, California, where they were active in their local church and raised three daughters.

Business natural

Arnold joined a small real estate company called Coldwell, Cornwall and Banker in San Francisco after he graduated college in 1921. The office was managed by older entrepreneurs Colbert Coldwell and Benjamin Arthur Banker, who had been in business for years without noteworthy success.

Arnold distinguished himself through his strategic vision and gift for business. He was known to be self-assertive but chivalrous. He helped Coldwell and Banker manage their San Francisco office and quickly became a leader in the sales force.

He was named a general partner in 1939, becoming one of the youngest and most skilled executives. He and the board of directors changed their company name to Coldwell, Banker & Co. in 1940.

Active in community

Arnold became director of the San Francisco Real Estate Board and director of the Better Business Bureau. He also served as director of Stanford University's Alumni Association. He became vice chairman of Coldwell's board of directors in 1963 and chairman in 1967.

Arnold used his skills not only to shape the world of business, but to improve society. As a volunteer, he supervised hospital boards and directed a medical charity initiative called the United Bay Area Crusade. He also took a leadership role in the creation of Stanford Medical Center and helped local churches underwrite debt.

Arnold retired in 1969. His legacy can still be seen today in the buildings that form the San Francisco skyline and in the commercial success of Coldwell Banker, which flourished under his leadership and has become one of the world's leading conglomerates. At his request, one of Annie's relatives created oil paintings of the founders of Coldwell Banker. Even today, these paintings are still used by the company as part of its official brand.

He passed away unexpectedly in 1974, while his wife Annie lived to the age of 106 and died at their family home in California in 2005.

Edward Willingham Arnold was a well-respected business leader in America who worked hard to become a multimillionaire. But, unlike many movers and shakers in California society, he was a Southern gentleman, and he was very proud to be from Bedford County.

-- Zita Ballinger Fletcher is Edward Willingham Arnold's great-granddaughter. She is proud to have inherited her great-grandfather Edward's looks as well as his interests in business and law. She is a financial journalist.

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