Beverly Robertson


for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Beverly Robertson

Beverly Robertson has dedicated her life to using positive, strategic power of communicating to grow historic local enterprises including, most recently, as the first woman and first African-American CEO and president of the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce.

Beverly grew up in Memphis, around Orange Mound, watching the Zippin Pippin roller coaster at Libertyland flash by on the horizon but not allowed to ride it except on Tuesdays.

She graduated from Melrose High and Memphis State. She used her special education major to teach for three years while also working at night for Holiday Inn Worldwide, one of the leading companies in Memphis and the nation at that time.

At Holiday Inn she completed an MBA-caliber executive leadership program offered by the Wharton School of Business and began to move through various areas of the corporation in 19 years, including a stint in New York City.

Beverly says, “I was always adventurous and never thought there was anything I couldn’t do – maybe brain surgery! But I never for a moment thought I couldn’t learn how to do something and do it extremely well.”

She was director of communications when the need to relocate came up after Holiday Inn was sold. She instead joined her husband Howard to transform his solo advertising business into TrusT Marketing in 1992. They were in their late 30s.

At this same time, the National Civil Rights Museum board was looking for its first director ahead of opening. Beverly was asked to lead the museum but said no and concentrated on getting Trust up and running.

Beverly was responsible for landing national accounts, such as the Promus Companies, Holiday Inn Worldwide, Midas International, Merrill Lynch, plus local clients including Memphis and Shelby County governments and Memphis Area Transit Authority.

That’s where she was when the founders of the six-year-old National Civil Rights Museum needed an interim executive director and asked her to step in “just for a while.” She agreed and soon the board asked her to lead the museum permanently.

Her tenure there is storied: she raised $43 million, which included the completion of an expansion of the Museum ($11 million) and a capital and endowment campaign ($32 million). In 2010, NCRM received recognition as one of the top ten national treasures by USA Today. 

Beverly elevated the NCRM profile across the world. The local museum moved strategically to become an internationally important facility. Beverly grew the Freedom Awards into a global event with international stars and Hollywood celebrities on her list of invitees. A near-legendary story is told about her effort to bring South African president Nelson Mandela to Memphis — by flying there to personally invite him!

“Getting to know and walk beside some of the greatest human rights leaders in the world is no small act,” she says, “and that an institution in Memphis attracted the attention and respect of  so many global leaders.”

She continued that leadership – as well as a long list of other community leadership roles – for 16 years before announcing her retirement in 2014.

She returned to TrusT Marketing and various community projects – but leaders of the Greater Memphis Chamber turned to her after the tragic murder of chamber CEO and president Phil Trenary. Again she agreed to step in “for a while” as interim leader of the traumatized staff.

She was the first African American and first woman in the position. She met individually with each Chamber employee and set out to bring neighborhood concerns closer to the government and business cornerstones of the Chamber.

In 2019 she was hired to serve as CEO and president of the Chamber. She was at the helm as COVID struck Memphis’ economy, workplaces and households and she was there when the Eliza Fletcher murder and a violent shooting spree across the city traumatized Memphis in September 2022. She made sure the mayor and police chief knew business leaders would engage toward positive change for all, having already fostered efforts after the George Floyd protests to align activists’ concerns and business goals toward a more diverse and trained workforce, a living wage, equitable contracting for minority- and women-owned businesses and community reinvestment and transportation,

Beverly left the Chamber at the end of last year, returning to TrusT Marketing, still engaged, ready to drive transformational change for her city’s future.

In 2020 Beverly joined Women of Achievement honorees Marilou Awiakta, Lois DeBerry and Maxine Smith on USA Today’s list of Tennessee’s Women of the Century. Today we honor her decades of leadership and devotion to the people of Memphis with the 2023 Women of Achievement award for Steadfastness.

Beverly Marrero


for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Beverly Marrero

Beverly Marrero began a lifetime of activism in 1960 as a young mother knocking on doors for Sen. John. F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Over the next four decades, she campaigned for many Democratic candidates and represented Tennessee at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. She became a candidate herself in 2003, serving in the General Assembly until losing her seat following redistricting in 2012. Just this week, she tweeted about writing her senators in support of Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. That’s 62 years of advocacy and counting.

Beverly traces her political involvement to her 9th grade civics teacher who instilled in her the idea that government was only as good as the people involved. Her religious upbringing emphasized civil rights. And growing up in segregated Memphis, she realized how unfair society was to black people in our community. Campaigning for Kennedy was a way to address those inequities. Formative memories of that time included the assassinations of Kennedy and two other leaders she admired: Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy. She also recalls ironing clothes in front of the television while watching the Watergate hearings.

It was no surprise that she responded when a friend of a friend encouraged her to support little-known Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter for president. She and two other Memphis women drove to Atlanta and became the only non-Georgians among members of the so-called Peanut Brigade of Carter supporters who flew to New Hampshire for that state’s primary. Carter won.

Beverly campaigned in other states and was tapped to represent Tennessee on the Convention Rules Committee, where she played a role in Democratic Party history. Beverly and a delegate from North Carolina introduced a measure to guarantee women delegates an equal share of the seats for the 1980 convention. At that time, women did all the daily work in the campaigns – knocking on doors, folding paper, stuffing envelopes, and sorting bulk mail. The men went to the conventions. The controversial gender equality measure failed in the Rules Committee, and on June 21, 1976, a headline in the New York Times read “Democratic Panel Refuses Equality Pledge to Women”.

Beverly moved to Florida a few years later but remained close to her good friend Congressman Steve Cohen. After she returned to Memphis in 1999, Cohen encouraged her to run for the General Assembly. Beverly hesitated but eventually she became a first-time candidate at age 64. She won a seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives in 2003. When Cohen was elected to Congress, he endorsed Beverly for his Tennessee Senate seat, which she won in 2007 and held until 2012.

As an elected official Beverly was an outspoken champion for civil rights, consumer rights, the environment, and women’s, children’s, and LGBTQ issues. She also was known for her signature fashion accessory: a hat. But the true defining aspects of her legislative tenure were her values and her approach, said former legislative colleague Jeanne Richardson.

Beverly knew how to make a compelling point in debate without alienating her opponent, Richardson said. “Her points are always based on her own loyalty to her basic values, the improvement of the human condition especially for those most in need without resources or respect, the improvement of the environment out of respect for future generations and nature itself, and a strong sense of fairness and equity in all human interactions including those with the environment.”

Those values led Beverly to take unpopular – and sometimes ultimately unwinnable — stands in Nashville. She voted against holding a referendum to amend the state Constitution to ban gay marriage. The referendum passed, but the ban was later overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 2006, while on the Public Health and Family Assistance Subcommittee, she voted against a proposed amendment that would have given state lawmakers more power to restrict and regulate abortions. She worked diligently to keep this in committee for many years, but it eventually passed the House and the Senate, became Amendment One on the 2014 ballot, and was approved by Tennessee voters. In 2012, during what would become her final legislative sessions, she cast the sole vote against a Senate bill requiring an abstinence-centered family life curricula in Tennessee public schools.

Beverly’s commitment to economic issues led to her recognition as a Family Economic Success Champion by Women in Government, a national organization that supports women state legislators. The organization highlighted several bills including protecting identify theft and reducing foreclosures.

For her stewardship of the environment, in 2009 she received the highest ranking of any legislator by the Tennessee Conservation Voters. Beverly fought for clean water, recycling, minimum energy requirements for appliances, and equitable representation for environmental interests on air, water and solid waste quality control boards. A key conservation accomplishment was successfully sponsoring legislation to make Overton Park’s Old Forest a state Natural-Scientific area in 2011.

The following year, Beverly lost her re-election bid after her Senate district was redrawn. She returned to her role as a citizen advocate. In 2014, Planned Parenthood honored Beverly with its highest honor, the James Award for her work in the House, the Senate, and in the community, saying: When we needed an Attorney General’s ruling on pending legislation, Beverly made the request. When state agencies were slow to respond to requests for information, Beverly broke up the logjam. She spoke out against legislation that harmed women, families and children, even when she stood alone in the Tennessee Senate chambers to do so.

Today, Beverly’s priority is advocating for seniors. At a time when many people have been retired for nearly two decades, Beverly was just reappointed as chair of the advisory committee to the Aging Commission of the Mid-South.

Whether working for a candidate, sponsoring legislation or volunteering in the community, Beverly sums up her accomplishments in a single statement: “I think we have a responsibility to do something to level the playing field.”

Jane H. Hooker


for a woman with a lifetime of achievement:

Dr. Jane Howles Hooker

Jane Hooker was a mother of three and pregnant when she entered Memphis State University in 1961. Now 81, she really has never left the university in spirit. And the change she led while there – to revive and develop intercollegiate athletics for women, to teach and inspire generations of teachers – is legendary.

It’s hard to believe now, but beginning in the 1930s to 1972 when Title 9 became the law, many American colleges and universities provided no intercollegiate athletic programs for women. While 1920 to 1930 could be considered golden years for women athletes, concern grew that young women should be discouraged from serious competition. Among many reasons, women were considered too emotional, too likely to cry or faint. So higher education ended intercollegiate sports for women.

Instead, women athletes joined the Association for Intramural Athletics for Women. This meant no school funding for team uniforms, team travel or coaches. Young women athletes would stand at the doors collecting money after boys’ games so they, too, could participate in the sports they loved. Their coaches worked for free.

Jane, a self-avowed tomboy, spent summers playing sports at Cliff Davis Park and, as a teen, competing thanks to the YWCA’s Y-Teen basketball program.

In 1956, while still at Messick High School, Jane married the love of her life, Joe Hooker. She became pregnant with their first child and hid her pregnancy until after graduation. Soon she was the mother of four.

But Jane always knew that she would go to college. And go to college she did.
When she enrolled part-time at then-Memphis State in 1961, she majored in Health, Physical Education and Recreation. With children at home, she prepared meals, checked homework and did her own before rushing off to classes. She earned a Bachelor of Science in 1968, followed by a Masters in 1969.

She played basketball and badminton, coached by her mentor and nominator the legendary Elma Roane. She was Head Coach for Women’s Volleyball from 1970-1972.

But her real love was teaching so she left coaching to make the long commute to Oxford to earn a PhD at the University of Mississippi, completed in 1988. Through that time, she continued to teach teachers at Memphis State, making sure that they understood the importance of movement for kids in the classroom and through sports and games.

Jane was always passionate about young women being able to compete in college sports. In 1969, Elma Roane, Jane and several women across the state started a Tennessee Women’s Sports Foundation. Their mission was to provide intercollegiate varsity sports for women. They succeeded. Other leadership positions included presidencies and board memberships in state and national athletic organizations.

Her interest in providing sports opportunities for children led her to accept responsibilities in AAU Junior Olympics and Special Olympics. She wrote four text books for her classes and 50 biographies for the Sports Chapter of “A Bicentennial Tribute to Tennessee Women 1979-1995.” Recipient of countless awards, she taught and held UofM administrative positions until retiring in 1998.

But retirement isn’t a word to describe Jane, who turned 81 this month. She was an adjunct for years, compiled a History of Messick High School and co-wrote a history of Cordova. And for 17 years, she and her late husband gathered and delivered food, toys, generators, and school supplies for the families of Laguna San Ignacio in Mexico.

Jane is an active member of Bethany Christian Church and has written its history. She is a proud life-time member of the University of Memphis Alumni Association and until recently could be found in the stands rooting for the Tigers. One final thing: Don’t try to beat Jane at tossing free-throws. You won’t win.

Jane Hooker thanks the YWCA for keeping sports viable for young women prior to Title 9 and Elma Roane for being her mentor. Women of Achievement thanks Jane for her steadfast life.

Miriam DeCosta-Willis


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.

Miriam DeCosta-Willis passed away on January 7, 2021.

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.”

Jane Walters


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.

Jane Walters passed away on August 19, 2020.

Mildred Schwartz


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 passed away on September 26, 2019.

Yvonne B. Acey

Women of Achievement

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

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

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!