Miriam DeCosta-Willis

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2018

STEADFASTNESS
for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Miriam DeCosta-Willis

Educator, author and Civil Rights activist, Dr. Miriam DeCosta-Willis has steadfastly worked to advance the cause of Civil Rights and widen knowledge of the Black experience in the United States and the African Diaspora. She understands what it means to break racial and gender barriers and defy the odds. She embodies much of what the Women’s and Civil Rights Movements hoped to accomplish in the last half of the 20th Century.

Miriam organized her first protest while a high school junior in Orangeburg, South Carolina. That same year, she and her mother were invited to lunch by the white wife of a local judge and the wife’s black friend. It was a test to see if she was a “nice Negro girl” who could integrate the prestigious, all-white Westover School for girls, in Connecticut. Though she didn’t know the lunch was a test, she passed and went on to graduate at the top of her Westover class. In 1952, on she went to Wellesley, from which she graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

Marriage brought her to Memphis. After having two children, she decided to pursue a Master’s degree. But, because she is black, this Wellesley Phi Beta Kappa was refused entry into the then-Memphis State University grad school.

Not one to give up, she applied to the Johns Hopkins program in 1959 under her married name – Sugarmon – and was accepted because that school thought she was Jewish. The professor who oversaw the process questioned whether a good Jewish wife and mother would leave her responsibilities at home, but let her in despite his doubts. We can only imagine his surprise upon their first meeting!

Being a black woman in a sea of white women at Wellesley and in a sea of white men at Johns Hopkins taught her a thing or two about challenging situations.

At Johns Hopkins she completed a Masters and later became the first African American to earn a PhD there. By then she had four children.

Miriam returned to Memphis to become the first black faculty member at the same university that had previously denied her entrance.

Miriam has been present for significant events in Civil Rights. Visiting her mother, she became an eye-witness to the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. She accompanied her mother to bus stops to pick up black workers and give them rides to their jobs. She was there the day Martin Luther King, Jr.’s home was bombed. Her mother drove them to the site. The crowd was ordered by police to step back. Miriam says, “But my mother stood there with her little short self, and she refused to move. I think that one incident really kindled my own courage and determination not to move back in the face of oppression.”

Miriam was in Memphis when Dr. King was assassinated. She participated in marches in the DC area when teaching at area universities. She and her children marched, were maced, and she has been arrested.

In Memphis, as secretary of the local NAACP, she organized what became known as “Black Mondays,” five days when black students stayed home in protest for quality of education and against lack of African-American representation on the school board. At the University she was advisor to the Black Student Association. Of course, she organized a sit-in at the President’s Office!

All the time she was steadily pursuing her academic and writing careers. A co-founder of the Black Writer’s Workshop, her published titles include: Daughters of the Diaspora; Afra-Hispanic Writers; Notable Black Memphians; Homespun Images: an Anthology of Black Writers and Artists (with Fannie Delk); The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells; Singular Like a Bird, the Art of Nancy Morejon and Black Erotica (with Reginald Martin).

Over the years, in addition to Memphis State, she has taught or served in administrative positions at Howard University, LeMoyne-Owen College, George Mason University and the University of Maryland. Now retired, she continues to write.

Miriam attributes her success to her family. Her father was a college professor and her mother a social worker, college professor and public schools counselor. She often heard the story of her grandmother, who registered to vote just two weeks after the passage of the 19th amendment. Her family emphasized education, achievement and accomplishment; tenets she has held firmly.

For this, Women of Achievement gratefully salutes Miriam DeCosta-Willis.

Martha Ellen Maxwell

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2014

STEADFASTNESS
for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Martha Ellen Maxwell

In a lifetime of service to the Memphis community – paid and voluntary – Martha Ellen Maxwell was a key engine in many landmark projects, particularly in the performing and visual arts.

Born Dec. 9, 1928, in Dyer, Tennessee, Martha Ellen Davidson was named for her two grandmothers. Her father died when she was 14 and she stepped in to help with two younger sisters when her mother went to work to support the family. Those early responsibilities at home and the discipline of piano studies helped prepare Martha Ellen for decades of leadership and achievement.

This high school valedictorian came down to Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College) to continue piano studies – and began to get better acquainted with her next door neighbor from back home – dental student John Rex Maxwell. The two married in 1948; Martha Ellen continued her studies, was president of Chi Omega sorority and graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

She served for three years as assistant dean of women, then became what she herself termed “an East Memphis housewife” birthing four sons and joining the volunteer circuit. She served the Memphis Symphony League as member and later president. As chair of the once-staid symphony ball, she demonstrated a streak of initiative by changing it from a regular ball to a “BACH-A-NAL,” an auction that cleared an unprecedented $107,000 in one year. She became the first woman president of the symphony’s governing board, the Orchestral Society. Projects she initiated include the Decorator Showcase and the Symphony Pops. Martha Ellen was instrumental in getting Alan Balter as symphony conductor.

During her Orchestral Society presidency, she had also been a Memphis in May volunteer and in 1977 founded a river-bluff symphony concert now known as the Sunset Symphony. Martha Ellen was part of groups that formed to save the Orpheum Theater from demolition and to rescue the Levitt Shell.

In 1979, Martha Ellen gave up her role as a volunteer for the arts to become executive director of Memphis in May. She recalled that the organization had “two desks….. I was handed a folder with $46,000 in bills and told we had no money in the bank.” So she initiated the idea of commissioning Memphis artists to create MIM posters, the sale of which would benefit the festival. Four years later, MIM was in the black and had a budget of $1 million. She left over differences with some board members. She said, “. . I was an assertive woman who wanted her own way, and there were some young male board members who didn’t know how to take that.”

Invited to speak to the then-all-male Rotary Club, she listed three things wrong with Memphis: racism, male chauvinism and turf protection. She has said that she never felt discriminated against.

This from the “token” white woman on the MIM board, the first female president of the Memphis Orchestral Society and the third female member of the Downtown Rotary Club!

After MIM, she took on the challenge of raising funds to expand the Dixon Gallery and Gardens. She  surpassed the Dixon goal of $1.8 million by $200,000! From 1985-1987 she was the first executive director of the Memphis and Shelby County Film, Tape and Music Commission. She went on to become executive director of the symphony for 10 years – leading from 1993-2003 through the search for a conductor, construction of the new concert hall downtown and challenging funding times. Along with that job, in the 1990s she served for over eight years as volunteer president of the Tennessee Summer Symphony, organized to employ the state’s professional musicians to take classical and semi-classical music to smaller, rural communities.

As one nominator said, “In a time when women leaders were rare and a woman’s path to community leadership was marked by discouragement, criticism and injustice, Martha Ellen Maxwell succeeded.”

After her death on March 6, 2014 at age 85, The Commercial Appeal saluted her in an editorial, saying in part: “Because of Mrs. Maxwell’s tireless advocacy, and her fundraising and managerial skills, Memphis is indeed a better place for the visual and performing arts communities.”

Jane Walters

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2013

STEADFASTNESS
for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Jane Walters

Jane Walters has spent over 40 years improving the lives of countless children, their families, and through that work the City of Memphis and the State of Tennessee through her work in the field of education.

Born into a musical family, she knew from the age of 7 that she wanted to become a teacher and started working towards that goal. A native Memphian, she completed Central High School, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Rhodes College (then Southwestern), obtained a Masters in Counseling from the University of Memphis (then Memphis State) and earned a PhD from Duke University.

She used her education well as she went along, starting her teaching career in 1956 at Messick High where she taught math and music and later became one of the first five guidance counselors in the city. She stayed there for eleven years. Always learning, she was the Assistant Director of Computer Services for Memphis City Schools from 1971-1974. Next she became principal of Craigmont Junior High, then of the combined Craigmont Junior/Senior High. She was only the second woman to become a high school principal in Memphis. She stayed at Craigmont for 21 years, earning national recognition for the school and for her innovative leadership.

Under her guidance, Craigmont became the district’s first optional program for international studies, offering German, Spanish, French, Latin, and amazingly for the time, Japanese and Russian. By the late 1980s she had set up a sister school in Russia. Students who went there had at least a year of Russian and lived with Russian families

Jane had known Don Sundquist and his family since they moved to Memphis in the 1970s. When he went became 7th District Congressman, Jane would take bus loads of students to Washington to meet their congressman and see democracy in action. When Sundquist became governor of Tennessee, he immediately thought of Jane and her innovative work at Craigmont and offered her a job. Jane accepted and became the first woman to be Commissioner of Education in the state. She held the position from 1994-1999, managing a $3 billion budget. While there she almost singlehandedly got every school in Tennessee connected to the internet.

After returning to Memphis and a brief stint leading the not-for-profit Partners in Public Education, Jane retired.

Of course that didn’t last.

The Grizzlies wanted to do something positive for the community and decided to start the Grizzlies Academy. Wanting the best talent to develop the new school, they called Jane. She agreed on the condition that they serve students who were two grades behind. The academy opened in August, 2003 with 40 students. Wanting the students to be successful academically and socially, Jane insisted that two nights a week, the students sit down to a dinner with white tablecloths and multiple-choice forks.

She really did retire in 2009.

Dr. Jane Walters spent a long career pursuing her goal of good education for all students and she did so during changing times. Through sit-ins and walk-outs, school integration and the women’s movement, she continued to put children first. Her interpersonal skills created a level of trust that encouraged excellence in those who worked with her.

By her own admission she was never patient enough to be political or eloquent. Of parents she has said “They don’t send us their used cars. These are their children. That’s why moms cry leaving them in kindergarten.” Jane is a straight talker – gathering a following that swears by her simple recipe of caring so much for students and their futures that the rest just falls into place.

For her steadfast dedication to education, we salute Jane Walters.

Mildred Schwartz

WOMEN OF ACHIEVEMENT
2005

STEADFASTNESS
for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Mildred Schwartz

Mildred Salomon Schwartz has led her life intentionally and actively involved in the community, business, religion, golf and most of all, her friends and family.

Her life began in tiny Newellton, Louisiana, where her family was one of six Jewish families in the town. When her father died, her mother brought her children to Memphis, opened a dry goods store and lived upstairs.

When her mother died in 1934, 14-year-old Mildred and her brother were sent to live with aunts and uncles here. She married Max Schwartz, her brother’s best friend, in 1939. When he was drafted in World War II, she took over his traveling sales business, hawking women’s dresses for Forrest City Manufacturing Co. of St. Louis. She was the only woman “salesman’’ among a staff of 30 and had the advantage of being able to wear and model the line! She drove the region, hauling bags of dresses, for three years, until Max returned.

Her list of “firsts” is significant. Mildred was elected president of Temple Israel’s board, the first woman to take that seat in 135 years. She is the role model for subsequent women presidents.

Mildred was president of the Volunteer Center, the Memphis Volunteer Placement Program, the Memphis Area Women’s Golf Association, the Plough Towers board of directors and the Memphis Section of the National Council of Jewish Women. Her skills as a trainer sent her throughout the country conducting leadership training for the National Council of Jewish Women. She chaired the Communitywide Board Training Institute and taught management and leadership at Memphis State University and Shelby State Community College.

She also became adept in fundraising and chaired the women’s division of the United Jewish Appeal three times!

One of her most important and least known accomplishments came about as she served on the Tennessee Day Care Standards Committee. As an outgrowth of research done by the National Council of Jewish Women into day care conditions, she knew that conditions in many child care centers were abysmal, including many operated by churches. Mildred pressed for and won on the issue of state licensing of church-based day care centers. This regulation caused many to raise their standards of health and safety for young children.

When a car accident in 2000 resulted in five surgeries on her leg, she persisted in her president’s duties for Plough Towers, dragging her cast along with determined good spirits.

Today she continues to serve the boards of Temple Israel and Plough Towers.

A special role she takes on, with her trademark calm and light-handed teaching style, is assisting 13 year old boys and girls, as a mentor for Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations, a Jewish rite of passage.

Mildred has suffered many losses in recent years, but she has never lost her faith or her active concern for her community. Even at age 86, she left the Women of Achievement awards event, award in hand, to get back to the 25th anniversary dinner at Plough Towers which she co-chaired.

With our thanks for her steadfast love and service to family and
community, Mildred Schwartz is honored for a lifetime of achievement.

Mildred Schwartz died in December 2013.

Yvonne B. Acey

Women of Achievement
2012

STEADFASTNESS
for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Yvonne B. Acey

Yvonne Acey’s path to a career in education, community service and social justice began in the cotton fields of Mississippi with nine siblings. It was from those fields that her parents were determined to help their children rise.

Some of the children commuted from their Walls, Mississippi, home to Memphis schools. In third grade, Yvonne left home to live with an aunt and uncle here in the city in order to go to school at Florida Elementary and then Booker T. Washington. “You get homesick and lonesome,” Yvonne said, “but you learn to survive. We wanted opportunity.”

The schools were still segregated at that time, but still the opportunities were greater in Memphis than in Mississippi.

She had Girls Scouts, church choir and youth groups – and she took advantage of it all to grow and learn leadership locally and beyond. At Booker T. she served the student council, career club, senior yearbook staff and won an academic scholarship to LeMoyne Owen College.

Her community leadership continued at LeMoyne – clubs, NAACP, student council, Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, and camp counselor working at St. Jude. She majored in humanities and English. She started teaching and entered graduate school at Memphis State thanks to a stipend in special education and rehabilitation. She went on to earn more than 90 credits toward a PhD.

Limited finances inhibited her idea of going to law school and the stipends that came her way were for education. Many teachers had made a difference in her life – and she was honored to march with one she calls the greatest teacher – Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

She marched during the Sanitation Strike and was part of Women on the Move. Yvonne said, “Instead of being just a participant of change, we became dreamers and actors of change. . . to make a difference in humanity.” She attended King’s funeral in Atlanta and continued to be involved with voter registration right on through Bill Clinton’s campaign and his inauguration.
She has taught for Memphis City Schools for more than 35 years, shifting last fall to special projects for MCS. She has long been a leader within the Memphis Education Association, serving in many positions including president from 1986 to 1988.

Back in the late 1980s, as the Memphis in May International Festival was beginning, Yvonne and her husband David saw a vacuum related to culture and history of African-Americans. They began to work with a committee to involve the African American community in celebrating the experience and culture, developing esteem and recognizing ethnicity and contributions to Memphis, America and the world. From there came African in April Cultural Awareness Festival which last April saluted Senegal during its 25th outing in Robert R. Church Park.

Next month, April 18-22, the 26th annual festival will salute Republic of Mali. Africa in April showcases African countries’ culture, cuisine, demographics, economics, arts, crafts, education, history, music, entrepreneurs and international relationships.

It grew from some African drumming in City Hall Plaza to a schedule of events, theme days, an international marketplace and entertainers with a $2.5 million impact on tourism. All events except the entrepreneurs’ luncheon are free and open to the public. Eighteen artists have been commissioned to create original posters saluting the honored countries.

The Aceys work year-round to attract corporate sponsors, assistance from state and local arts councils – it’s a constant problem and effort keeping the festival alive. Until the early 1990s, they relied on their own funds.

Recently AT&T, Arts Memphis, Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, Nike, FedEx and others have provided support. Africa in April has garnered recognition from both local mayors, the Tennessee General Assembly and even a call of support from President Obama. As associate director, Yvonne develops program ideas and manages press and schedules with a few part-time staff, volunteers and her husband as executive director.

Her steadfast attention to service is summed up in a quote she repeats by Jessie Jackson: “We realize we are all wrapped up in the garment of humanity and what happens to one happens to all.” For her steadfast commitment to education, community service and social justice, we honor Yvonne Acey as a 2012 Woman of Achievement for Steadfastness.

Linda K. Miller

Women of Achievement
2011

STEADFASTNESS
for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Linda K. Miller

In 1979, Linda Miller was attending her first parole hearing as a newly appointed member of the Tennessee Board of Parole. She quickly noticed something was missing. Not a single person in the room was speaking for victims.

During her 10-year tenure, Linda made sure that victims were heard. She traveled the state, meeting with victims and their families, as well as other citizens, officials and the news media.

It wasn’t the first time Linda made sure that victims were heard. She began that work several years earlier answering a telephone in a Midtown church. The women on the other end of the line were victims of rape and domestic violence. The hotline – operated by the YWCA – was the first of its kind in Shelby County. Linda was a part-time employee – one of two women who launched the hotline.

That part-time job led Linda to a lifetime of public service, advocating for victims and working to reduce crime. After serving on the parole board by appointment of Gov. Lamar Alexander, she was appointed by then-County Mayor Bill Morris as administrator for the new Adult Offender Center in Shelby County, a $7 million, 600-bed adult male correctional facility. When Jim Rout was elected to follow Morris in the mayor’s office, he turned to Linda as interim deputy director of the $33 million Shelby County Division of Corrections. She was quick with her advice.

“We spend millions on inmates and we don’t spend anything on victims,” she told Rout. She proposed a center for crime victims. Rout agreed. Her idea made his 100-day plan. On day 99, she got a call to show up for a press conference the next day to announce the Victims Assistance Center. She made her idea a reality and launched the center, a hub for victim service agencies. The center was recognized nationally, and provided service to more than 4,000 families a year. In 1999, as executive director of the center, Linda was named “Victim Advocate of the Decade.”

Her path appeared to take a bit of a turn then, when she became executive director of the Ronald McDonald House in 2002.

“It may seem off my career path, but it really wasn’t,” Linda told a reporter. “Nobody expects to be a crime victim, just like nobody expects their child to get cancer.”

After five years dealing with families in medical crisis – and operating an 11-acre facility with a budget of over a million dollars – Linda returned to helping make our community safer when she joined the Memphis Shelby County Crime Commission as program executive for Operation: Safe Community and then as interim director and director of the Crime Commission. Its primary project now is Operation: Safe Community in which local government, business and other community leaders collaborate to achieve specific crime-reducing strategies.

When Linda Miller retired last summer from the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, most of the officials and old friends who rose to pay her tribute at her going-away party joked that they expected to see her back on duty very soon. They were too well acquainted with her passion for community service work and too aware of the many roles she has filled over the decades to believe she could really go home to her grandchildren and mahjong tiles – and stay there!

Sure enough, by October, she was back in the saddle – taking on the interim executive director job for the Family Safety Center of Memphis and Shelby County. Linda came back to energize the project toward opening this summer, offering Shelby County’s suffering victims of family violence a single location combining civil, criminal, health and social services for victims of family violence.

The center is modeled after the successful Memphis Child Advocacy Center and is a strategy recommended through Operation: Safe Community. Linda’s enviable political savvy and capacity to forge and sustain durable working relationships with government leaders and bureaucrats, non-profit service providers and funders, politicians and pundits make her uniquely equipped to construct the partnerships that will make the Family Safety Center a model for the nation. Once again, Linda is providing a voice to victims.

When she steps aside from this job later this spring, many will again say, “Sure, Linda’s retiring!” because we know her heart and how plugged-in she is to this community’s needs. Through her steadfast service she has created and sustained projects that help the hurting and make us all safer. And, odds are, she is not done yet!

LaVerne Tolley Gurley

Women of Achievement
2010

STEADFASTNESS
for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

LaVerne Tolley Gurley

LaVerne Gurley was a young mother when, shortly after World War II, her husband suffered the first of several brain hemorrhages. A product of her time, she had no marketable skills. Knowing that she needed to help support her family and wanting a program that could be completed quickly, in 1951, LaVerne enrolled at the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center in the Roentgen Ray Technology Program, now known as Radiologic Technology. She and husband had an eleven-year-old daughter and a son who was still a toddler, so her mother-in-law moved in to help. A year later, LaVerne received her certification and answered a calling that was to last over 30 years and would include a distinguished teaching career and research resulting in greatly improved health care for women.

When LaVerne began her career, nuclear medicine was in the early stages of development. One of her first projects involved studying cancer of the cervix, pap smears, blood counts and the impact of radiation. But that was just the beginning.

While doing research and teaching, she continued taking classes, receiving one of the first certifications in Nuclear Medicine in 1963, followed by another in Radiation Therapy in 1965. In 1973, she received a BA in Education from Northeastern Illinois University. Her life-long commitment to learning culminated in 1976 with a Ph.D. in Medical Education from Union Graduate School.

Luckily for women, LaVerne was interested in radiation-safe, cost-effective and diagnostically sound techniques for baseline mammography.

In 1972, while working for the University of Tennessee, she collaborated with DuPont in research that led to the development of the “low-dose mammogram,” which improved the safety of the procedure.

In 1980, she was the principal investigator in research on computer assisted mammography analysis. The project was funded by the American Cancer Society with the assistance of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), one of the few organizations in the South that had the computer technology needed for the task. LaVerne traveled to NASA in Alabama to use their facilities. This work resulted in more accurate interpretation of breast cancer screening results.

In 1981, after 30 years with UT, LaVerne took her considerable talents to Shelby State Community College, now Southwest Community College, to direct the Radiologic Technologic program. A gifted lecturer and teacher, she was there full-time for eight years followed by five years of part-time service. She influenced countless students, before retiring as Professor Emeritus in 1996.

LaVerne has a long list of professional publications. She is co-author with William Callaway of the text Introduction to Radiologic Technology which is in its 6th edition in classrooms today. And LaVerne is working on the 7th edition!

Well-respected in her field, in the 1990s 3M established an annual Radiologic Technology Award in her honor. The Tennessee Society of Radiologic Technologists created the LaVerne T. Gurley award to recognize outstanding technologists in the state and the LaVerne T. Gurley seminars for continuing education.

While working, researching, teaching, and raising a family, she managed to belong to the League of Women Voters, the National Organization for Women and several school and church organizations. And more recently she’s been senior queen of the Mid-South Fair and a first place winner in the vocal group category!

Gloria Kahn

Women of Achievement
2009

STEADFASTNESS
for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Gloria Kahn

Gloria Kahn’s community leadership began with bandage rolling during World War II and continues in the highly technical and explosive push for embryonic stem cell research in 2009. In more than 60 years, she has advocated for people and ideas here and throughout the world.

“She has been a leader, not just by words, but by example,” said one nominator. Asked why she always worked on community affairs, while so many did so little, Gloria said, “Because it has to be done. Not everybody wants to take on some of the things I take on (because) they’re controversial or time-consuming.”

This child of Russian immigrants, born in Memphis, was imbued with love, respect for and appreciation of the United States by her parents. She won a citywide essay contest on “What America Means to Me.” She was in college at Southwestern (now Rhodes) when World War II was declared. Wanting to help the war efforts, she became a Red Cross Nurse’s Aide volunteering at the veteran’s hospital.

Marriage and two children led to volunteering as a Girl Scout troop leader – an acquaintance that later equipped her for a paid job as a field director and public relations director for the Tenn-Ark-Miss Girl Scout Council.

Her political activity began when she served as co-manager of President John F. Kennedy’s East Memphis campaign office. She served various leadership positions with the Memphis Women’s Political Caucus and the League of Women Voters and was a co-founder of the Public Issues Forum of Memphis, organized to bring greater advocacy for the Constitutional mandate of separation of church and state. She was its first president. Because of her passion for this issue, she was elected to the National Advisory Council for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. She was West Tennessee Vice President of the Tennessee Federation of Democratic Women.

Other community volunteering included the Girl Scout Council, Council on Aging, Panel of American Women, Orange Mound Day Nursery, president of Theatre Memphis’ auxiliary Stage Set and fundraising steering committee for the Med.

For more than 50 years, Gloria has been a leader in Hadassah, the nation’s largest women’s volunteer organization. A member of a four-generation life-member family, she has served every position of leadership, including president, in the Memphis chapter and on the Southern Region Board. She also has been president of local and regional chapters of B’nai B’rith Women, the Anti-Defamation League and on the board of the Memphis Jewish Community Relations Council, Health Insurance Continuance in Tennessee and Beth Shalom Synagogue.

For 13 years, Gloria was chairperson of the Memphis Committee on Soviet Jewry, part of a national effort to give a voice to Jews and others who wanted to leave the Soviet Union but were denied visas simply because of their religion.

With the National Conference of Christians and Jews, she was instrumental in organizing the Interfaith Task Force on Human Rights and Religious Liberty. Through her involvement with Hadassah and Americans United, Gloria has taught others to lobby for issues in which they believe and she has led lobbying trips to Nashville and to Washington D.C. Former mayoral candidate Carol Chumney wrote of Gloria: “She would have been a fine candidate for office herself, based upon her knowledge, compassion, commitment, dedication and passion for improving our community. Yet, she chose to instead selflessly work to help other women, like myself, get their foot in the door in an arena in which women often struggle to gain equal participation.”

Despite repeated health challenges, Gloria Kahn remains devoted and dedicated to urgent causes. She almost single-handedly organized a community coalition to prepare and position legislation for state support of stem cell research. She only slowed that effort a bit last year after local legislators indicated that they were not ready to negotiate for it across the state! With new federal leadership open to scientific endeavor, she is ready with a revived campaign for Tennessee.

She helped plan and attended a reception for female state legislators in October even after another illness.

This champion of social change, of women’s rights, of progressive issues has steadfastly served our community as a leader on political, social and civic issues. And she’s not done yet! Gloria Kahn is the 2009 Woman of Achievement for Steadfastness.

Carolyn Gates

Women of Achievement
2008

STEADFASTNESS
for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Carolyn Gates

Carolyn Gates grew up sewing for 4-H contests and pampering her pet cow in Geiger, Ala., population 72.

When she was 59 and the comfortable wife of a successful businessman, she ran for mayor of Shelby County, population 830,000.

She was the first woman to run for county mayor.

Why would she do such a thing?

She says, “I always tried to show that if you care enough, if you work hard enough, you can do almost anything. My mission became to encourage women to think in terms of what is possible for them. If I can do it, other women can too.”

The journey from 4-H sewing contestant to mayoral candidate curved first through the University of Alabama business school where she met her husband-to-be Jim Gates. She planned to return to college after they married but that got put off until the three children were all in school. The family had located to Memphis so Carolyn earned a psychology degree, one course at a time, at Memphis State, graduating with honors in 1975.

By then she had been a staunch Republican volunteer for 15 years. She served as precinct captain, area chairman, women’s chairman of the Republican Party of Shelby County and later president of the Republican Career Women. She was co-chair of Richard Nixon’s campaign in Shelby County both times he was elected, in 1968 and 1972. She was Shelby County campaign manager for Gerald Ford and George W. Bush.

She was her own contractor when she and Jim built their house in Germantown in the 1970s. “I was the quintessential volunteer – president of the PTA, president of the women of the church, a room mother. We were the family of the 50s, Ozzie and Harriet.”

But her eyes were opening.

“I saw so many areas where women should be serving and there were none, only men,” Carolyn says. “I found an amazing amount of skepticism about a woman, a wife and mother, running for public office.”

In 1977, when she first ran for Shelby County Commission, she recalls a “fairly typical” conversation with “one of our civic leaders.” After hearing Carolyn’s plan to run for office, he reared back in his chair, propped his feet on his desk, looked her in the eye with a benevolent smile and said, “Little lady, you are a nice, pretty little housewife. You’ve been happily married for 20 years. Now go back home where you belong.”

She was amazed that she was only the second woman to serve on the County Commission. Her husband got phone calls asking him to tell his “little woman” to do this or that. He firmly explained he didn’t vote on the county commission and his wife didn’t make real estate decisions.

After 17½ years on the county commission, including being the first woman to chair the budget committee and then the first woman to chair the commission, Carolyn ran for mayor in the primaries against fellow commissioner Jim Rout in 1994. Carolyn did well in early polling but suddenly plummeted into a two to one victory margin for Rout.

Carolyn was a founding member of the Salvation Army Auxiliary and of Youth Villages. She was chair of the Salvation Army Advisory board and the Memphis State National Alumni Association. She was appointed to the Defense Advisory Committee on the Status of Women and to the state Commission on the Status of Women. She is a life member of the Shelby County PTA who has hosted benefits and fundraisers for more than 50,000 people in her home in the past 25 years.

After nearly 18 years in the county commission, Carolyn worked in financial services and real estate and continued to contribute articles to local newspapers. She has often spoken in defense of women who focus on home and community instead of career but urges all women to participate fully in life.

For her lifetime of standing up, speaking up and participating fully in Shelby County life, Women of Achievement salutes Carolyn Gates. Carolyn remembers a visit to a family cemetery long, long ago.

Graves of the men were marked with reverent epitaphs of their success as teachers, preachers, leaders and heroes.
Graves of the women said “Dear Mother of George and two Daughters” or “Loving Wife of Henry.”

“I suppose it didn’t need to be spelled out for us that these, too, were heroic acts,’ Carolyn says. ‘These women gave birth to the babies, nurtured the living and buried the dead (but today’s women) must carry on the responsibilities of the past (and) also exploit the talents and special qualities that women carry within them…

“Will the epitaphs of these women who change the course of history read ‘Dear mother of George and two Daughters’ or “Loving Wife of Henry?” Maybe, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s noble. But there is much more. So very much more. I’m reminded of the proverb that says, ‘If it is to be, it is up to me’ I believe it!”

Gertrude McClellan Purdue

Women of Achievement
2007

STEADFASTNESS
for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Gertrude McClellan Purdue

Born in Ohio in 1909, Gertrude Purdue came into this world serving others. Through six wars, the great depression, and the Civil Rights movement, she’s been, in her own words, a handmaiden to the Lord. Her energy and dedication have benefited countless people. She’s the first to arrive for a meeting and the last to leave. She has a smile that lights up the room and a Salvation Army uniform that still fits.

The oldest of seven siblings, Gertrude was raised in Michigan and Indiana. The daughter of Salvation Army officers, she was serving doughnuts to servicemen and veterans by the time she was 9. At age 13, she was helping conduct summer camps for disadvantaged children. In a recent interview in The Commercial Appeal, she said, “We were children of the regiment, and I had a flock.”

She became a commissioned Salvation Army Officer in 1930. In 1934, she married fellow officer Bramwell Purdue. They had two daughters and a son and raised a foster daughter. Together the two served in five cities in the Southern Territory for almost 30 years.

The couple helped form one of the first USO clubs and went on to direct several others. In the 50s, W. B. Purdue served as divisional secretary while Gertrude worked with nursing homes and hospitals.

They came to Memphis in 1962 to serve as Area Commanders. During their years of active service they helped develop a shelter for abused and exploited women and children. Gertrude worked to develop social services including senior citizens programs and with the Junior League, established one of the city’s first daycares for low-income families. Working with the Memphis Parks Commission, she and her husband helped create Golden Age Clubs, recreational and learning clubs for senior citizens that were so popular that the parks service later developed their own.

In addition to her work with the Salvation Army, Gertrude has been a part of Church Women United since the group began, serving as both state and local president. When Myra Dreifus called asking for help on behalf of the Fund for Needy Children. Gertrude organized a “sew in,” with 250 women sewing 2,500 garments. The “sew in,” now known as a “sew out,” still exists. Following Dr. King’s assassination, she helped organize forums to bring people together to open lines of communication and foster understanding and unity. And she served on the committee that formulated plans for what is now the Memphis Inter-Faith Association.

Gertrude was a board member, officer and advocate for the YWCA when it was first addressed issues of race and women’s equality. This was during the time that the Y was one of the only integrated groups in town.

In 1973, the couple retired from the Salvation Army, but Gertrude kept on serving. A founding member of the Women’s Auxiliary, she’s still chief recruiter. She organized an early discount program for seniors, and played piano at the Adult Rehabilitation Center for 29 years. And she’s still delivers doughnuts at the VA Hospital twice each month.

Gertrude has received many awards but one tops the list. In 2006, she received the highest international honor the Salvation Army bestows: The Order of the Founder is given for superlative service to its mission and ministry. Her photo hangs at Army headquarters in Atlanta and is inscribed with her name and the words “servant” and “encourager.”

Gertrude has remained active in Church Women United and the East Memphis Quota Club and helps keep others motivated and on track. She’s optimistic and believes in setting an example of love. She has said, “….You never know what seed you sow today will grow down the line.”

This May, Gertrude will celebrate her 98th birthday. We know that over all these years, she has steadfastly sown many seeds and continues to do so today. She is certainly an encourager and an inspiration for us all.

 

Gertrude Purdue died at age 104 in May 2013.