EMORY MEDALIST VERDELLE BELLAMY 63N
BY PAIGE P. PARVIN 96G
IT’S A BLAZING August day, and Verdelle Bellamy 63N steps gratefully into the cavernous, air-conditioned marble lobby of the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, escaping the fierce Georgia heat outside. Stately and strikingly dressed in a soft green suit, Bellamy is welcomed by Dean Marla Salmon as an accomplished graduate: a skilled nurse, a leader and mentor in her profession, an influential alum, and, on Salmon's recommendation, one of two 2005 Emory Medalists.
This is a vastly different scene from the first time Bellamy walked through the doors of the barracks-style building that once served as the nursing school on a cold January morning in 1963. Bellamy and her friend and colleague Allie Saxon were the only black faces in the room as they were warmly, if somewhat nervously, greeted by then-Dean Ada Fort and their new classmates. With that moment, Emory was officially integrated.
It was the same year Martin Luther King was arrested and jailed during anti-segregation protests in Birmingham, Bellamy's hometown; it was the year of the "I Have A Dream" speech and of the bomb explosion at a black church in Birmingham that killed four young girls, sparking riots that shook the city and the South. Later that year, Bellamy and Saxon became Emory's first African American graduates.
Now, in the boardroom of the state-of-the-art nursing school building, Bellamy is met again by a familiar face: a portrait of Dean Ada Fort. Bellamy stretches her hands out to the portrait. "There's my dean," she says simply. "She was a powerful lady."
Fort was indeed Bellamy's dean, and more--she became a mentor, friend, and a kind of guardian angel to Bellamy and Saxon. Fort actively recruited the pair to the nursing master's program with the help of Dorothy Tilly, a civil rights activist who worked with King. At the time, Bellamy, already a registered nurse, was teaching nursing arts and maternal and child health at Grady Memorial Hospital's segregated School of Nursing and had already been accepted to graduate school at Case Western Reserve. She remembers that Tilly, who knew of Bellamy through her family, took her to lunch and pulled the Emory application out of her bag right at the table.
Looming in the background were the ugly images of what had accompanied the desegregation of other Southern institutions: violent protests, racist signs, and death threats. Henry Bowden 32C 34L , chair of Emory's Board of Trustees and the attorney who led the legal battle to integrate the University, urged Fort to wait until the outcry over integration subsided before black students were admitted. But Fort was adamant: This was the right year.
In the first weeks after Bellamy and Saxon arrived at Emory in January, Fort and Virginia Proctor, director of student development, watched them from the window of the dean's office each day as they walked across campus to make sure nothing happened to them. But if there was any danger, Bellamy was happily unaware.
"I just did not think about it," she says. "I felt excited and good about coming here, but not overwhelmed. I wanted to be seen and treated like all the other students. When the press got word of the integration, I was called to be interviewed, but I refused. I said, well, if this is the pattern for all students, yes, but since this is not the way all students are accepted at Emory--with a press conference--I didn't want to be any different from any other student."
The program was rigorous, and Bellamy was more concerned with her academic success than being a pioneer. She and Saxon fit in easily with the other students; they worked and studied together. She attributes her smooth transition to the maturity and commitment of her fellow nursing students.
"I didn't detect any difference, because we were all in it together, and our purpose was to get that degree," she says.
During her year at Emory, Bellamy recalls that she kept the dining room table of her Atlanta home piled high with books, making it impossible to actually eat there. When she came home from class, her husband, Monroe, and her young son, Michael, would have cooked dinner and set the table in the kitchen instead.
"I couldn't have done it without them," she says. "They have supported and enforced anything I wanted to do. They have backed me from the beginning, and they still do."
BELLAMY GREW UP in Birmingham, Alabama, in the era of "white" and "colored" water fountains, years before Rosa Parks would change history a hundred miles away by refusing to sit at the back of a bus. Yet Bellamy lights up when she talks of her childhood, which was shaped by a powerful matriarchal influence. Her grandmother taught her to quilt, and she still treasures the dutch doll and butterfly pattern quilts she stitched as a little girl. Bellamy's mother, she says, told her that she could be anything she wanted with hard work, determination, faith, and integrity.
"It was a beautiful life," she says. "I had a strong mother and grandmother who taught us the basic Christian principles."
Bellamy became interested in nursing, she says unabashedly, because she liked the uniform that the public health nurse at her elementary school wore. After she finished high school, she went on to earn her diploma degree from Grady Memorial Hospital's School of Nursing. At Tuskegee Institute in Alabama--one of the few places in the South where African Americans could get a nursing degree--both she and Allie Saxon received a bachelor's and became registered nurses. Bellamy then joined the faculty at Grady, where she was teaching when she was recruited to Emory.
Teaching, Bellamy says, was "a rewarding and enriching experience. As I see former students that I taught over the years, they say, 'Mrs. Bellamy, you were hard on us, but we realize now it was all for the good.' It's a reward for me to hear these adult women in the profession who feel that in some way I've touched their lives."
After becoming Emory's first African American graduate, Bellamy sought work at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Atlanta. She had heard from a friend that there were positions open, but when she called the chief of nursing, she was told there were no vacancies. At the time, the Georgia Nurses' Association published a newsletter that included job openings, so Bellamy followed it for a few weeks, watching positions at the V.A. hospital open and be filled. She called back.
" I said, 'I'm calling because I'm still interested in a position with the V.A.'," Bellamy recalls, with a twinkle in her eye. "She said, 'Well, we don't have anything open yet, but I'll call you when we get one.' I said, 'Well, all right. I think I'll call Washington. I think I'll call the central office and let them know I'm interested in working for the V.A.'" About an hour later, the chief called Bellamy back to let her know the hospital had a position open.
Bellamy went on to become the V.A. Medical Center's first black administrator when she was made associate chief of nursing services for geriatrics. During her career there, she designed and implemented the policies and procedures for a new, 120-bed long-term care unit, which became a model for V.A. hospitals around the country. She also oversaw the staffing and operations of the unit.
"I consider that one of my pride and joys, because I was part of the planning," she says. "I consider it to be one of the best-run facilities in the country." Bellamy received Outstanding Performance Awards from the Veterans Administration in 1977 and 1979. She retired from the V.A. in 1998.
Bellamy's commitment to the nursing profession extends far beyond the bedside; her professional associations and awards are numerous. In 1971, Bellamy was the first African American elected to the executive committee of the Nurses Association of Georgia. She served as the national president of Chi Eta Phi sorority, a professional organization for R.N.s and student nurses, from 1973 to 1977; she is still highly active with the organization and played a major role in organizing their national conference in July.
In 1974, Bellamy became the first African American person to receive a gubernatorial appointment to the Georgia Board of Nursing from then-Governor Jimmy Carter; in 1978, she became the first black president of that board. In 1980, Bellamy was honored in the U.S. House of Representatives; in 1981, she received the Alumni Merit Award from Tuskegee University, the counterpart to the Emory Medal. In 1993, she was inducted into the American Academy of Nursing, a kind of nursing hall of fame.
"It would be extremely difficult to find a more deserving alumna than Mrs. Bellamy," Salmon wrote in her nomination of Bellamy for the Emory Medal. "She has not only been a leader in the field of nursing and health care, but also, as a young student, changed the course of Emory's history. Her story and the path that she helped to pave at Emory have carried with them strong themes of social justice and courage--values that have become dear to this institution."
Bellamy says her experience at Emory helped form her own values and guided her on a path to becoming "more of a giver than a receiver."
"The most rewarding thing," Bellamy says, "would be that you have done the best you could in caring for any of your clients. It's a wonderful experience to see them get out of that bed and walk out of the building."
"Verdelle's entire career has been dedicated to improving the wellbeing of those she served and society at large," says Salmon. "Her sense of responsibility has never stopped at the end of her work shift or when she isn't being paid for what she does. She lives a calling, and has done so with courage and humility. And she has been tireless in the pursuit of knowledge and truth--a model professional nurse. I would love for each of our students to know Ms. Bellamy and to be inspired and enriched by what she believes, knows and does."
At a recent event at Bellamy's church, when a young woman was asked to describe Bellamy, she summed her up in one word: motivator.
"I hadn't thought of this, but she said, 'Verdelle is a motivator,'" Bellamy recalls. "'She's always motivating people. She's going to be right there working with you, but she's going to work you to death. She's going to motivate you to do what you should be doing.'"
That assessment of Bellamy seems to hold true in her family, as well. "Aunt Ruthie has always been there for me," says her niece, LaDell, who holds a sociology degree from Spelman College. "She inspired me to go to school. She has always been right behind me."
Through her work with organizations such as Chi Eta Phi, Bellamy also has helped hundreds of minority students secure scholarships for their nursing education. She is delighted with the progress she sees at Emory's nursing school, particularly its stated commitment to social responsibility and serving the common good. But she is also proud of its growing diversity. Salmon has long sought to reach out to minority students and increase their number, and has been an outspoken advocate for efforts to diversify the profession as a means of addressing the serious nursing shortage around the nation. ("She reminds me of Ada Fort," Bellamy says approvingly.)
In 2004, one-third of Emory's incoming nursing students were minorities; Emory has the highest percentage of black students of the nation's top twenty-five universities, and about twice the national average of black faculty.
As the first African American to walk into the school nearly a half-century ago, Bellamy is proud that her legacy is an open door.
"I didn't think about being the first," she says. "My concern was those following behind me. Being the first is always an honor, but it's not an honor if the doors shut behind you."
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