Obituary: Carolyn Carter / One of the first black head nurses at St. Francis

Nov. 25, 1932 - Sept. 14, 2012


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One Sunday in the summer of 1953, Alphonse Carter arrived at an NAACP youth council meeting at the HIll District YMCA, where a young nursing student caught his eye.

Or rather, her eyes caught his.

"She had the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen. She had eyes that were arresting," he said of the woman who would later become his wife. "I knew when I looked in those eyes that she was a game changer."

That woman, Carolyn Carter, would later become one of the first black head nurses at St. Francis General Hospital, continue her studies while working and heading a household, earn a doctorate and start a program to mentor young students of color into medical careers, a program that still stands three decades later.

Mrs. Carter died Sept. 15 in Newton, Mass. She was 79.

She was born in Monessen. Her mother worked at a clothing manufacturer and her father at Mellon Bank as a janitor. Her father headed the Mon Valley chapter of the NAACP, giving her early exposure to civil rights work.

After graduating from Monessen High School, she went to nursing school at St. Francis Hospital, where she earned her registered nursing degree in 1953. She was one of the first African-Americans to serve as head nurse at the hospital, her family said.

"She liked the idea for caring for people and doing something to maybe extend their lives," Mr. Carter said.

Working full time, she continued her education, earning a bachelor of science in nursing, a masters in psychiatric nursing and a Ph.D. in higher education administration at the University of Pittsburgh.

She married Mr. Carter in 1955, and they had a daughter, Cynthia.

In her daughter, she instilled the importance of education and an appreciation of the gains in civil rights that would allow her success. She took her as a young girl to the March on Washington in 1963.

But throughout her busy career, she dedicated herself to mentoring young African-Americans, urging them to pursue careers in nursing and in medicine in formal and informal roles. She served as a second mother for some students, treating them to home-cooked meals and nurturing them with tough love when they floundered.

Her work culminated as an assistant dean of student affairs and special projects at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, a position she took in 1981.

In that role, she dedicated herself to increasing the enrollment of black students in the medical school, recruiting candidates from across the country.

She also developed a mentoring program for high school students in Pittsburgh that allowed them to shadow doctors throughout the summer, a program funded through a federal Health Career Opportunities Program grant. An iteration of that program, the Summer Premedical Academic Enrichment Program, still runs today.

"The legacy that she left was establishing a tradition of having pipeline programs for under-represented students," said Paula Davis, assistant vice chancellor for health sciences diversity at the University of Pittsburgh.

Ms. Davis said she possessed a "steely determination" and fought tooth and nail to see the students in her program succeed.

And as she pushed her students, she pushed her own daughter, holding her to high expectations and motivating her when she wavered. Now a psychiatrist working at Harvard University, she credits her mother for inspiring her.

"I just remember growing up and feeling that I had an obligation to be successful as a black woman whose family had worked hard related to civil rights and that I had an obligation to be successful and to pass that success on," she said.

In addition to her husband and daughter, Mrs. Carter is survived by a grandson.

Funeral services were private. The family asked that donations be made to the Girl Friends Fund, www.thegfinc.org/gffund

obituaries

Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533.


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