Father, son, brother, pastor, businessman, civic leader, friend and more all converged in Donnell Cobbins, who contracted COVID-19 and died Friday (Dec. 110, two months shy of turning 50.
His death was among 2,950 reported in the United States on Friday as the nation’s death toll from the coronavirus climbed to nearly 295,000.
Private final arrangements for the family and close friends will be closed to the public, according to directors at E.H. Ford Funeral Home. A public viewing is set for 3 p.m.-5 p.m. on Monday (Dec. 21), at the funeral home, located at 3390 Elvis Presley Blvd., near Winchester Rd.
For a while, Cobbins appeared to be winning his battle.
“The first 10 days, he was fine,” said Darrell Cobbins, the younger brother with whom Mr. Cobbins built Universal Commercial Real Estate into the premiere African-American commercial real estate entity in Memphis. “Then on Nov. 19, he went to the hospital with shortness of breath.”
The pastor of St. Luke Baptist Church on Willoughby, off of Mississippi Blvd., Mr. Cobbins had been optimistic that he would be home before Thanksgiving. His brother took food over and left it for him.
“That Monday, he went on a ventilator,” Darrell Cobbins said. “We talked and texted through the weekend. We even did a three-way call with a friend in New York.”
Things got progressively worse over the last 10 days of his life.
“I had people praying everywhere, just prayer chains everywhere,” said his mother, Shirley Peace Cobbins. “Donnell and I texted back and forth, and I left him seven envelopes of pictures and inspirational scriptures so he could open one every day.”
Two days before Mr. Cobbins died, hospital staff connected him with his daughter and son, his mother, brother and other members of the family.
“He wasn’t conscious, but I believe he could hear us,” his brother said. “I guess that was the beginning of the end. I didn’t sleep much, listening for the phone to ring, for the hospital to call with an update or any change.”
A call came Friday at 7 a.m.
“He had a rough night, they told me,” said Darrell. “But, he was resting well. … So I called my mom to give her the update. By 8:30, I got another call that Donnell had taken a turn for the worst. By 9:15, the call came that he had passed.”
Hospital staff asked if Darrell wanted them to call his mother.
“I told them, ‘No.’ I knew I would rather she heard it from me than from them.”
While deeply grieved by the news, Shirley Cobbins said, “I felt a calm wash over me. … I felt a peace, an acceptance. I feel that Donnell had fulfilled his mission, and it was time for him to go back home.”
She recalled having been very sick while pregnant with him.
“I had toxemia, and I was rushed to the hospital so they could take the baby. The doctors said they could not save the baby, but they would do everything in their power to save me. Well, Donnell was born a preemie, weighing 4 pounds 11 ounces. We both made it.
“God let me keep him 49 years. God has a new, fresh angel.”
In this age of social media, the news spread quickly that the prominent businessman and civic leader had lost his bout with COVID-19. Hundreds of messages flooded online platforms, expressing condolences to the family.
Darrell Cobbins reflected on the early days with his younger brother, business partner and best bud.
“We were the only children of my mother and father,” he said. “My parents divorced when we were still very young. We were the only grandkids up until the time we were 15 and 17. So we had all the love and attention. Everyone called us ‘the boys.’ We were one syllable: ‘DonnellDarrell.’ We were joined at the hip.”
Catholic schools provided the early-education foundation; then Memphis University School. They cried at the airport when it was time for Donnell to go off to Kemper Military School and College in Boonville, Missouri. It was the first extended time they had spent apart.
As they evolved the Universal Commercial Real Estate firm, the brothers for a time hosted monthly breakfast events, which brought aspiring entrepreneurs together with accomplished business people.
Donnell Cobbins took a couple of runs for elected office, coming up short in a city council race and a county commission contest. Former Shelby County Trustee David Lenoir tapped him to work as a property reclamation specialist to battle blight and help rebuild neighborhoods.
Arrangements for Mr. Cobbins’ homegoing services are pending. E.H. Ford Funeral Home as charge.
On Saturday, his brother shared one more particularly sobering reflection:
“I slept better last night than I have for the past three weeks,” he said. “All those nights I was waiting for the hospital to call, I didn’t want to sleep that deeply. I wanted to wake up as soon as the phone rang.
“That’s all over now.”