By Marcia Frellick
Retired nurse and community activist Charolette Tidwell remembers the day she first knew she would have to work much harder than others to accomplish her goals. It was the mid-1950s and she was about 8 years old and fumbling in her pocket for change for a rare ice cream treat. When the manager of the drug store in Fort Smith, Ark., thought she didn’t have the money, he said, “N—–, get away from this window.”
She didn’t know the word then — she had rarely ventured beyond church and her school where it wasn’t used — but when she learned the meaning, she said that in a subconscious way she became aware that she would have to fight hard for what she wanted to accomplish, with no room for error. “I can still see his face and I can still hear his words,” she said six decades later at age 69.
Though she had plenty of push from her grandparents, her parents, her church and her school, she sees that as a turning point in which she knew “there was nothing I was unwilling to learn; there was no territory I was unwilling to tread.”
Her determination led her through nursing school, to a master’s degree in education from the University of Arkansas and to more than 30 years of nursing. She was a charge nurse, then head nurse in an ICU, director of nursing, creator of a nursing education department for the largest long-term care provider in the nation and now, in retirement, director of the Antioch Consolidated Association for Youth and Family, an organization she co-founded in 2002, which feeds 7,000 people monthly in the Fort Smith area.
Her work ethic has not faltered in that time, and in many ways has grown stronger. Indeed, she volunteers six days a week, 10-12 hours a day.
A strong draw to nursing
Tidwell was born on Valentine’s Day 1946, in Fort Smith. Her mother was a domestic worker and her father was a school cook. She had wanted to be a nurse from her earliest memories.
Her neighborhood was a true community, she said, something she rarely sees these days. People knew everybody, they looked out for everybody. Her mother, who she calls “a nurse without a degree,” would take food and bring comfort to anyone who needed it in a four-block area, and Charolette would beg to go along. Kids visited the jail and nursing homes. It’s just what people did.
A middle child amid 10 surviving children (two died in infancy), Charolette also had to help take care of siblings in a household gripped by poverty. They had running water, a cow and chickens for milk and eggs, but no indoor toilet.
Her mother was a particularly strong influence in Charolette’s life. Among her most important directives, Charolette said, were: “Be industrious. Never take a paycheck without earning it. Education is critical. Integrity is a must and being involved and concerned about others is a must.”
Tidwell also was giving back just as people had given to her at each stage of her life.
She and her siblings were able to go to private grade school because her mother and some of her older siblings cleaned the school in exchange. Nuns also never charged her parents for music lessons for the children. If her mother couldn’t pay for something, she worked for it, Tidwell said.
When Tidwell was ready to study nursing, a man named Harry (H.P.) McDonald, MD, paved the way. McDonald was a civil rights activist, and in 1952 was the first African-American doctor to be admitted to the Arkansas State Medical Society. He advocated for a few African-American nurses, including Tidwell, to attend St. Edward’s School of Nursing in Fort Smith.
Nursing school then was hospital-based. Tidwell received a diploma after 36 months. Again, McDonald used his influence and negotiated to make Tidwell the first African-American nurse hired at Sparks Regional Medical Center, then the largest hospital in the state. If nurses, including Tidwell, couldn’t pay for their education, they made an agreement to work at the hospital when they graduated.
She said cardiologists at Sparks told her she should be a doctor and they would help pay for her medical school, but she told them, “I don’t want to be a doctor. I want to be a nurse.” But she did ask them to teach her like a physician. “I told them whatever you want me to learn, I will guarantee you I will learn it,” she said.
She married Fort Smith Police Sgt. Lawrence Tidwell during nursing school and assisted him with the Lincoln Youth Service Center he founded with two other officers to help at-risk youth until he died of cancer in 1997. They had a daughter and son, now settled in Dallas.
Trying times and triumphs
Tidwell had her share of challenges early in her career, including caring for a patient who flung a bedpan at her whenever she walked in the room. She said she never heard him utter a racial slur, but she was the only black nurse on the floor and “he wasn’t throwing the pan at anyone else.” Her solution was to replace the bedpan with a bedside commode.
Tidwell faced one of her biggest challenges when she was told the medical center wanted her to move to the ICU from the orthopedic floor. “I did not feel flattered,” she said. “I was scared to death.”
She knew the hospital was about to perform the first open heart surgery in the state of Arkansas and was opening a mobile ICU. “I quickly spoke with the admitting physicians and told them I needed more knowledge than general nursing knowledge,” she said. “And they agreed to teach me all I needed to know.”
She went on to become director of nursing at Sparks from 1974 to 1992, then created and directed an education department at long-term care giant Beverly Enterprises in 1993 where she stayed until she officially retired from nursing in 2000.
Tidwell has received several awards, including the Women of Distinction award from the Girl Scouts in 2011, the Arthur J. Gallagher Co. Inc. Noble Cause Award in 2013, and the Acting Out Against Hunger Award from the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance in 2014. Her work has been featured on NBC Nightly News and in a National Geographic video.
In May, she will receive the University of Arkansas College of Education and Health Professions Distinguished Alumni Award, a testament to her lifetime devotion to education.
The awards also confirm one of her life goals: to be a role model “not just for my people but for all people.”
She tells those considering nursing that the two most important nursing responsibilities are caring and compassion.
Nurses have to know that patients in the hospital are worried about being separated from their family, about what the care is going to cost, about what the doctors may find. You have to find out what’s going on in their homes, who lives with them, what their circumstances are, according to Tidwell.
“When you get to the bedside, listen with ears, eyes and heart,” she said. “Not everything is medical.”
Marcia Frellick is a freelance writer.
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