Bessie Vance Brooks


for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Bessie Vance Brooks

The story of Bessie Vance Brooks is found primarily in images and architecture, rather than written records. This is somehow fitting for an artist who played a critical role in the development of the cultural and educational institution now known as the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

Bessie Vance was born near the end of the Civil War to Margaret Dabney Vance and Calvin Fletcher Vance, a prominent Memphis attorney.

She was educated at the Clara Conway Institute in Memphis and studied art under her lifelong friend Katharine Augusta “Kate” Carl. Described in her obituary as “a distinguished artist in her own right”, Bessie traveled extensively and studied in Paris. And, in a portrait painted by Kate Carl, we can imagine that Bessie enjoyed riding horses because she is outfitted in an elegant black riding habit with hat, red scarf, leather gloves and riding crop.

Years later, shortly after the turn of the century, Bessie married businessman Samuel Hamilton Brooks, whose first wife had died several years earlier. An Ohio native who moved to Memphis in 1858, Hamilton Brooks made his fortune in the wholesale grocery business and later served on the board of a bank and an insurance company. His family recalled that he had expressed an interest in building a public art gallery even before he met Bessie. Perhaps it was this shared love of art that brought the couple together during the last decade of Hamilton’s life.

In 1906, the wife of Hamilton’s business partner, E.A. Neely, spearheaded a campaign to raise support for an art museum. Mrs. Neely’s plan involved raising money through schoolchildren gathering discarded waste paper, rags and waste rubber, such as garden hoses and galoshes. This effort had languished by the time Hamilton died in 1912. The following year, Bessie made the dream of an art gallery a reality when she donated $100,000 in her husband’s memory. The Georgian marble building was designed by New York architect James Gamble Rogers who had recently completed the
Shelby County Courthouse. Ground was broken in Overton Park in 1914 – one hundred years ago this year. The museum opened on May 26, 1916.

At the dedication, Bessie’s speech was read by the Episcopal Bishop Thomas F. Gailor: “I hereby give and donate this building to the public use as a repository, conservatory, and museum of art—to be kept and maintained forever. . . for the free use and service of students of art and for the enjoyment, inspiration, and instruction of our people.”

Bessie’s generosity provided more than a building; it created a place where many other women in the city contributed to the arts and, especially, to art education. The Memphis Art Association, founded in 1914 by Florence McIntyre and other members of the Nineteenth Century Club, adopted the Brooks Museum. McIntyre, an artist who studied under William Merritt Chase, became the museum’s first director. (She received the Heritage Award from Women of Achievement in 2008.)

Other women’s organizations supported the museum by raising funds and organizing lectures and children’s programs. In 1934, the organization now known as the Brooks Museum League was formed to promote the work of the museum with “special attention focused on activities for children.” The League continues to support art education by hosting the annual Mid-South Scholastic Art Awards to honor exemplary art created by junior high and high school students in the region.

Bessie Vance Brooks did not remain in Memphis to see the development of the Brooks. A few years after the museum opened, she moved to Florida where she died in 1943. She was buried in Elmwood Cemetery with her husband and other members of his family. If you visit Elmwood today, you won’t find much information about Bessie’s history. Her name was never added to the family tombstone in the space below her husband’s.

In order to learn about her legacy, you must leave Elmwood for the Brooks Museum where you can see the fulfillment of Bessie’s vision of both a cultural and educational institution for our city. In keeping with her wishes, the museum continues to offer education programs, hosting more than 15,000 students a year and providing workshops and resources for teachers.

With a collection that numbers almost 9,000 works of art, and a building that has been expanded three times, the Brooks has no doubt exceeded what Bessie imagined for her community. Her legacy endures and generations have benefited from the beauty and glory of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.


Photo: Katherine “Kate” Augusta Carl, American, ca. 1850-1938 • Portrait of Bessie Vance Brooks, ca. 1890 Oil on canvas • Gift of Mrs. Samuel Hamilton Brooks 16.4 , Memphis Brooks Museum of Art

Martha Ellen Maxwell


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.”

Elaine Blanchard


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

Elaine Blanchard

Elaine Blanchard is a writer, mother, minister, nurse, hospice counselor and actor. But most of all she is a storyteller. Elaine believes in the power of story to help us share our humanity and understand the deeper meaning of our lives.

She knows through her own experience that understanding our own story and sharing that story with others connects us to ourselves and our humanity. That knowledge has led her to a vision of using storytelling to bring self-understanding and hope to women in prison.

Elaine grew up in a rigidly religious and misogynistic Southern household. She married, became a minister, and gave birth to a daughter. She left that marriage after realizing that she is a lesbian. She became a nurse, and then a hospice nurse. She returned to the ministry, she found love and formed a life-partnership with Anna Neal. In 2000, she graduated from Memphis Theological Seminary.

While presenting the Children’s Sermon, at First Congregational Church, she began telling stories of her childhood. And people listened.

During this time her understanding of the power of story grew and she took it to other areas of her life. Having a mother with Alzheimer’s, dying in a care facility, Elaine recognized that giving voice to her mother’s story could help caregivers see her mother as a person, She created a brief story narrative of her mother’s life to “introduce” her mother to caregivers. This was hung over her mother’s bed, along with pictures from her mother’s life and caregivers began to interact with her mother in a more humanized way. This led to the work of “I Am” Stories, which helps provide narratives for families to honor loved ones at the end of life.

In 2010, she gathered childhood experiences with racism, sexism, abuse and dogmatic religion and turned them into a play. The critically acclaimed For Goodness Sake has toured extensively. Her second play, Skin and Bones, is an exploration of the shame, power and beauty of the human body.

Since 2010, Elaine has been working behind bars with women inmates to produce Prison Stories, a story listening/story telling process that gives voice to the stories of the lives of the women.

Why? Elaine grew up in a home with three brothers and a father. For Elaine, it was a “rigid, judgmental and misogynist environment….I grew up feeling like I was invisible.”

This led Elaine to a vision of using story as a way to help women adapt to life behind bars and learn to avoid the behaviors that put them there. “My inspiration to go to the prison and listen to women’s stories comes from the pain of being dismissed, neglected and forgotten.”

Each series of Prison Stories includes 12 volunteer inmates who sit in a circle two days a week for 16 weeks and talk about themselves and issues. Each group reads two books: coming-of-age story Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and Zen writer’s guide, Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. As they discuss the books, the women open up about themselves. At night they keep a diary. Themes tend to repeat with each group – body image, food, mothers, unintended pregnancies, life in prison and violence. At the end of the series, a readers’ theatre piece is created and performed by actors. There is a prison performance as well as performances on the outside.

The prison system hopes to reduce repeat offenses. Women who have shared their stories say the experience helps them understand their pasts and to feel like their lives matter.

Next, Elaine will work with clients of Friends for Life, to help people living with HIV tell their stories.

Cristina Condori


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

Cristina Condori

Domestic worker, wife and mother, Cristina Condori is an immigrant from Argentina who places her beliefs on the line.

Since moving to Memphis almost a decade ago, she and her family have faced numerous obstacles. Economically, times are hard and they struggle monthly to make ends meet. Her husband lost his job in Memphis and currently works out of town. Her former clients can now only afford help once or twice a month so she constantly hands out cards and flyers seeking opportunities for housekeeping and childcare work. She barely earns $240 per week to help support a household that includes two daughters, a brother and a guest.

Her two daughters are both excellent students involved in many different volunteer activities. And Cristina has also been working to improve her English and takes every opportunity to practice.

Yet, Cristina somehow finds many hours every week to do what she can to bring greater justice to others who have been in situations similar to her own.

She volunteers with Workers Interfaith Network, and Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, as well as many other groups dealing with justice issues, women’s issues, and health causes.

Cristina’s convictions are strong, so strong that she was willing to take the fight for freedom and the rights of citizenship in the United States to Washington, D. C. There, on September 12, 2013, she joined women from 20 states to blockade the intersection outside of the House of Representatives to protest the House’s inaction on comprehensive immigration reform to treat women and children fairly.

Cristina and the other women were prepared to be arrested and arrested they were. This historic act of civil disobedience included the largest number of undocumented immigrant women to ever willingly submit to arrest. The 105 women who were arrested wanted to draw attention to the fact that women and children constitute three-quarters of immigrants of the United States and disproportionately bear the burden of the failed immigration system.

On her blog the next day, Cristina said “The decision and oath that we took together was a great action… Women of all ages, professions and immigration status sat in the street under a hot morning sun of Washington, D.C., in front of the Capitol and Senate as part of a civil disobedience for a Comprehensive Immigration Reform that is fair and humane. We were there for the people we love and for all those who suffer from this immigration system that is broken and that continues to divide families. It was about OUR freedom! But also it was about the freedom of all immigrants, of all children who were separated from their parents, of all workers who were and will continue to be deported each and every day….”

One of her nominators, Rev. Rebekah Jordan Gienapp, herself a Woman of Achievement for Determination honoree for seeking fairness for workers, says Cristina Condori is ”one of the most determined, energetic, and brave women that I have ever known…She is truly a leader, inspiring other immigrants to take risks and speak out for greater justice.”

Participating in civil disobedience for a just cause takes courage. It is an intimidating prospect for anyone, but for an immigrant so much more is at risk than for a citizen.

Cristina Condori truly deserves to be honored for her commitment to work on behalf of immigration reform and her courage to stand up for her beliefs.


Christina Condori continues to aid refugees fleeing from Mexico and Central America.

Margot McNeeley


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

Margot McNeeley

Margot McNeeley was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, but moved a lot. She lived in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Florida, Texas and Arizona.

Twenty-two years ago she was working in a bookstore called Bookstar in Phoenix, Arizona, when one of the owners called asking if she’d ever been to Memphis. A month later she moved to Memphis to open Bookstar at Poplar Plaza. She worked and attended the then-Memphis State University.

She and her husband dined out a lot and Margot began to notice all the waste that restaurants create. Each meal served was reported to generate a pound and a half to two pounds of trash. She didn’t want to be part of that and grew tired of just complaining about it.

In late 2007, she met Chef Ben Smith and his wife Colleen Couch-Smith from Tsunami to talk about what might be done to reduce restaurant waste since the city doesn’t recycle for businesses. Margot found out that Ben and Colleen were already taking steps to reduce their environmental impact so working with them was the perfect starting point.

The three met for about seven months, figuring out what steps could be taken that would have the greatest impact but that would not break the bank or create too much more work for businesses. Margot searched for an organization to model or join, looking for something local, affordable to restaurants and unique to the Mid-South.

Finding nothing in Memphis that fit this description, Margot made the idea a reality by establishing Project Green Fork. The mission: to contribute to a sustainable Mid-South by helping reduce environmental impacts, with a focus on strengthening homegrown restaurants.
“Tsunami was a great pilot restaurant for Project Green Fork and from there it just kind of caught on,” Margot said. She had always been interested in environmental causes and even as a child preferred being outdoors, but had not been involved in green efforts until founding Project Green Fork.

Today 58 restaurants are Project Green Fork certified, with a few more working on their steps toward certification. Margot is the only staff member and works with 16 dedicated board members and usually a summer intern. Certified restaurants are promoted through advertising and social media – and the Project Green Fork sticker on the front window.

Since Project Green Fork receives so many calls from other communities trying to set up their own version of it, Margot enlisted the help of a local writer and created the “Toolkit for Restaurant Sustainability” that other like-minded people can purchase.
The organization certifies restaurants as practicing sustainability based on six steps:
• Engage in kitchen composting.
• Recycle glass, metal and cardboard.
• Use sustainable products.
• Replace toxic cleaners with non-toxic cleaners.
• Complete an energy audit and take necessary steps to reduce energy and water consumption.
• Prevent pollution.

Margot connected with another woman who wanted to help – Madeleine Edwards. Together the two set up Madeleine’s business, Get Green Recycle Works, which picks up and recycles glass and cardboard from the eateries and also will haul bins of composted food debris to community gardens.

To date, Project Green Fork restaurants have kept the following OUT of the landfill:
• 1,780,050 gallons of plastic, glass and aluminum
• 1,630,500 pounds of paper and cardboard
• 220,000 gallons of food waste

And the numbers continue to grow.

Memphis is fortunate that Margot McNeeley chose to live here and to share her business savvy and her determination with local restaurant leaders so that we can watch for that distinctive sticker with the leafy green fork that lets us know that we are dining in a business that cares about our environment.

Gayle Rose


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

Gayle Rose

Philanthropist, business founder, civic innovator – Gayle Rose defines “initiative.” This native of Iowa came to Memphis with her degree in music and business to work in arts administration. Arriving in August 1979 to work as assistant director/development director for the Memphis Arts Council, she performed clarinet on the side in a quintet and in orchestra for local theater and opera productions. In 1984, she enrolled in Harvard’s masters of public administration program and in 1985 returned to Memphis to marry Holiday Inn Corporation CEO and chairman Mike Rose. The couple had three sons together.

Gayle became chair of the Rose Family Foundation and was a co-founder of the Women’s Foundation for a Greater Memphis in 1995. After the marriage ended, Gayle continued her role as a prominent philanthropist. And she expanded her community involvement to encompass areas as diverse as historical preservation, professional sports, and entrepreneurship.
She worked tirelessly in the effort to save the Hunt Phelan home, a Memphis landmark.

In 2000 and 2001, she was part of the seven-person Pursuit Team of local leaders that wooed and won the relocation from Vancouver of an NBA team – now the Memphis Grizzlies. With attorney Marty Regan, her partner in numerous community projects, Gayle had charge full-time of confidential day-to-day communications between the Memphis investors, the league and other team owners. Gayle says, “It was so confidential that my office staff and children didn’t know what I was working on.”

Her commitment to the NBA project was driven by her long passion for efforts to improve economic opportunities and community harmony.

That same passion moved her to lead the Women’s Foundation board into the Memphis HOPE VI project that replaced crumbling public housing with new buildings and supportive social services. Since nearly 100 percent of leaseholders in the properties are women, Gayle asked the foundation board to be the private nonprofit to raise and receive $7.5 million in private funds for the comprehensive case management portion of the city’s application for federal grants. Gayle committed to lead the fundraising and considers it one of her most important projects. The Women’s Foundation raised $7.7 million over five years for Memphis HOPE.

In business, Gayle is currently founder and CEO of a technology and business continuity company, EVS Corporation. EVS has 18 employees and in 2012, Gayle was named CEO of the Year by MBQ magazine.

She continues as chair of the Rose Family Foundation private charity as well as her newest venture, Team Max, named after her late son, Max Rose, who died in a car crash. Team Max is a social media based volunteer activator for youth, which mobilizes support for causes across the globe.

Gayle became chair of the board of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra last year. She is presently leading the effort to reorganize and fund the symphony as it copes with a financial crisis that threatens its very existence.

Gayle has written powerfully about her dedication to strengthening our community by improving the lives of women through philanthropy, community redevelopment and political action: “Women need to understand that in Memphis, and throughout the world, poverty has the face of a woman. We need leaders in government who understand that ignoring the empowerment of women results in social costs, which keeps our community lagging behind. And we need leaders in the community who can advocate economic and social parity for women, as well as job training, child care, healthcare, reproductive rights and education. We all pay the price for the suffering of our women and children through our tax dollars, schools, property values, healthcare costs and crime rates. . . As a community and a nation, we all lose if women lose.”

Gayle Rose invents ways to make change, to build new opportunities for herself and for others. She invests, she initiates, she inspires, she innovates – she uses her talents to create her own future despite personal tragedy or long odds – and we and our children benefit.

Meaghan Ybos


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

Meaghan Ybos

Meaghan Ybos was a 16-year-old high school student when she was raped, in her home, by a masked man who held a knife to her throat.

She waited in terror for her mother to come home – he had threatened to kill her family if she told anyone. Her mom called 911 and Meaghan began the first of multiple conversations with law enforcement when Sheriff’s deputies arrived. One cautioned that she could be arrested for making a false report if she were not telling the truth, if her story were just a grab for attention from her parents. The nightmare of reporting the rape went on for days – the hours-long forensic exam at the rape crisis center, the multiple interviews with officers. Even after a second rape nearby involving a young girl who physically resembled Meaghan, her parents could not convince police or local broadcasters to warn that a serial rapist could be stalking young women in Cordova.

And then nothing – no contact from the police, no word from prosecutors.
For the next 10 years, she struggled to cope with the trauma, pain and fear of not knowing who he was, where he was, while trying to live something like a normal life.

She finished high school, graduated from Rhodes College and entered law school at Ole Miss. It was in April 2012 as she anticipated law school graduation in May that her mom spotted a brief news report about a man being called “the Cordova rapist.” His attacks sounded eerily familiar; the Ybos contacted police and sure enough – when her forensic “rape kit” was tested, there was a match to Anthony Alliano, the Cordova rapist. In March of 2013, Meaghan was granted her request to speak to him at his sentencing in Criminal Court for multiple counts of rape.

Meaghan faced her attacker and had the satisfaction of seeing him led out of court into a 178-year prison sentence.

An experience that could have broken her became for Meaghan a purpose, a cause, a life’s goal. While studying for the bar exam, she went looking for a way to use her voice to bring attention to rape, the needs of survivors of rape and the need to hold rapists accountable.

She met with Deborah Clubb of the Memphis Area Women’s Council. The Council had worked intently and successfully on problems with rape crisis services and was engaged in ongoing efforts related to rape prosecution. Meaghan became an activist with the Council, working with Deborah to shape and convey a message aimed at encouraging leaders to address these needs. Part of that effort included becoming a part of the Victims of Crime Advisory League (VOCAL), a citizen group appointed by the Shelby County mayor to advise on needs of victims.

From there, Meaghan wrote and presented legislation to address the statue of limitations on rape cases and the use of DNA testing in those cases. The proposal failed to get through to the legislature in 2013; Meaghan rewrote it and is working with Shelby County legislators and others around the state to support it this year.

When the huge backlog of stored and largely untested forensic rape kits in Memphis Police Department possession was revealed in August, Meaghan went public as a survivor of rape. In local television interviews that were rebroadcast across the country, in web-based and social media, Meaghan heroically told her story, urging full action on the backlog and thanking local leaders for facing the task openly at last. Memphis police director Toney Armstrong eventually announced a tally of 12,164 stored kits.

Meaghan also has spoken on radio, to multiple print reporters and maintains a presence online, re-tweeting news stories and striving to keep a national spotlight on Memphis’ situation. For the Women’s Council, she contacted the Joyful Heart Foundation, the organization supported by television actress Mariska Hargitay, to ask for their help in widening the impact of the rape kit controversy toward real change in how victims and rapists are treated here.
Meaghan has become a fearless, determined advocate and activist for rape survivors. With more than 600 reported sexual assaults locally each year, we might expect that others would step forward in this cause – but Meaghan continues to be one of the few willing to speak publicly and consistently, to press for change, to demand attention and action, to demand justice for those who endure the horrific crime of rape, to put a face to the awful crime of rape.