Charles Town educator among initial Tuskegee Hall of Fame inductees
CHARLES TOWN – Doris N. Starks, a retired healthcare educator who has lived in Charles Town since 2002, is set to be honored in her home state of Alabama this weekend as one of the initial inductees into the Tuskegee University School of Nursing Hall of Fame.
Her selection, she says, “feels like the Academy Awards. I feel so blessed to be honored by my home school and peers.”
[cleeng_content id="394814259" description="Read it now!" price="0.49" t="article"]Starks traces much of her success to her father’s influence. Born in Conecuh County, Ala., she and her family relocated to Tuskegee when her father returned from serving with an Army communications unit in the Pacific in World War II.
“My father thought he needed to get him and his children a better education and Tuskegee was a college town,” she explained. “[During the war,] they hacked their way through the jungle putting up communications lines. They were there before even the Marines got there. When he got back to Alabama he went to work for the phone company, but he wasn’t allowed to hang the lines. He was only allowed to assist the workers on the pole. He wasn’t allowed to do the technical work. So he went to Tuskegee and enrolled in school.”
Starks attended a laboratory school on campus, where Tuskegee’s aspiring teachers learned their craft. “It was really very funny,” she said. “Sometimes I’d have class in the same building as my father.”
Starks proved academically talented and graduated from high school at 15.
One day as she headed past the school’s nursing dorms, she spotted the nursing school’s dean, Lillian Holland Harvey, and told her she hoped to study nursing at Tuskegee – home to Alabama’s first baccalaureate nursing program, an offering not available even at the state’s flagship school, the University of Alabama.
“She laughed at me because I was just a little thing – I hadn’t finished growing yet – but then she saw I was serious. She said you had to be at least 17 to enroll. I told her I knew I had to work for a while, so I got a job as a nursing assistant. I saw more then than I ever would have as a first-year nursing student.”
In 1958, Starks graduated with honors then enlisted in the Army where she worked as a medical-surgical nurse at a Veterans Administration hospital. She also served as a lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps.
Starks would go on to earn advanced degrees in nursing from The Catholic University of America, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Maryland and Union Graduate School.
Starks began her career in academia when she returned to her alma mater as an assistant professor of nursing. Later she joined the Community College of Baltimore’s Nursing and Health Sciences program, then moved on to Coppin State.
Among her accomplishments there, she landed a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Public Health Service for a community nurse-managed clinic. The school donated another $400,000 to allow the clinic to buy two townhouses near the university where college students and neighboring citizens could get basic health care.
She also initiated new programs at Coppin State, including a master’s-level family nurse practitioner degree where students’ work includes caring for patients at the clinic that Starks founded.
Her induction into Tuskegee’s Nursing Hall of Fame is a reflection that she’s “demonstrated exceptional accomplishments and made significant contributions to nursing and/or the healthcare field,” according to the school.
Fighting for civil rights
Years before she helped bring needed healthcare to her fellow citizens, Starks was working hard to ensure their ability to vote and other basic civil rights.
At the time, few black citizens were able to vote in Alabama. “We had a difficult time back then,” she said. “Some of the nursing students and I attended voting clinics sponsored by the Tuskegee Civic Association. These clinics were designed to help us learn to cope with the roadblocks put in our way such as you would have to get a registered voter to vouch for you or pay a poll tax. Or they would ask us questions like, ‘How do you interpret the Constitution of the United States?’ Once when I was trying to fill out the application to vote, the poll officer put his feet up on the table where I was trying to fill out the application.”
Starks remembers how her close friend Samuel Younge in 1966 became the first college student killed in the civil rights movement as he worked on a voter registration drive and attempted to enter a gas station deemed “whites only” and was shot to death by a station attendant. His death set off protests where thousands marched in the streets of Tuskegee.
She also remembers happier times, including an an afternoon spent talking with Rosa Parks and twice getting the opportunity to meet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
As a young girl, Starks got to know another civil rights icon, C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson, the chief civilian flight instructor for the famed Tuskegee Airmen. The pilot who took first lady Eleanor Roosevelt on a newsmaking flight in 1941 took her up in his plane many Sundays.
“Two of my friends’ fathers were friends with Chief,” Stark recalled. “The base was just outside Tuskegee and on Sunday afternoons we’d go to Chief’s and fly loop-de-loops. He’d bend the wings down real low and say, ‘Now there’s your house.’”
Anderson is credited with persuading President Franklin Roosevelt to let the Airmen fly in the war in Europe. “They escorted the bomber planes,” she said. “Even though there was a lot of prejudice then, all the bomber pilots wanted the Red Tails – that’s what they called them because they had crimson red on the tail of the plane and gold stripes on their wings, the Tuskegee Institute school colors – to escort them because they had such a good record. The Tuskegee Airmen never lost one bomber plane.”
Now retired from Coppin, Sparks continue to make a different. She and her husband of 53 years, Wilbert Starks, who is retired from Bristol Myers Squibb, belong to Zion Episcopal Church in Charles Town. Starks is works on the church’s projects committee and is serving her third year on the vestry, the first African-American woman to do so.
Starks and her husband were living in Montgomery County, Md., when they decided to move to West Virginia.
“I was content in Columbia and I had friends, but one day I saw in the newspaper where the community of Huntfield was being developed,” she said. “It sounded to us the way Columbia use to be and since we were retiring, we thought we’d live a quieter lifestyle and look at the mountains.”
Starks said she wishes her sons –Wilbert Starks Jr., 52, and Garrick Starks, 46, both of whom also live in Huntfield – could attend Saturday’s ceremony in Tuskegee with her and her husband, but they cannot due to their work schedules.
The Rev. Melanie McCarley, rector of Zion Episcopal, calls the Starks “a gift” to the church.
“In joining Zion and sharing their stories, Doris and Wilbert have been a loving presence in our parish family, enabling us to address issues of racism in our community,” McCarley said. “They have given us the blessing of knowing them – not simply as African-Americans who were helping to integrate our church but as fellow human beings on a spiritual journey. The greatest gift has been their ability to see others as individuals, created uniquely by God, not simply as stereotypes.
“They have been kind enough to share their stories of the civil rights era with our young people, and in so doing, to preserve an interest and promote an understanding of the great risks and achievements made during this era.
“I don’t believe I would be making a stretch to say that Doris and Wilbert have been an inspiration to many people of our church family.”
Randy Hilton, a former mayor of Charles Town, said he’s thrilled to see Starks being honored. “Doris is an inspiring person with great strength of character who has lived a life of helping others,” he said. “Every time I am in her presence I am reminded of what a special person she is.”
– Liz Wilson contributed to this report