Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie


for a woman whose achievements still enrich our lives:

Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie

Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie was a contemporary of more famous women fliers like Amelia Earhart and Pancho Barnes. She began her career in the early barnstorming days, walking wings and parachute jumping in her own flying circus. After she and her pilot, Vernon Omlie, landed in Memphis stranded and broke in 1922, they married and together established the first airport in the Mid-South and one of the first flying schools in the country.

Throughout her long career, Phoebe collected a string of “firsts” for women aviators. The recipient of the first Transport Pilot’s License and Airplane Mechanic’s License issued to a woman, Phoebe Omlie set a number of speed, endurance and altitude records. As an air racer, she won a number of high profile races, including the First National Women’s Air Derby in 1929 and the Transcontinental Handicap Sweepstakes in 1931.

In 1932, at the invitation of Eleanor Roosevelt, Omlie logged over 20,000 miles for FDR’s presidential campaign. After the election, President Roosevelt made her Special Assistant for Air Intelligence of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the predecessor of NASA), the first woman government official in aviation. Until she left government service in 1952, Phoebe Omlie was a central participant in the efforts to regularize and bureaucratize civil aviation, to make it safer and more affordable for the average citizen. Further, she used her access to government and the media to tirelessly promote women’s active involvement in aviation.

Though she came to a tragic end, dying alone in a transient’s hotel in Indianapolis at the age of 73, the victim of lung cancer and poverty, a few enthusiasts remembered her and proposed naming the control tower at Memphis International Airport for her in the 1980s. Due to a series of mishaps, the facility was never formally dedicated. This will be corrected when the new control tower is completed in 2011.

Phoebe Omlie’s place in the pages of aviation history is unchallenged. A woman of daring, courage, intelligence and devotion to the “air age,” she ranks as one of the greatest participants in 20th century American progress.

In October 2011, both the old and new air traffic control towers at Memphis International Airport were named for Phoebe Fairgrave Omlie in a ceremony featuring members of Congress and other officials.

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!

Melvena Leake

Women of Achievement

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

Melvena Leake

Always highly motivated, Melvena Leake taught school for 30 years, worked as a volunteer probation officer, and sold real estate on the side. She planned to travel when she retired but instead fate and a vision of making a difference in the lives of women just released from prison led her on a different journey.

After retiring, Melvena Leake began visiting women in prison as part of her church’s ministry. She found that many of the women were not first-time offenders but had returned to prison after being released. She listened to their stories and asked questions of her own.

“How many times have you been here? Why do you keep coming back?” she asked. And she started researching recidivism. She found that having a place to go upon release was essential in staying out of jail. And she dreamed of a halfway house that could be that place.

Melvena and her husband postponed their travel plans and she looked for funding to create that house. On December 7, 1999, Karat Place, Inc., a grassroots, non-profit residential rehabilitation program for homeless women ex-offenders, was chartered. It received its 501(c)(3) status in May 2000 and Melvena began accepting in-kind donations and planning operating procedures. In January 2001, Karat Place became an official service provider.

Karat Place is more than a residential facility. Its goal is to prepare women for living-wage employment and to help improve parenting skills so that these women may be successfully reunited with their children. Melvena helps them access medical care and teaches job interviewing and life skills so that they learn to share a vision of a life of their own. The program is called START, Special Transitional Actions to Restore Talents.

Once employed, the women contribute 30% of their wages to the program and save 30%. They apply for food stamps to cover the costs of food. They shop, plan and prepare balanced meals, and do the cleaning. Coming from chaotic past lives, some residents have never before made so much as a grocery list. Children visit on weekends.

Most participants are self-sufficient within the first six months but can stay up to two years.

Karat Place started with 4 beds. The second location had 12, and the current facility has 16.

Karat Place is proud of its first 10 years. Over 200 women have been reunited with their families, have found good jobs, and have stayed out of jail. The hotel industry has been especially helpful, providing jobs in housekeeping. Karat Place “graduates” are supervisors at both the Marriott and the Madison Hotel.

Funding continues to be a challenge. Melvena puts together money from churches, foundations, corporations, individuals, and her own savings. (Remember those travel plans?) She takes no salary for herself.

Hers is a purpose-driven life. The program isn’t faith-based, but that’s how she made it. “What God ordains, he maintains,” she says. She’s quick to point out that she couldn’t do this all alone. It is the work of many hands; volunteers, board members, those who donate both in-kind and in cash.

Asked how she achieves her high success rate, she says that the women know that she believes in them. She’s strict. She knows that some may laugh at her ways, but they all know she cares. Many have returned to thank her.

The age-old measure of value is gold, and thus the name Karat Place. Melvena’s belief in these women and her vision of transforming broken lives into something of beauty and value has become a glowing reality.

Jasmine Gray

Women of Achievement

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

Jasmine Gray

Twenty-one-year-old Jasmine Gray knows what it’s like for a child to spend long weeks in the hospital. She knows that hospital gowns leave you cold and make you feel ugly. She knows that just being in the hospital makes you feel that you’re not a regular kid. As a result, she founded Jaz’s Jammies.

Jaz Gray was born with a rare birth defect called an arteriovenous malformation, an abnormal connection between arteries and veins resulting in too much blood going to the right side of her face. Since the age of 10, she has endured 26 operations. During her sophomore through senior years, she spent every summer as well as Christmas breaks in hospitals or at home recuperating. She had one surgery in which her whole right cheek was removed and replaced with skin from her abdomen and back. Unfortunately this surgery did not eliminate the problem.

Not one to dwell on her troubles, Jaz moved ahead with her life. In 2006, she was a senior at Germantown High School and a Girl Scout. She was looking for a project that would impact lives. She remembered her own long stays in the hospital as a child. Warm, fuzzy pajamas, brand-new, of course, would be just the thing to cheer up a child. A colorful pair of pajamas “gives kids a sense of normalcy,” Jasmine says. “It makes them feel like someone cares about them and is thinking about them.”

Jazmine uses email, posters and flyers and even Facebook, to publicize drives. Since 2006, Jaz’s Jammies has collected and distributed over 2500 pairs of pajamas to children in need in hospitals and shelters. Victims of burns, sexual assault, children living in poverty and in homeless shelters have all been comforted by the gift. One little boy who’d spent all day in a wheelchair in a hospital gown was hugely cheered by his Scooby-Doo flannels.

Now a senior majoring in journalism at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Jaz has taken her efforts to the Nashville area. Not shy, she’s involved family, friends, church members and other students. One Murfreesboro restaurant let her pass out free cups of ice cream to support the drive. Her first donations went to Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock, where many of her surgeries were performed. Other recipients include Le Bonheur Children’s Medical Center, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital.

“She’s a dynamo,” says Steve Saunders, assistant director of the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program at MTSU. An excellent student, she has a 3.9 GPA and is making plans for graduate school and for obtaining nonprofit status for Jaz’s Jammies.

She is working on a research project on the image of black college students in the media, which she hopes to present in China through the McNair Program. Last year she received a $1,000 Harold Love Outstanding Community Involvement Award from MTSU. She used part of that for a pajama drive. She plans to use the rest on obtaining nonprofit status and possibly establishing a website.

Her father says, ”She’s a very caring, very spirited, loving girl with a strong faith. She has accepted the fact that she is different and that God has a purpose in her life. That’s what has carried her through.” Jaz herself says, “What I love about Jaz’s Jammies is that it serves two purposes: helping children who face incredible odds, whether sick or homeless, and at the same time giving people throughout the community the chance to serve others. It’s a blessing on both ends!”

Jasmine Gray has heroically fought her own health battles. She has used what she’s learned to give children in pain and need just what might help most: Love symbolized by a soft pair of pajamas!

Teri Craven

Women of Achievement

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

Teri Craven

From big deputies in rural Mississippi to big security guards in Wal-Mart parking lots and gunfire on picket lines, Teri Craven has repeatedly faced big opposition in her years as a union organizer and political action director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1529.

She has sweated and spent some sleepless nights – and smoked some packs of cigarettes – but she has not quit, she has not backed down and she has never lost courage for the job of getting America’s working people the rights they are due.

Teri grew up in a union house. Her father was longtime president of UFCW Local 1529, representing workers in Mississippi, West Tennessee and east Arkansas. Teri heard his stories of the fights and the arguments and the abuses and the needs of the people – all people.

She started her union career as secretary for the local in 1980 while earning an associate’s degree in business and raising a young son. She grew to love the work.

Two years later she joined the union’s staff, representing workers at 18 Kroger groceries in Mississippi. In 1990 she was dispatched to Indianola, MS, where she ended up in a three-month strike at Delta Pride’s catfish processing plant, facing bullet fire on the picket line and community pressure to force workers back to the plant. Workers stood firm.

Craven later took on the Wake-Up Wal-Mart campaign, battling the giant retailer for its abuse of worker hours and pay. She joined the Living Wage coalition in Memphis and rallied union support for the votes in City Hall and County Commission to secure improved wages for local government employees and contractors.

Still a regular work week could find her on a lonely back road in Mississippi, headed north after a political campaign meeting, being pulled over by deputies who know her car and want to harass her, being put into their back seat for a while, just because they know her work and because they can.

Teri Craven has courageously stood up for and stood with ordinary working people in the fight for just wages, safe working conditions and decent hours – things that too many employers still notoriously try to avoid and will go to great lengths to dodge.

She loves the cause and loves the work, but she laughs at herself because sometimes, on a plane, asked what she does, she answers, “’I’m a housewife.’ You see, sometimes, when you bring up unions, people get ugly!”

Teri has championed the cause of workers, especially women, whose labor is often forgotten, whether they work as a nursing home aide or on a catfish farm. She also campaigns tirelessly in electoral campaigns for candidates she believes are the best voice for working people, even in parts of Mississippi and Tennessee where the likelihood of success was not always great.

Beyond her courage, perhaps her greatest trait is that, even if a cause does not seem to have a great chance of success at the outset, this does not stop her from organizing with all her energy if she believes it could improve conditions for workers.

For her career of courageous service, we honor Teri Craven with the 2010 Women of Achievement Courage award.

Onie Johns

Women of Achievement

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

Onie Johns

Onie Johns is living proof that steely determination can reside in the personality of someone who nevertheless is the very model of serenity. This quiet and humble woman began a journey that has turned her into an example for anyone who wishes to break down barriers between rich and poor, black and white, fortunate and unfortunate.

The journey began when Onie enrolled in a Servant Leadership class in order to explore her faith and spirituality. Taking what she learned in this experience to heart, it soon wasn’t enough to travel from the suburbs to the inner city, and then back to the comforts and safety of home. She felt drawn — indeed, she felt a calling — to make an inner city neighborhood her home. And so, Onie sold her house in Germantown and purchased a modest home in Binghamton where she immediately began working to improve her new community. She called it Caritas House, opening her door for aid, shelter and reconciliation.

Soon she acquired an old Masonic Lodge building in the heart of the neighborhood and founded Caritas Village, a friendly café and cultural center seeking to “break down walls of hostility between and among people and cultures, and to build bridges of love and trust between the rich and those made poor.”

And Caritas Village has become exactly that. People of every stripe, background and situation can be found there on any given day, sipping coffee or tea, sharing lunch, holding a meeting, taking a class, hanging art, exhibiting photography, learning a skill, or just being neighborly. Programs aim to help in job networking, skill training, healthful living, and self-worth development.

Binghamton once was a thriving blue-collar neighborhood built around a one-time boxcar factory. The area went into steep decline as the interstate highway approached Overton Park. The highway never was finished, but Binghamton almost was finished as a community. Now all that is changing.

Caritas Village has become a catalyst for change, a ministry where being present in community is the most important and faithful ingredient to success. And success is defined by the number and kind of human relationships that are built and sustained.

Caritas is a Latin word for charity — charity in the classic and in the biblical sense, which is not just feeling love for others, but acting in love for others. This is the basis of Onie Johns’ determination — a resolve to live out her faith where ignorance and apathy often prevail, where disunity and self-destructive behaviors have hurt a community that with help still can regain its self-respect and dignity.

As Onie herself says, Caritas Village is a place “where small miracles happen every day.”

Onie Johns truly is a model servant leader whose bright determination is solving a glaring problem every day as the sun comes up.


Onie Johns retired from her position as Executive Director of Caritas Village on February 4, 2017.

Sonia Louden Walker

Women of Achievement

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

Sonia Louden Walker

If ever a life story defined initiative – it is the story of Sonia Louden Walker.
Teacher, social worker, TV personality, community activist, nonprofit executive and now ordained minister – Sonia Walker has built and rebuilt herself in distinct careers that make perfect blended sense within the basic deeply held values that define her.

Community healer, bridge builder, connector and encourager – these too describe this remarkable, vivacious and gifted woman. It doesn’t really matter to Sonia Walker what the job title is – she will make it into what it needs to be in order to be of good purpose.

Her good friend Nancy Bogatin wrote: “Her persona incorporates a sensitivity which transcends her ambition and yes, a spirituality which, without imposing it upon others, she shares, often soothing, always smoothing the way for so many who come within her aegis.”

When Sonia Walker arrived in Memphis in 1974, mother of three sons and wife of the new president of LeMoyne-Owen College, she had already had a career as an educator and social worker in school, hospital and agency settings. And she had enjoyed three years that she described on her resume as “home administrator. . .not gainfully employed” but engaged in “family launching.”

In Memphis, she took a job as director of community relations at WHBQ-TV, beginning a 16-year term as manager of public affairs programming and community service projects for the ABC affiliate. She served on public boards, hosted “A Closer Look” and delivered editorials, effectively addressing social issues and solutions. Sonia was not just another pretty face on TV — her fingerprints are on innovations from Adopt-A-School to Food for Families as she used that job to lead community solutions across the spectrum.

In 1990 and 1991, she coordinated the Black Family Reunion Celebration in a nine-state area. Seeing another need among the 7,000 members of her church, she created a spiritually based, culturally sensitive counseling program at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church that within a year had a building of its own. Out of a lifelong commitment to education and children, she staffed and equipped the first office of Partners in Public Education and continued to lead the non-profit school reform and funding program for five years.

Along the way Sonia served on numerous community boards and advisory committees – from the Chamber of Commerce to the Literacy Foundation to the Memphis Jobs Conference and the National Conference of Christians and Jews and beyond. She is a founding board member of Leadership Memphis and was the first woman and the first person of color to chair it. She is an honorary trustee of the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis.

She did all this while supporting the independence of her husband, Walter, who was diagnosed with MS just three years after the family moved to Memphis from Chicago.

Having flirted with the idea of religion studies for years, in 2002 she entered Memphis Theological Seminary part-time, vowing to complete her studies slowly, with no student loans — but before she turned 80!

Two years ago, she graduated from Memphis Theological Seminary and was ordained by the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This daughter of a minister in Columbus, Ohio, finally fully assumed the ministry she had felt and lived since childhood.

Her Memphis journey had flowed from first Memphis Kwanzaa Queen, in 1976, to graduation cum laude and with the Hoyt Hickman award for Excellence in Liturgical Scholarship from Memphis Theological Seminary in 2008.

Sonia has excelled in a half-dozen fields and in all she found ways to use her unique talents and skills for the benefit of others. For her unending, passionate, discerning, gracious service to our community, we salute Sonia Walker, 2010 Woman of Achievement for Initiative.