Chemical engineering had been her science teacher’s idea, really. But something didn’t seem right as Valerie Montgomery took temperature readings from a broiler that day.
She was collecting detergent samples, bending down and up, down and up. A dingy slush from the floor splashed on her lab coat and clothing. As she rose once more she noticed her reflection on the steel broiler staring back at her, big thick goggles and all, and she knew.
I am way too cute for this, Valerie said to herself.
She was a junior at Georgia Tech, entering the fourth year of a five-year cooperative program with Procter & Gamble. The company had already offered her a job, but Valerie was having second thoughts about that, too.
All her life she had been told she could be whatever she wanted, but working in a lab was too isolating and project-oriented. She barely got the chance to interact with people, the one thing that made her feel alive and happy.
It was nothing like the way she imagined Moses felt when he realized his purpose was to lead the children of Israel out of slavery. Her life flashed before her, wearing goggles, a blue bonnet, a slush-spattered lab coat, the solitude.
She finished up and went home to call her mother.
I don’t want to do this, she said.
Annette Alexander worked the swing shift in a paper factory. By the end of each shift, she smelled so badly she washed her clothes separately from her four daughters. Still, she took great pride in her ability as a single mother to provide a better life for her kids than she had.
Working at Georgia Kraft had been a game changer for her young family. It provided a roof over their heads, food and clothing, the stability that had eluded them for so long. In the summer, it paid for the Greyhound bus tickets to visit relatives in Alabama and Ohio.
She was beside herself with pride when Valerie told her Procter & Gamble had offered her a starting salary of $45,000. How could she pass up such an opportunity?
Girl, you can be anything you want to be, but these people have offered you a job and you ought to take it, she said.
Valerie hung up the phone and the next day went to see her mentor.
I think I’m going to medical school, she said.
Valerie was the third of Annette Alexander’s four daughters.
Growing up in Macon was hard at first, void of their father’s presence and moving from one apartment to the next. But somehow they managed. For years after the divorce, Valerie’s mother scrimped and saved to buy their first home. The 1,500-square-foot bungalow had two baths and three bedrooms, two of which the girls shared: Marsha and Valerie in one; Sandra and Priscilla in the other.
While their mother worked late into the night, the sisters shared household duties. It fell to Marsha, the oldest, to keep the house clean. Sandra cooked. Priscilla, the baby, did nothing. And Valerie, the resident tattle-tell and judge, ran all the errands.
Thursdays, Annette’s pay day, was reserved for dinner on the town, followed by Friday night fish fries. Saturday was choir rehearsal, and Sunday was dedicated to church.
Valerie’s mother had only finished high school, but she knew education was the path to a better life and she instilled that in her daughters.
Each of them imagined lives far beyond the south side of Macon and what their mother could provide, especially Valerie. At Southwest High School, she excelled at everything. Academics. Cheerleading. President of the senior class.
Working part-time jobs at Shoney’s and McDonald’s, she sensed the world promised something greater for her.
“She always thought big,” Marsha Johnson said of her younger sister. “She just had that drive and energy that is rare.”
Now the thing she wanted most was to become a doctor.
The idea settled in her mind and made its bed there, giving definition to her life. And purpose.
African-American doctors were in short supply in 1983, and the number entering medical school was on a decline since a 1978 Supreme Court decision outlawing quotas. But it never occurred to Valerie she couldn’t become one.
She had no inkling, not that it mattered, that only 3,869 blacks compared to 56,032 whites had been admitted to medical school the previous year.
Undaunted, she visited the career counseling center at Spelman with all the hope of a 20-year-old, seeking advice.
It’s clear to me you don’t know a lot about being a doctor, the counselor told her.
I didn’t know a lot about being an engineer, Valerie shot back.
The counselor suggested she enroll in Harvard’s summer program for aspiring minority medical students. The deadline to apply was in 10 days.
Valerie told her she could make that happen and she did.
“I figured the worst thing that could happen was I could be an engineer,” she said.
That summer Valerie, whose travels had been limited to Alabama and Ohio to visit relatives, traveled alone to Cambridge, Mass.
She was used to the vast sea of white people; it was the sheer number of homeless people that took her by surprise.
She made quick friends with Ramada Smith, a girl from Flint, Mich., who, like Valerie, had grown up without her father and enjoyed a good laugh. They delved deep into biochemistry, biology and anatomy. They brushed up on their interview skills and worked hard to fine-tune their medical school applications.
Always the perfectionist, Valerie insisted they take their applications to a printer even though they were just for practice.
Days later when they arrived to pick them up, Valerie’s application was not to her liking.
This is not acceptable, she told the young man behind the counter.
This is the best we can do, he said.
No, you don’t understand. This is a medical school application. The words have to be on the lines.
Valerie insisted he do it over.
“Her high standards and ability to inspire others to the same is uncanny,” Smith said.
It was one of the things Smith admired most about her friend, but Valerie could be light-hearted, too.
When they weren’t in class, the two of them often hit the town, taking in the sights and snapping photographs. One day they spied a navy Mercedes convertible parked on the street and couldn’t resist stopping to document the moment. They, too, would own a Mercedes some day, they promised each other.
For them, a luxury car was the embodiment of what was possible. They could have it all. Love. Family. And bright careers as doctors.
After the program ended, Valerie returned to Georgia Tech.
In January, Valerie was busy organizing the National Society of Black Engineers Conference and on the hunt for tickets to an upcoming concert the day she met Melvin Rice in the student center at Georgia Tech.
Melvin, a dual degree student in interdisciplinary science and electrical engineering, was a jazz enthusiast and Bell Lab scholar from Morehouse College with a striking resemblance to Malcolm X. He was selling tickets to the concert.
The two of them struck a deal. You get me in the conference, Melvin told Valerie, I’ll give you two tickets.
Two weeks later, he delivered.
Who are you going with, he wanted to know.
I don’t have a date.
Why don’t you come with me?
For the rest of the school year, they were inseparable.
Valerie graduated in June 1983. Although Emory offered a scholarship, she selected Harvard from among the medical colleges courting her, even though it meant relying on loans and grants. It would provide an experience far different from anything she’d had growing up in small town Macon, she told her mother.
That fall, Valerie packed her car and headed north to Boston while Melvin headed to Flint, Mich., where he had landed a job as an electrical engineer for General Motors Flint Metal Fabrication.
Finding her way
I’m Valerie Montgomery, she said during introductions on her first day of class. I’m from Macon, Ga.
Although she was one of only 10 African-Americans in a class of 130, that wasn’t unusual for Valerie. She was used to being in the minority.
But she was stunned when a white classmate approached to make her acquaintance.
What high school did you go to? he asked.
Southwest High in south Macon.
How what? she asked.
How did you get into Harvard?
I applied just like you did, she said.
Valerie was accustomed to people looking down their noses at her. She’d been teased mercilessly in the third grade when she was forced to take the Lucky Duck Bus for handicapped students, many of them developmentally disabled.
Still on crutches following surgery for a bone infection in her left leg, she was no longer able to walk to school. Riding the bus was her only option.
Instead of feeling sorry for herself, she turned her attention to helping her bus mates learn to read.
“Sometimes the bus driver would slow down just so we could finish reading a story,” she said. “It became sort of a ritual.
Despite that awkward beginning at Harvard, the next four years would be some of Valerie’s best.
“I loved it,” she said. “I loved the science, the patient interaction.”
Valerie intended to become a neurosurgeon until her rotation came up in obstetrics-gynecology, which she’d been dreading.
“I thought people who deliver babies ought to be happy and enjoy getting up in the middle of the night,” she said. “I didn’t.”
But she hadn’t counted on meeting Dr. Issac Schiff, the ob-gyn professor and fertility specialist with the kind, gentle spirit, or the feeling she’d get doing her first surgery.
“I walk into the room and the first assistant surgeon is pregnant, the attendant and anesthesiologist are pregnant,” she said. “They have families, careers and are operating to the side because their stomachs are so full of life. There was laughter and music playing in the background. I said, this is my kind of party.”
Fired up, Valerie went to see Schiff.
“I want to be a reproductive endocrinologist and fertility specialist,” she told him.
Schiff didn’t discourage her but he told her it was a competitive field and the only way to get there was through the ob-gyn rotation. Plus she’d probably need to do some research. So she became involved in a project using purified hormones to induce ovulation in mice.
If there are two things that horrify Valerie Montgomery, it is flying roaches and mice. There was no way she could inject anything into a mouse, until she was told it was required to do research.
“I took a hypnosis class so that I could psych myself,” said Valerie, who began sleeping with a stuffed toy mouse. “After several months I could do it. I injected hundreds over that time period, cut them open, then flushed the ova ducts and counted their eggs.”
Valerie never overcame her fear of mice, but in 1986, she applied for residency and on Match Day received her first choice — Emory University.
She couldn’t wait to return to Georgia.
Having it all
By the time she arrived at Emory, Valerie had already published her first research manuscript. She looked forward to continuing her work from Harvard using purified hormones to induce ovulation in mice.
“It had become my passion,” she said.
So, too, had academic medicine.
Valerie was making a name for herself, both as a physician and researcher who could pull grant dollars. Twice in three years she received the resident prize for her research.
Her love life hadn’t fared so well. Growing weary of waiting for Melvin to ask her to marry him, they called it quits soon after she returned to Atlanta.
She was nearing the end of her third year at Emory when the two reconciled and became engaged.
While studying to take the board exam and applying for fellowships, Valerie immersed herself in planning their June nuptials.
They rented out a B&B and stocked guests’ rooms with gifts. For the rehearsal dinner, her mom roasted a pig in the family’s backyard. They decorated her childhood church with fresh white roses. At the wedding, a harpist played. At the reception, they feasted on a four-course meal and a cake fashioned with ribbons.
“It was a big event,” Valerie said. “Fabulous.”
Life for Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice had started anew. It was anyone’s guess where her drive would take her.
After completing her residency at Emory in 1991, Valerie accepted a fellowship at Wayne State University’s Hutzel Hospital in Detroit. By the time it ended that summer, she was pregnant. The couple moved to Kansas City, Mo., where Valerie became assistant professor of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at the University of Kansas and Melvin worked as a manager at Owens Corning. Five months later they welcomed their firstborn, Jayne, into the world. Melvin III followed in 1995.
Struggle for balance
Valerie continued to climb the career ladder, becoming director of the clinical trials unit at the University of Kansas, which achieved recognition for its high enrollment of minority women. Her reputation as a research leader and women’s health advocate had gone national. Increasingly, she was being asked to speak on women’s health issues, conduct drug trials for pharmaceutical companies and serve on panels for the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
In 2003, she became chair of the ob-gyn department at Meharry Medical College in Nashville. There she rebuilt the residency training program, recruited eight new faculty members, secured a $4 million grant to start the Center for Women’s Health Research and led the newly created Center for Health Disparities and AIDS Research.
But as her reputation skyrocketed, it became increasingly difficult for Valerie to find a proper work-life balance. She felt guilty about being away from her children so much.
“What you think is a balancing act is prioritizing and making decisions and hoping you’re making the right one,” she said. “There were some days when I was traveling and I’d feel so guilty about not being there for some basketball game or school event in which my son or daughter was participating.”
Truth is, they didn’t notice as much as she might have thought.
When she was away, she always called, said Jayne Raven, a 20-year-old biochemistry major at Spelman College. And she was fully present at home, at games and piano recitals. It was Valerie, Jayne said, who always brought the family together, organizing gatherings, especially during the holidays when she’d host Christmas parties and New Year’s Day brunch.
Still, some days Valerie gave 100 percent at work, other days 100 percent at home, but never 100 percent to both. That was not humanly possible.
Yes, she could have it all, she was discovering. She just couldn’t have it all at once.
Valerie was preparing to attend a retreat for women executives in academic medicine, but she was having second thoughts.
Priscilla, her youngest sister, had just given birth and their mother, now retired, was uneasy about taking care of the baby while her daughter recuperated. Plus she didn’t want to miss the $250 she stood to make at an upcoming jewelry party.
So Priscilla enlisted a friend to help out, and Valerie mailed their mom a $250 check and headed to the gym.
She was en route home from the gym when Priscilla called.
Unable to decipher her sister’s hysterics, Valerie pulled to the side of the road and called Priscilla’s friend. Their mother had died; their rock was gone.
“It was horrible,” Valerie said.
Within hours, they all converged on the family home in Macon. They knew Annette had written her obituary and funeral instructions in advance. All they had to do was find them. For hours they searched and turned up nothing.
Valerie walked back to her old bedroom and sat down.
“Mom we really don’t have time for this. This is already hard enough,” she said out loud.
She walked back to her mother’s bedroom, opened the drawer she was sure she’d already looked in and found the envelope.
Nothing up until this point in Valerie’s life had been as difficult to bear. With her mother’s death, something began to shift inside her.
She had turned her passion into her purpose but at what cost?
Her mother’s death was the first in a succession of heartbreaks as several more people in Valerie’s life died, including her estranged father.
“It changed me,” Valerie said. “It really made me begin to appreciate the value of relationships.”
In March 2006, just months after her mother’s death, Valerie accepted the offer to become dean of the medical school at Meharry. But emotionally, she had completely withdrawn.
On Sundays, the day she always reserved for long telephone chats with her mom, Valerie would cook dinner and then retreat to her bedroom to watch “Brothers and Sisters” on TV and cry. In her mind, all that she was and all she had was because of her mother. Dying at age 65, only three years into retirement, Annette had been cheated out of enjoying the rewards of her investment.
Concerned for his wife and their family life, Melvin took a stand.
You did not die when your mother died, he told her one Sunday. We need you, too.
Valerie sought counseling and slowly began to emerge from her shell.
That was when her professional life began to take a downward turn. Meharry got a new president who did not see eye-to-eye with Valerie. Eventually he asked her to step down.
No, you can fire me, she told him.
He did. Valerie felt wounded. The next day she headed to a conference for black female leaders. Four days worth of inspiration stabilized her. Valerie went back to running the Center for Women’s Research, and she hired an executive coach to help her sort out her next move. Together they explored answers to the question foremost in Valerie’s mind: Did she really want to be a leader in academic medicine? More importantly, was it just her passion or something bigger. Was it her purpose?
Over the next 15 months, she threw herself into mothering Jayne and Melvin III, cooking, getting to know her husband again, talking to her coach. Just being.
“It gave me time to rebound, to recharge and figure out that my core values were still in tact,” Valerie said.
And yes, she discovered, she really did love academic medicine. She wanted to use it as her platform to live out her passion, educating and training the next generation of health care professionals.
“I wanted to be a dean again,” she said.
In 2011, Valerie was named dean and executive vice president of the Morehouse School of Medicine.
And when Pres. John Maupin announced his departure last year, Valerie became one of the first black women in the U.S. to be named president of a medical school.
A purposeful life
Last month, Valerie welcomed her first class of medical students, the largest in Morehouse School of Medicine’s history.
She looked regal in a brown dress and heels as she confidently strolled to the front of the classroom, just across the hall from the office she has occupied for the past three years as dean.
Students in white coats filled the front desks. Doctors, charged with training this new crop of physicians, took the desks behind them. Other personnel — the dean of student affairs, director of admission and financial aid — stood along the walls.
They, too, would introduce themselves. But first the president.
“I love new beginnings,” Valerie began. “It’s always an example of what’s possible.”
She was vintage Valerie Montgomery Rice. Funny. Engaging. Inspiring.
“This is not one of those universities where on your first day they tell you to look to your left, look to your right, one of you may not be here,” she says. “We say look to your left, look to your right, you may be sitting next to your future mate. He may not look too good right now, but when they get to the wards, they look much better.”
All 78 of them, she said, were selected because they were committed to fulfilling Morehouse School of Medicine’s mission to diversify the health care workforce and eliminate the physician shortage and health disparities.
“Many of you have wanted to be a doctor since you were in the womb and you have been plotting your course,” Valerie says. “We hope we will assist you in converting your passion to your purpose.”
To underscore her point, she recalled the story of Moses and the moment he found his purpose, the topic of a recent church sermon.
“We’re all created for a purpose,” she told them. “You will know what that is when there’s an irresistible urge in you that never subsides.”
As she steps into her role as president of Morehouse School of Medicine, Valerie is sure of her course.
“The presidency is my platform to be able to fulfill my purpose.”
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
I first met Dr. Valerie Montgomery Rice in March 2013, while working on a story about Match Day, when fourth-year medical students across the country learn where they will be doing their residencies. Dr. Rice was then dean and executive vice president at Morehouse School of Medicine, but months later I received a press release announcing her appointment as the medical school’s sixth president – and the first woman to hold that position. As a woman, I found the latter intriguing. Beginning in June, I started the process of interviewing her, former medical school professors, family members and friends. By Dr. Rice’s own admission, it’s impossible to have it all at once. But having spent considerable time with her over the last month, I beg to differ.
Gracie Bonds Staples
About the reporter
Gracie Bonds Staples has been writing for daily newspapers since 1979, when she graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi. She joined the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2000 after stints at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Sacramento Bee, Raleigh Times and two Mississippi dailies. Staples, 56, lives in Johns Creek with her husband of 28 years, Jimmy. They have two daughters, Jamila and Asha, both recent college graduates.
About the photographer
Kent D. Johnson is a veteran journalist with more than 31 years experience. He joined the AJC as sports photo editor in 1998 and has held a number of visual editing and shooting roles at the paper since, including photo assignment editor for nine years. Johnson also worked at papers in Charlotte, N.C., Jackson, Miss., Fort Myers, Fla., and Muskogee, Okla.
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Next week: Joel Slaton enriched a park and found a community when he created Doll’s-Head Trail.