Only in America: The inspiring story behind this year’s Carver Medal recipient

Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Clara Adams-Ender, the 2014 recipient of the Carver Medal at Simpson College, titled her memoir, “My Rise to the Stars.”

The subtitle could have been, “Only in America.”

Consider the highlights:

*The fourth oldest of 10 children, all born in a home that was “one step above a shack,” she was raised on a tobacco farm in Willow Springs, N.C. She began milking cows at the age of 4, began working the tobacco fields at the age of 8.

*Directed by her father to pursue a career in nursing rather than law, she joined the Army Nurse Corps in 1959, largely for financial reasons. During her college years, she joined college classmates at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., to protest the Jim Crow practice of serving whites only. They eventually prevailed.

*She became the first female in the Army to be awarded the Expert Field Medical Badge, the non-combat equivalent of an Expert Infantry Badge. No other woman had even tried before.

*She became the first woman to receive her master’s degree in military arts and sciences from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, as well as the first African-American nurse corps officer to graduate from the United States War College.

*She rose from staff nurse in the Army Nurse Corps to become vice-president for nursing at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the largest health-care facility in the Department of Defense. She is the first Army nurse in history to command as a general officer. At one point, she was in charge of more than 22,000 nurses as chief of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps.

“I’ve had a wonderful life,” the 74-year-old Adams-Ender said in a telephone interview from her home in Lake Ridge, Va., about 25 miles from Washington, D.C. “I’ll tell anyone that. I am much further along in the world than I ever thought I’d be.”

The Carver Medal, one of the most prestigious awards that Simpson College bestows, represents the latest in a long list of honors and accomplishments in Adams-Ender’s career.

She will present the 39th George Washington Carver Legacy address at 1 p.m. on Feb. 26 in Smith Chapel. The event is free, and the public is welcome.

The Carver Medal is named for George Washington Carver, who began his academic career at Simpson College after he was turned away from at least one university because of his skin color. This year marks the 150th anniversary of his birth.

Like Carver, Adams-Ender didn’t set out to be a pioneer when she was younger. She just loved learning – she graduated from high school at age 16 – and wanted to get a good education.

Her dream of becoming a lawyer was sidetracked by her father, who decided that a nursing degree would serve her better. Adams-Ender was disappointed, but she did not challenge his mandate.

“He didn’t say things without having thought about them,” she said of her father. “He talked based upon what he knew. I found out later that much of what he knew was limited, because of his experiences, but what he knew, he knew well. And I always thought I ought to pay attention.”

As an Army nurse, Adams-Ender rose quickly, including a tour of duty in Korea, but it was far from a smooth ascent.

In her book, she describes how a superior officer tried to sabotage her career with a false accusation, and about the time she was advised to end her friendship with a white officer. She disproved the accusation and ignored the advice.

Through a 34-year military career, she never allowed herself to feel bitter or cynical.

“I never responded with anger,” she said. “I probably learned that from my mother more than anyone else, because she was a calm person, and she always taught us, ‘Don’t do things out of spite. If you try to work it out through the system, it will work out better than any other way.’”

Another personality trait Adams-Ender demonstrated through her Army career was perseverance. The story of how she received the Expert Field Medical Badge is a good example.

Until Adams-Ender proved otherwise, winning the badge was considered too physically demanding for women to attempt, so nobody had tried. She thought that sounded silly, and set out to show what a self-described tomboy could do.

“I didn’t know that no woman in the Army had ever attempted it before,” she said. “I grew up with two brothers, and I did everything that they did – played baseball, jumped out of hay lots.” She laughed. “I did everything they did except wade in that muddy creek where I couldn’t see my feet.”

Adams-Ender credits the military culture for being ahead of the country when it comes to promoting equal rights. She notes that it was the presence of the military base that essentially forced the city of San Antonio to end housing discrimination when she was stationed there.

“I don’t think I would have gotten as far in nursing and in leadership outside the military as I did inside the military,” she said. “The difference is the system. In the military, you’re working in teams and you don’t want to have any doubt whether that person on your left or your right is going to cover you in times of crisis.”

For that reason, Adams-Ender expects the military will also take the lead when it comes to tackling the issue of sexual assault and harassment.

“I’ve talked with some of my friends who work on college campuses and some who are leaders and they don’t address the problem upfront because they kind of hope it will go away,” she said. “In the military, we can’t hope it will go away because those women are part of a team, and when you treat team members wrong, they might not be there when you need their help. Plus, they don’t need that kind of aggravation when they’re trying to get a job done.”

Since her retirement, Adams-Ender has served as executive director of the Caring About People With Enthusiasm (CAPE) Legacy Fund Inc., a foundation that raises money to help students afford college.

She also finds herself much in demand as a speaker. Young people find her story particularly inspiring, once they hear the particulars.

“Youngsters see me now and say, ‘You can do anything if you’re born with a silver spoon in your month.’ I say, ‘Who? Let me tell you where I came from.’

“The message I try to give to them is that you can manage to accomplish most anything that you want to accomplish. You just work at it a little bit every day. When you finish, you may end up where you want to be and you may end up being a lot further than you ever thought you’d be.

“If anyone had told me when I was out there in the beginning that I was going to be a general in the Army, I would have said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”

Adams-Ender said those same opportunities exist today.

“You’ve just got to be willing to stick with it and keep working at it,” she said. “But it does require a little sweat equity.”