Theresa Okwumabua

Women of Achievement

for a woman whose sensitivity to women’s needs
led her to tremendous achievements for women:

Dr. Theresa Okwumabua

Dr. Theresa Okwumabua has witnessed firsthand the tragedies of ignorance, the lack of education and low self-esteem in young girls. In her professional career as a psychologist, she has gone above and beyond to make a difference in the personal lives of teen mothers and has systematically worked to provide learning where none existed, to provide hope where all had been lost, and specifically to reverse the vicious cycle of recurrent teen pregnancy.

Theresa was employed by Memphis City Schools Mental Health Center in August 1990 to head the mental health team at the Adolescent Parenting Program. At the beginning, she had two social workers and served a limited number of teen parents. In four years, her staff expanded to include eight social workers, one community advocate and two support people.

During her first year, Theresa was responsible for implementing the Student Enrichment Period – a non-graded class time for young parents in which social workers led group discussions about issues such as problem-solving, conflict-resolution, decision-making and interpersonal relationships.

Theresa’s vision led to a program called “Look at Me.” With a federal grant, the mental health team works with pregnant teens who have quit or are dropping out to return to school and stay in school for a period of 24 months with progress toward high school graduation.

Another program Theresa initiated and received a grant to fund is called “Project READ” which teaches students how to read to their children. Teen parents increase their reading skills and learn how to spend quality time with their own children.

Through yet another grant, Theresa initiated another program called “Rites of Passage.” It uses an African-American perspective and tribal/cultural methods to teach adolescents about health, social and education issues, and personal and familial responsibilities. “Rites of Passage” is being adopted as a statewide model for program intervention and Theresa’s book about the concept will advance it nationally.

Theresa’s bright vision for at-risk teens includes college attendance, independent living and a life of purpose that had previously seemed beyond their reach.

Theresa chairs the Memphis Beat the Odds program, a local version of the national program begun by the Children’s Defense Fund.

Marjorie Raines

Women of Achievement

for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Marjorie Raines

Marjorie Griffin Raines is a woman with a lifetime of achievement. She has spent more than 40 years actively advocating environmental justice, formally and informally educating people of all ages, and working within the political system to achieve positive changes for people and the Earth.

Marjorie Raines was born and raised in Gates, a small West Tennessee town. Her home was surrounded by woods, rivers and creeks, and her childhood play in this setting created a love of nature that was to be the inspiration for her life’s work.

With a degree from Memphis State College, she taught for 10 years in East and West Tennessee. In 1949, she left public school teaching and with her late husband, Hunter, moved to Memphis where they raised two sons. Marjorie continued to research the geology of the Mid-South and the Memphis water system. What she learned moved her to activism and in 1970, she joined the League of Women Voters.

As a League member she fought for the passage of a Bottle Bill, advocated recycling long before it became popular and led tours to study waste treatment centers, water pumping stations and the Allen Steam Plant. She spoke to groups across the city about the geology of the Delta and the need to protect air, water and park land.

In 1972, Marjorie worked with the League of Women Voters and other environmental groups to sue TVA for violation of the Clean Air Act. The TVA settled the suit by correcting the problems. Later Marjorie was the principal author of a citizen’s handbook designed to explain TVA’s often-complicated bureaucracy.

Marjorie participated in the long battle to save Overton Park and its old forest. When the dangers of the Hollywood Dump became known, Marjorie participated in hearings to study options for correcting the superfund site. She helped organize a workshop to help area residents understand the issues. As president of the local Sierra Club, Marjorie testified before the U.S. House of Representatives in support of the Conservation Reserve Act.

As a member of the Wolf River Conservancy, she labors for protection of the river as a natural resource and a recreation area. An ardent member of the Chickasaw Bluff Council, Marjorie works actively to create a river walk through downtown.

Marjorie Raines is a pioneer in women’s involvement in environmental issues and is regarded as an expert on local environmental questions. She has steadfastly worked to protect our environment so that future generations may experience the joys of the natural world so important to her in her childhood and throughout her life.

Marjorie Raines died in December 2001.

Elnora Payne Woods

Women of Achievement

for a woman who seized the
opportunity to use her talents and created her own future:

Elnora Payne Woods

Elnora Payne Woods was born in Olive Branch, Miss., the third of six children. The school she attended in Byhalia only went through the eighth grade. In order to finish high school, she moved to Memphis and boarded with her mother’s cousin. She supported herself by working as a waitress and dishwasher seven days a week. After her graduation she continued to work to help her younger brother and sisters through school.

In 1953 she married J.C. Woods, a cab driver, and together they had four children. In 1976 Mr. Woods bought Orange Mound Cab Co. He continued to drive a cab and Elnora worked in the office. Two and a half years later her husband died unexpectedly and Elnora was left to run the company.

Elnora had a little experience but a lot of determination. She already had trained to be a masseuse, keypunch operator and data transcriber, so she had confidence in her ability to learn new things.

At first each day was a struggle. According to Elnora she initially worked just to pay the expensive insurance. “I took one day at a time and listened to others,” she said. “Then I did what I could do and what I had to do.”

Under her leadership the company became Citywide Cab and grew from a total fleet of 22 cabs to 100 cabs and from 14 drivers to more than 100 drivers. The company now is self-insured and debt-free.

In 1992, Citywide Cab was named Small Business of the Year among companies with 75 – 350 employees in the annual Memphis Business Journal awards. Her goal was financial security for herself and her family.

Through initiative, Elnora Payne Woods built a thriving business and a legacy for her children.

Sandy Sanders and Patty Wallace

Sandy Sanders
Patty Wallace
Women of Achievement

for a woman whose heroic spirit was tested and
shown as a model to all in Shelby County and beyond:

Sandy Sanders and Patty Wallace

Sandy Sanders and Patty Wallace wear classic clothes and perfect makeup. They cook in country blue kitchens and have husbands who go duck hunting. But now their privileged lives have changed forever.

In December 1992, between kids’ basketball games and church suppers in Dyersburg, Patty Wallace and Sandy Sanders raised their right hands and swore to tell the truth about being sexually assaulted by Judge David Lanier, one of West Tennessee’s most politically powerful men. He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison for using his authority to violate the civil rights of five women, and he was removed from office by the Tennessee Legislature.

The heroic action of these two women set a national precedent and drew national publicity as the first case in which a judge was sentenced under federal guidelines producing a long prison term.

In all, 13 women worked with federal investigators to track Lanier’s history of sexual assault and harassment in his courtroom and in his chambers. Eight testified about how Lanier pressured female courthouse workers and women with custody cases in his court to submit to his sexual assaults. One woman said he kept a sleeping bag in his office for the assaults. Another said he forced her to perform oral sex and another said the judge fondled her from behind his bench where no one could see.

Lanier was convicted for actions involving five women. Fear of further harassment kept most of them from allowing their names to be used in news accounts. However, two women, Patty Wallace and Sandy Sanders, agreed in April 1993 to let the public know how their experiences changed their lives. Maybe then, they hoped, the insulting banter would be replaced by compassion and respect for women who endure the crime of sexual harassment and choose to fight back.

For Judge Lanier, the jurors were in a courtroom. But Sandy and Patty found themselves on trial in shopping malls and grocery checkouts, where the comments and looks from neighbors continued. And so did the nightmares.

Patty and Sandy were heroic enough to go the extra mile. They shared their stories with The Commercial Appeal, U.S. News and World Report and television’s Inside Edition.

They are saluted as representatives of all the women who dared go to federal court, day after day, to describe the horrors of sexual abuse.

Dorothy Sturm

Women of Achievement

for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Dorothy Sturm

Artist, educator and mentor all describe Dorothy Sturm’s achievements. She excelled in each of these areas during her lifetime and her impact continues to be felt.

Born in Memphis in 1911, Dorothy Sturm graduated from St. Mary’s Episcopal Girls’ School in 1929. Her father gave her a bus ticket to New York, where she arrived in 1930 to study art.

She returned to the Delta in 1938 to become an instructor at the Memphis College of Art where she taught until she formally retired in the late 1970s. During her teaching career she continued to create her own art. In addition to her abstract pieces, she is world-famous in the medical community for her watercolors of blood cells, which were first published in a 1953 text.

These are the facts surrounding the life of Dorothy Sturm. But they in no way fully describe the impact she had both on the art world and on her students and friends.

One of her many supporters said, “Dorothy is a woman who knew no boundaries. She persevered, challenged and excelled in all arenas in which she participated, regardless of obstacles or opposition. She was an artist whose expressive mode was always on the edge pushing our vision and intellect.”

In the 1950s, when abstract art was new, Dorothy expressed herself in the traditional mediums of painting and drawing. She also forged ahead and applied abstract technique to many other media, which was unheard of at the time. She was one of the few Tennessee artists to be represented by a New York Gallery and her work was exhibited nationally. Simultaneously, in the early 1950s she was making meticulous renderings of blood cells from slides assigned to her by Dr. L.W. Diggs. One nominator says, “To my knowledge, no one has ever approached the quality and excellence of her renderings of cell formations.” The book, The Morphology of Blood Cells was published in 1954 and is now in its fifth edition.

Her impact as a teacher and mentor cannot be understated. She was a role model for women artists at that time. Countless letters from former students and colleagues of both sexes state that contact with Dorothy changed their lives.

A female student from the 1960s says, “She was an avid conversationalist with a broad range of subjects. She was warm, tolerant, accessible and interesting. Her powerful presence was felt by students and colleagues alike.” These sentiments are echoed in letters from working artists and arts educators from across the country.

Dorothy Sturm did not just teach art skills. She taught self-discovery and respect for others, the wonder of nature, pursuit of excellence and how to maintain a spirit of inquiry and curiosity.

Dorothy Sturm died in 1988 but the power of her life’s work continues to ripple through the art world.

Ruth Knight Allen

Women of Achievement

for a woman who solved a glaring problem despite
widespread inertia, apathy or ignorance around her:

Ruth Knight Allen

Ruth Knight Allen is determined to help native people, and she brings all the power of her spirit and her Cherokee-Choctaw heritage to that task. Ruth came to Memphis from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, 51 years ago and began her formal schooling at age 13, in the third grade at Peabody Elementary. She went on to raise two children, work for 17 years for Holiday Corp., where she built the in-house printing department, and then founded her own business, Pipestone Printing, while working full-time at the American Red Cross.

Underlying everything that she does is the desire to exemplify what American Indian women are capable of accomplishing. She helped create the Far-Away Cherokee Association, now the Native American Intertribal Association, to highlight native heritage and offer support services to native people. She helped organize the American Indian Association for Native American military personnel in Millington.

She funded her own travel to Colorado in 1986 to the National Governor’s Interstate Indian Council conference to represent Tennessee’s Indian people for the first time in the council’s 37 years. Then she worked to have Tennessee as the site of the 1988 conference, to coincide with a celebration of “The Year of the Indian in Tennessee – 1988.” She served from 1987 to 1990 as secretary-treasurer of the council.

She was the only woman on the five-member Tennessee Commission of Indian Affairs from 1983 to 1990, and was the 1990 census liaison among Indian people. Ruth formulated, in a six-year process, documents for recognition of American Indians living in Tennessee. Her proposal for an American Indian Heritage Route was submitted to Congress as part of the Lower Mississippi Delta Development Commission report and was one of four actions chosen as feasible for implementation.

She is one of two Tennesseans on the advisory committee of the Delta Tourism Development Commission and is working to obtain the “Old Marine Hospital” at Chickasaw Heritage Park for a Delta American Indian Cultural/Resource Center. As a member of the University of Memphis Advisory Committee for Chucalissa, she is working to save that ancient native village.

Ruth has shared her culture with diverse groups around the country. She also was saluted as one of The Commercial Appeal’s “1,000 Points of Light” in Memphis in 1989.

What is it like to be an American Indian in today’s world? According to Ruth, “It is a tremendous responsibility being both history and future.” Ruth carries that burden with grace and strength, determined, she says, to restore the American Indian to a place of dignity and respect, thereby helping preserve the heritage of all Americans.

Nickii Elrod

Women of Achievement

for a woman who, facing active opposition,
backed an unpopular cause in which she deeply believed:

Nickii Elrod

Nickii Elrod knows how to tackle the big boys. Sexism and racism in the pages of a major metropolitan newspaper? Let her at it! A railroad trying to kill a historic neighborhood? Here comes Nickii! Poor children needing a warm smile and an open heart? Tell her where they are …

Nickii came to The Commercial Appeal in 1969 as a staff reporter in what was then the “women’s section.” She had already had one career – as an Air Force wife who lived in 27 cities around the world in 27 years. She came to Memphis, the biggest city near her hometown of Greenwood, Miss., to rebuild following her divorce.

She was for many years the only feminist in the newsroom. She embraced as her own the task of being the translator in Memphis of the struggle for women’s equality. She persevered, despite the prevailing legacy of male domination and ignorance of women’s issues at the newspaper and throughout the region.

When the historic Tennessee Year of the Woman Conference was held in Clarksville in June 1977, Nickii shipped a page-one story every day. “I totaled 16 hours of sleep in four days,” she later said, and in one 24-hour stretch she worked 22 straight hours.

Her sense of fairness also reached to people of color. She joined the National Council of Negro Women and the NAACP. She wrote about issues in the black community and incorporated black people into stories about Memphis and the area in general, something that was not common then. As Angus McEachran, editor and president of The Commercial Appeal wrote of her in a nominating letter: “Not all that she wrote about were popular topics of the day, but she had the courage of her convictions and the tenacity to carry them through.”

The same courage carried Nickii when the Missouri Pacific Railroad started eminent domain proceedings to take over large tracts of land in Rozelle-Annesdale in 1975. The railroad’s plan would have turned a stable South Memphis neighborhood into a mega-center for handling cargo and 18-wheeler trucks.

Nickii joined the effort to save the neighborhood and the antebellum Raynor House. Against everyone’s advice, she bought the house, and in 1978, just short of her 60th birthday, she moved in and began its restoration, got it placed on the National Register of Historic Places and saved the house and the neighborhood.

Nickii retired from the newspaper in December 1986, but the path she blazed so courageously is still open. She led the way in coverage of women as community players beyond the “society pages.” Nickii Elrod gave Memphis women – black and white – their many voices.