Only a few decades ago, according to Dr. Ruth Simmons, president of
Smith College, looking out for African American youth was a challenge
more readily accepted by the African American community, at large – and
particularly by African American teachers.
Dr. Vernell Lillie, who taught Simmons when she attended Wheatley High School in Houston, Texas, is such an educator.
“When [teachers like Lillie] saw someone who needed a hand, they did
not question that,” Simmons says. “If that meant that they didn’t have
a place to live, they took them in; [if it meant] food to eat, they
gave food; or no money, they gave them money. Or if their mother had
died, they took them on. That’s very much the kind of spirit that
existed in those days. And to me what she did symbolizes that era.”
To recognize the legacy of such teachers – many of whom often don’t
realize how much what they did meant to the people they helped – and to
encourage the continuation of that spirit, Simmons has set up an
endowed scholarship to honor Lillie at Dillard University, the
undergraduate alma mater of both.
“We have relied in our time on federal forms of assistance and I
believe it is our responsibility to create additional scholarships for
young people coming along,” Simmons says. “I also wanted to do
something to emphasize the importance of HBCUs (historically Black
colleges and universities).”
The Vernell A. Lillie Endowed Scholarship was funded by Simmons with an initial $11,000 gift.
Honored and Grateful
Dr. Lillie, now a professor of Africana Studies at the University of
Pittsburgh, is reluctant to take credit for the unselfishness,
dedication and inspiration she has given her students.
“My grandma taught me that once you begin to point out the gifts
that you give, that nullifies the gift,” Lillie says. “It kind of
surprised me to have been singled out in this way and sometimes makes
me a little uncomfortable And I get teary-eyed.”
The bond between Lillie and Simmons goes far beyond that of the
traditional student-pupil relationship. Simmons, the youngest of twelve
children, found a surrogate mother in Lillie after she lost her natural
“I think the impact of Vernell Lillie for me was the result of
several factors,” Simmons says.” One was that my own mother died when I
was fifteen and of course I was just in high school and it was an
extremely difficult time for me. Secondly, I was introduced to theater
through Vernell Lillie and I have had an abiding love for theater as a
result of her influence.
“I believe my interest [in drama] quite possibly helped me deal with the death of my mother.”
“I still see her as my other daughter and my children see her as
their sister,” Lillie says of Simmons. “We’re very close and I’m very
proud of her.
“There was a bond, I think, the first time I met [Simmons]. We spent
a lot of time together in theater from maybe 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. at night
and we became close…. She was a tremendous speaker and actor – an all
around brilliant scholar in both math and verbal areas, and well read.
She had a great wit, was non-confrontational, but could challenge you
without challenging your authority.
Lillie insists that Simmons, the first African American to become
president of one of the seven sisters colleges (Barnard, Bryn Mawr,
Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley), would have
achieved the stature she currently possesses even without her
“I feel so honored and grateful because it seems she gave far more
to me than I gave to her,” Lillie says. “I just like to believe that I
was there for her at a time when she may have needed someone.”
Part of a Tradition
Lillie doesn’t view her support of Simmons as extraordinary because
she says she received the same nurturing and generosity from the late
drama teacher Robert C. Holland, while attending Wheatley High School.
It was his nurturing that inspired Lillie to mentor so many of her
“It was just a tradition [at Wheately] to prepare students, not just to survive but to achieve,” says Lillie.
Simmons recalls the extra mile Lillie went to in exposing students to the world beyond their immediate neighborhoods.
“At the same time that she was a drama teacher and coach, she was
also very involved with students outside the theater. She opened up a
world for us beyond our own, and taught us that there were
possibilities ont there and encouraged us to embrace them,” Simmons
Lillie’s support of Simmons extended even beyond high school.
“She helped me get financial aid at Dillard, her alma mater,”
Simmons says. “And once, because she knew that I did not have
resources, she actually sent me money while I was in college.”
A Debt of Gratitude
Simmons was only one beneficiary of Lillie’s magnanimity. Others of
her more renowned students include: the late U.S. Congresswoman Barbara
Jordan; Billy Matthews, offensive line coordinator for the San
Francisco 49ers; musician Ernestine Anderson of the Jazz Crusaders; and
jazz musician Arnet Cobb.
“She not only had two children of her own, but she had all these
other children clinging to her. And yet, the family made room for these
other children,” says Simmons. “How this family had the generosity to
do that – I still to this day don’t understand it. I loved her
daughters and her husband, too.”
For Simmons, the scholarship in Lillie’s name at Dillard was inevitable.
“I knew many years ago – even as a student – that one day I wanted
to find a way to indicate the deep gratitude that I have for her and
her family for their help,” says Simmons.
The first recipient of the Lillie award was Pia Betts who received a
scholarship for the 1996-97 academic year. Betts is a Dillard
presidential scholar and a vocalist.
The goal of the scholarship fund is to be able to offer $25,000 annually and to support several students at once.
“I feel I could never do enough to honor the person that [Lillie] is
and the way that I think she serves as a model for all of us who think
it is important to support the efforts of African American children,”
COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com