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University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

Breaking barriers

May 14, 2009

Clara Adams-Ender with Bishop Desmond Tutu.

School of Nursing alumna General Clara Adams-Ender, with Bishop Desmond Tutu, above, spoke at the school’s commencement on May 15 and received an honorary doctor of humane letters from the U. (Photo courtesy of the Women Veterans Historical Project, University of North Carolina at Greensboro.)

U alumna crossed gender and color lines in stellar career

By Kristin Cleveland

When Clara Adams-Ender was 12, her mother sat her down and told her she had to stop pretending to be a paratrooper and jumping out of haylofts. Little did they know how far beyond paratrooper she'd go.

The fourth of 10 children born to North Carolina sharecroppers, Adams-Ender went on to become chief of the Army Nurse Corps (ANC) and the first African American woman and nurse to command a major U.S. Army installation, attaining the rank of brigadier general. An alumna of the University of Minnesota School of Nursing's master's program, she delivered the commencement address on May 15 as the school celebrates its centennial year.

The University awarded Adams-Ender an honorary doctor of humane letters on that day.

"General Adams-Ender's determination and hard work led her to break barriers throughout her career," says Connie White Delaney, dean of the Nursing School. "She has consistently been a vocal advocate for our profession, from driving minority enrollment in nursing programs to initiating new nursing care models."

In February 1960, she took part in the famous Woolworth's lunch counter sit-ins with the Greensboro Four.

Since retiring from the Army in 1993, Adams-Ender has been the president and CEO of Caring About People with Enthusiasm (CAPE) Associates, Inc., a management consulting firm specializing in health care management and reform, leadership issues and development, cultural diversity, women in the workplace, and conflict management and resolution.

Adams-Ender's life and career have been peppered with obstacles she turned into opportunities. She graduated from high school at age 16, despite missing 30 out of 180 school days a year to harvest tobacco. She had friends send assignments home to her on the bus, then returned them, completed, back the next day with the bus driver.

While her parents insisted that she and her siblings pursue higher education, her father quashed a legal career and told her to apply instead for the nursing program at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro. She ran with it and even realized her dream of travel while completing some of her nursing affiliations. African Americans were barred from practicing in many North Carolina hospitals at the time, so Adams-Ender spent several semesters at New York hospitals completing her requirements.

In February 1960, she took part in the famous Woolworth's lunch counter sit-ins with the Greensboro Four.

To help pay for her final years of college, Adams-Ender enlisted in the Student Nurse Program of the Women's Army Corps Reserve. After graduating, she rose through the ranks of the ANC, crossing many gender and color lines along the way.

She completed a master's degree in surgical nursing at the University of Minnesota, went on to teach at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing, and served as director of the Department of Nursing for Army Medical Activity at Fort Mead, Maryland, before becoming the first woman and first nurse to earn a master of military art and science degree from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

The only nurse and one of only seven women in a class of 1,100 officers, she recalls being surprised that the men saw the female officers as competition.

"I wasn't competing against them...I've always said to people, 'You should never hold things against folks, in terms of the work world, that they can do absolutely nothing about,'" Adams-Ender told the Women Veterans Historical Project at University of North Carolin at Greensboro. "I can do nothing about having been born a female...All I want is the opportunity to be able to do the best with what I've got ..."

Just shy of her 40th birthday, Adams-Ender became one of the youngest officers promoted to colonel while serving as chief of nursing at the 97th General Hospital in Frankfurt, Germany. There she met her second husband, Heinz Ender, a retired dental surgeon and World War I veteran.

In 1982 she became the first African American ANC graduate of the Army War College, and two years later, the first African American named chief of the Department of Nursing at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In 1987 she took command of 22,000 nurses when she was promoted to brigadier general and named chief of the ANC. At the time, only four women in the Army actively held that rank.

"...taking care of a bunch of nurses is about one of the most challenging things you can ever do in this life...," she told the project. "In the first place, they're all kind of independent people, and they know everything about everything, and you've got to get them together and try to get things going... ."

In 1991 Adams-Ender took on a role equivalent to city manager, magistrate and mayor of a small city when she became commanding general at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, a position she held for three years before retiring.

Former colleagues credit Adams-Ender's approachability, humanity, and "repository of good sense" for her astonishing career and the number of protégés she has around the globe. Perhaps she says it best when she described to the veteran's project what the 24-hour business of nursing taught her.

"I learned very quickly that the largest group of health professionals within any health care system is nurses and nursing personnel of one kind or another," she said. "They're the folks who lay on the hands all of the time, and they have to do things according to certain standards, or else the whole system comes apart."