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Elaine Clyburn’s father gave this advice to his daughter, “If you ever need a helping hand, you will find one at the end of your wrist.” She has sought those wrists many times during her rich history, and they were there for her: as the first African American in an all-white Catholic high school, the first African American woman in her college class, during her time spent in Viet Nam working for the Red Cross, and as a civil rights advocate during the 60’s.
Elaine meets personal challenge with thoughtfulness and energy in equal parts. Moved by a spiritual nature coupled with her friendship with her high school teacher, a nun, she decided to become a nun herself in the Sister of St. Joseph order. When she told the teacher of her plan, however, she told Elaine that she would be unwelcome in the all white order. The teacher suggested that she consider joining an African American order–unlike the road not traveled in Frost’s poem, Elaine’s response really did make all the difference. She chose to attend college and then graduate school in Social Work. “I eventually came to characterize it as, ‘They made the right decision for the wrong reason because I never again had any real vocation [for the order], or real feeling that, yeah, I want to spend my life with them.’”
But the story doesn’t end there. Thirty years later, the Sisters of St. Joseph restarted an old program open to lay people who wished to live in the spirit without becoming nuns. Elaine, then on the faculty of a college run by the Sisters, was asked and then became one of their first four “Associate” members of the order. “It hit me like a ton of bricks,” she said, and then as though speaking to herself:
“They [the Sisters of St. Joseph] turned you down, and they shouldn’t have turned you down because their reason was wrong . . . but that’s not it at all. For thirty years I’ve been thinking that was a mistake, but this was really the opportunity. I couldn’t have seen it coming. It just didn’t exist. . . . Am I really going to have to forgive them? I mean you’ve got to forgive them because this is part of the plan. Plans can be good plans even if people are doing bad things.”
Suffice it to say, Elaine is as seasoned in life experience as she is in her profession; moreover, she is deft at making use of life’s lessons. Teaching her first class at Colorado State, Elaine was reading material from the textbook, when somebody from the back of the class yelled out, “Get your head out of the damn book.” “You have a choice,” Elaine reflects with a chuckle that develops into a robust laugh as she thinks back on the day. “You can either bluff your way through, or you can just say, ‘I’m busted,’ which is exactly what I said.”
Elaine’s resume, no surprise, is brawny. At present, she is the mid-south Chair of Volunteers, Lead Volunteer for Red Cross International Services in Restoring Family Links, Advanced Instructor in the national Red Cross training system, Assistant Director, External Relations of the Southeast and Caribbean Division Disaster Response Management Team, an Expert: New Madrid Seismic Zone, as well as “whatever is needed” in our chapter.
Her role as a volunteer follows a career with the Red Cross beginning in 1969. Her first assignment was as Hospital Field Director to the 75th Infantry Division Hospital in Tay Ninh Province in South Vietnam, and between day one and her retirement in 2012, she became the first female African American Level V Job Director, a professor of Social Work at Colorado State University, and the Director of Disaster Services for Midwest Operations, among other jobs.
Message bracelets encircle both of her wrists: one bracelet says, “Celebrate Diversity,” another, “Hope,” a third, “Love,” and the fourth one says, “Miracles.” Curiously, she wears no bracelet for “Leadership,” although she unspools guidance like an artisan weaves silk.
I don’t think that I started out to be a leader or even have the feeling that I am now. I’m grateful to have lived long enough that there is no point in carrying around all the garbage. I think each of those [difficult] situations prepared me for what people call leadership. It’s more like all of that stuff from the past gets woven into the present . . . Leadership is really about influence rather than power.
Elaine is genuinely surprised by her influence. Alpha Sigma Nu, a National Jesuit Honor Society selected Elaine as one of the 100 members they chose to honor, “who are the best living ideals of scholarship, loyalty, and service,” in this their centennial year. She was inducted into the Society as a Senior at LeMoyne College, but has not been active and is mystified when trying to imagine who nominated her. “ Yeah I get it.” Elaine says, “This has happened to me three times now, in that people I don’t know, have had no contact with . . .” She stops and moves on to another subject.
There is a real risk of over-generalizing Elaine according to her many labels, and then missing the particulars of the way she and her life fuse. “People want to hear my ideas about things, but they don’t seem to understand the process. It amazes me, sometimes the things that come out of my mouth. I often don’t know what I think until I hear myself say it.”
Growing up in a working class neighborhood, Elaine was aware that her mother expected her to be an avatar of good behavior. “In my younger days, I always considered myself as an example, but that was the world looking at me.” Now as a mentor to others, her view has transformed into “me looking out at the world and asking what can I do for you? Is there something I can point you to, an opportunity I can give you?”
Although Elaine accepts, and even embraces her long held role as mentor and example to those around her, she credits the Red Cross for “making me a grown up.” When asked what being a grown up means to her she replied, “When you can be trusted with breakable things, like people or traditions.”
. . . lovely and remarkable like Elaine herself.
Story Credit: Kathleen Bradley/American Red Cross