I completed my National Institute of Mental Health Fellowship–sponsored master's program at Saint Xavier College, Chicago, Ill., where I was the first in my class to graduate, first to get research published, and first to present research and clinical data at a national scientific conference. After graduation, I traveled to San Francisco and worked as a clinical specialist at the Veterans Administration Hospital in nearby Palo Alto, Calif. Later, I accepted a leadership position as coordinator of a health screening and referral program with the Department of Public Health and the Antipoverty Program in San Francisco's Chinatown—North Beach and Hunter's Point. I worked tirelessly to serve vulnerable Chinese, Filipino, Italian, black, and white people who resided in these underresourced communities.
However, my dream was to return to my own community and work. That dream was thwarted many times. In mid-1960s Florida, the law enforced segregated universities, banning my admission to the university that was less than 50 miles from my rural home. Consequently, my audacity for matriculating at Saint Xavier College in Chicago as a professional nurse with a specialty in behavioral health resulted only in tremendous difficulty in finding employment in rural North–Central Florida. Despair appeared to be my future reality.
With my degree and a carefully constructed résumé, I sought employment at numerous agencies. The responses from administrators were different, but the impact on me was the same. For example, the Public Health Department already had one "Negro" nurse. The community college had no openings for people with my type of education. A private psychiatrist in the community, despite commenting to me that he was amazed at how articulate I was, did not think his patients could relate to me. The county hospital had no openings and suggested that I was overqualified to get employment in the area.
Where I Could Not Study, I Sought Work
I traveled to the University of Florida—where I had not been permitted to matriculate as a student—and had an interview with the dean and others at the School of Nursing. There were no openings, but there was concern that my training in the North might have been a bit different from their focus.
At times, my father, a farmer, would drive me to the interviews. When despair seemed to engulf me, he would simply say: "It cannot stay this way—things are changing right here in our town. You just be ready when the chance comes." My mother would cook a special meal for us on Sundays, and she would repeat, again and again, her struggles and how she had managed to get an education. Her stories were always inspiring and demonstrated her brilliance, determination, and optimism for the future of all people.
While living in my parents' home with no money, no job, and little hope, I managed to write letters to my colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, where I had lectured and supervised graduate nursing and medical students who were completing clinical requirements in the area that I coordinated. After presenting a paper at the university, I had met two faculty members who became significant to me: Agnes Middleton, a pioneer in child mental health, and Gertrude Hess, chair of the Public Health Program.
Advice From a Transcontinental Visitor
One afternoon, I received a phone call from Gertrude, who was attending a national nurses meeting in Dallas, Texas. She stated that she was concerned about me and commented that my experiences were unfortunate and understandably painful. She went on to say, "I am going to leave the conference and fly to Jacksonville, Fla. [100 miles north of my home]. I will stay with you for an entire week."
I was shocked. I waited for further instructions about her arrival. She phoned me back with specific flight information, and, accompanied by my mother, I drove my parents' car to Jacksonville to meet Gertrude.
When we returned to my home in rural Central Florida, we had dinner. Gertrude helped clean up and then we all talked. She shared her experiences losing family and friends to the Holocaust, the pain that she had experienced, the conditions under which she had left her home in Europe, the difficulties she had encountered when seeking work in the United States, and how she had coped.
During the daytime, I helped with the farm work and spent hours in the fields under the hot Florida sun. Gertrude was right by my side. She and I would lead the cows and horses to the water trough and then back to the pasture. We checked the fence lines for weak spots, fed the chickens, ducks, and turkeys, gathered the eggs, and then placed the chickens in the coop for the night to protect them from hawks and other predators. In the evenings, we would prepare dinner—most of the foodstuffs had been grown and harvested by us on our farm. We did it all.
Three Rules for Life
After dinner, Gertrude and I would sit on the backdoor steps to catch a breeze, cool down, drink water, and have long conversations. In a gentle and realistic manner, she used her life experiences as the backdrop for these conversations. In response to her reassurances that I would have a bright future, I bristled and vehemently disagreed. There was no time for doubt, she insisted—only hope. She encouraged me never to give up, to respect all people despite my pain and disappointment, and to always do my best work.
Our work routine was so effective that my father thought Gertrude should consider extending her stay. Both of my parents openly expressed their sense of wonderment that Gertrude would travel from Texas to our modest rural farm home and project herself into our realities. After the week was over, we drove Gertrude to the airport in Jacksonville. Both of us cried during the entire drive. She finally flew away.
She continued to phone me, and we would write letters. In the meantime, Agnes would also write, and we would have phone conversations, too.
What I Did When Opportunity Knocked
Time passed and fall was approaching, increasing the urgency with which farm tasks had to be completed. One Sunday night, after a busy day, I retired for the night at about 10:00 p.m. The phone rang. I answered. The person on the phone identified herself as an administrator at the School of Nursing at the University of Florida. This person asked whether I would be able to report to work at the university the next day—Monday—in about 10 hours! "Yes! I will be there," was my eager response.
I reported to the university the next day. I was hired! I had a job!
When I phoned Gertrude and Agnes, we rejoiced and sang over the phone. I received more advice from Gertrude who reminded me that things would not be easy—that being at a university that had denied admission to black students would present its own set of challenges. However, she had provided me with a verbal tool kit that I continue to use to this day:
Removing the Stigma of Discussing Feelings
- Never give up.
- Despite any pain and disappointment, respect all people.
- Always do my best work.
And I am here to testify that it works!
These experiences seem long ago. Yet frequently I witness and experience scenarios that Gertrude had taught me to anticipate and how to handle them. At times, I reflect—but only momentarily—about what might have happened to me if Agnes and Gertrude had not supported me and believed in me during some of the darkest hours in my career. Because of them and others who have nurtured, mentored, and guided me, I have had the opportunity to make a contribution to my profession and to work toward improving the human condition.
An Illustrious Career Did Come to Pass
I wonder whether they would be pleased to know how diligently I have tried to make a contribution to humankind. I have worked with ministries of health and nursing/agricultural groups on six continents, published more than 100 refereed articles, edited text books, and chaired and served on 111 theses and dissertation committees. I have achieved the highest academic rankings at two universities—at the University of Florida, I became a Tenured Distinguished Professor; at Case Western Reserve University, I was selected for Tenured Endowed Chair. Also, I have served on three advisory committees at the National Institutes of Health: the National Institute of Rural Health, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Institute of Minority Health and Disparities, where I was elected as chair. I have also had the honor of serving on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's National Advisory Committee.
With sincere gratitude, I would like to acknowledge the Agneses and Gertrudes of the world. Their commitment to and investment in me transcended race, religion, geographical region, cultural differences, and societal stereotypes about people like me.
Opportunity is such a powerful force. It is what makes the difference in a person's life. I am sincerely thankful for my opportunities, and my enduring obligation has been to help others achieve their potential.
Pictured above: St. Xavier College (now University) in Chicago, was the first place Faye Gary, raised in the Jim Crow South, met white people who treated her as a peer.