Story and photos by Kevin Nance
Geneva Donaldson remembers the first time she heard about a certain dashing, recently widowed Lexington physician. In 1989, a mutual friend of theirs mentioned that the wife of Dr. Elvis Donaldson, an oncologist at the University of Kentucky Hospital, had recently passed away. “You know how it is,” the friend said. “The women are arriving at his house with the casseroles.”
It took nearly a year for the friend to get them together at a dinner party. After the party, Elvis—named for his father and great-grandfather, not that other Elvis—walked her to her car in the rain, and they talked for a while, standing close together under his umbrella. Not long after that, he invited her to a performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats at the Lexington Opera House, which the musically-inclined Geneva especially loved. He drove her home and they talked until 2 a.m. in her kitchen while he drank six four-cup pots of coffee. “I was smitten with him,” she recalls, and he with her.
But he was absorbed in his work, traveling a great deal for conferences—and was also by nature a deliberative man who “likes to sit and think,” as Geneva has been known to put it—and didn’t call for a while. Geneva, then a divorced second-grade teacher in Woodford County, waited rather impatiently for a time, and then, as is her style, took action. “I’m a doer,” she says in a recent interview at their Gratz Park home. “I always say, ‘I’ve got to do something, right or wrong, today.”
To jog his memory of their theatrical evening together, Geneva found his address and mailed him a copy of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, T.S. Eliot’s 1939 poetry collection that inspired the musical. So reminded, and taking the hint, Elvis began to call, then take her out to dinner and performances, and finally invited her to join him on a work-related trip to Utah. And about a year after they met, they got married at Calvary Baptist Church—Geneva radiant in a custom-made, off-white wedding dress stained with tea—before 200 guests.
“They recognize each other’s talents and play off each other.”
Three years after that, they bought the historic mansion at the corner of Third and Mill streets on the northwest corner of Gratz Park, across from Transylvania University. (The house was built in 1841, facing the park, and was significantly expanded with a north-facing portico in 1898, giving it its reputation as “the only house to turn its back on Gratz Park.”)
Thirty years later, Elvis Donaldson is still a deliberator, Geneva Donaldson a doer. Their unique personal and professional partnership—after he went into private practice in gynecology/oncology, she was his office manager for more than a decade, in charge of everything from personnel to the choice of wallpaper—has made them one of Gratz Park’s leading power couples. Along the way, they’ve turned their spacious home and garden into the historic district’s flagship and social hub, known for throwing large, elegant parties on the Fourth of July and Christmas.
“They’re the ultimate host and hostess—mostly hostess, although Elvis does help,” says their friend and Gratz Park neighbor Carol Martin. “It’s just that Geneva can run circles around all of us. She’s a dynamo.” Another longtime friend, Lendy Brown, says, “They recognize each other’s talents and play off each other.” A third friend, Nancy Potter, says with a laugh, “Geneva tells him what to do and he does it. Not really, of course, but she’s the one who takes the initiative.”
Elvis, an affable, somewhat reserved Southern gentleman from Bowling Green with a strong Kentucky accent, was a driven professional, concentrating on the practice of medicine, and left most other matters, including the management and decoration of his office and their home, to his wife. Retired since 2018, he’s now relaxed and easygoing, retaining a touch of his reassuring bedside manner; he still sleeps in surgical scrubs, and gives the impression of being ready to step back into the operating room at a moment’s notice.
Geneva—vivacious, energetic, strong-willed and rather a perfectionist—is known for her keen eye for design, detail and what she calls “creating an atmosphere.” In her husband’s medical office, she saw to it that the wallpaper and fabrics in the waiting area were soothing to his often quite ill patients. The magazines in the lobby were kept current; there was art on the walls and books in the examining rooms. “It worked because I had my realm and he had his,” she says of that period. “I didn’t advise him about medical matters and he didn’t advise me about the management of the office.”
She also devoted considerable thought and energy to creating their richly appointed home, an eclectic, light-filled showplace full of antique and contemporary furniture and art. (Their art collection, acquired together over many years, includes works by Cezanne, Chagall, Henry Faulkner, former Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione and Irina Ilina, a Russian artist whose large oil paintings on crumpled paper are prominently displayed.)
But Geneva’s great masterpiece is their garden. Designed and nurtured over the past quarter-century, it’s a series of distinctly defined areas—“rooms,” she calls them—that burst with interest, variety and color year-round. Classical garden statuary give some parts of the garden an Italianate feel; metal heron sculptures guard the koi pond from hungry actual herons.
“We’re just passing through,” she told me last spring, referring to their stewardship of the historic estate. “It’s our responsibility to see that this property is passed on in as good or better shape as it was when we got it. I think we’ve done OK with that.”
And through the years, the Donaldsons have maintained the fun-loving intimacy they shared on their first date in the presence of Mr. Mistoffelees, Rum Tum Tugger and Grizabella. “If you watch them together, there’s a complete adoration and respect for each other,” Martin says. “That’s also peppered with lots of laughter.”
For his part, Elvis seems entirely at ease in his marriage to his powerhouse spouse. “As relationships mature, you either have an overall level of comfort and love or you don’t, and I think we’re in pretty good shape there. We’re two different personality types, so there’s some give and take, or”—here he smiles at his wife—“just give.”
This article also appears on pages 10 & 11 of the February 2022 print edition of Ace.
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