Texarkana, U.S.A. – Monday, June 24, 2013
Dr. Shirley Sharpe Finn A Beautiful Life of Service and Love
By James Presley
Three words, from the civil rights hymn, epitomize Dr. Shirley Sharpe Finn’s life: We shall overcome! She spent her life overcoming adversity and prejudice while persevering in her pursuit of excellence. She achieved a number of “firsts,” many in Texarkana.
Although her lasting reputation is in the nursing profession, Dr. Finn was a multifaceted person whose life was characterized by caring for others, persistence in achieving her goals, and a never-ending belief in equality for all. She loved music, theatre, dancing, family, community, her church, her work–and life. As a nurse and educator she deemed the most important person to be the patient whether in an operating room, ward, or home.
Dr. Finn passed away unexpectedly in Cedar Hill, Texas, on Wednesday, June 12, 2013. Though she had been in failing health for years, she had been coping well until the day of her death, apparently of a brain aneurysm. She and Edwin, her husband of 50 years, had moved to Cedar Hill following her retirement at Texarkana College in order to be near their son Michael and their grandchildren.
When Shirley Sharpe was born in segregated, impoverished Elizabeth City, North Carolina, on Nov. 5, 1932, the odds were against her.
With an absent father in Norfolk, VA., and her mother supporting her by working in the home of Jewish families in New York City, Shirley was first reared by her grandmother. When she was six, her grandmother died. Her mother moved back to Elizabeth City to take care of her and the grandfather.
At sixteen she graduated Pasquotank Training School in Elizabeth City as valedictorian. She enrolled at Episcopalian-run St Augustine’s College in Raleigh, NC, to become a nurse. She worked her way through, scrubbing floors on her hands and knees at five a.m. before the other students arose. Later she worked in the library. She earned a B.S. from St Augustine’s and a diploma in nursing—R.N. —from St. Agnes School of Nursing on the same campus.
At St. Augustine’s she was introduced to the Episcopal Church—“and I loved becoming an Episcopalian,” She had been baptized as a Baptist back home, but now in college she felt she had found her true spiritual home. She subsequently was confirmed.
After working briefly in Elizabeth City, she landed a job in Evanston, Ill.—by mail. The hospital was associated with Northwestern University. She was assigned to the operating room, where a leading neurosurgeon requested her to assist him. She fell in love with OR surgery. She saw it as a spiritual, as well as medical, experience. Subsequently she was hired as the first African-American faculty member of the small Evanston School of Nursing, affiliated with Northwestern University.
After a couple of years at Evanston, she decided to return to North Carolina to be near her mother. She secured a teaching position at A&T College (i.e., Agricultural and Technical) in Greensboro, NC, an all-black school. Greensboro became one of the first sites of student sit-ins at lunch counters. Though A&T faculty members did not sit in, they marched in support of the students when they were jailed.
Greensboro changed her life. She met outgoing Barbara “Bobbie” Reid, with whom she taught and shared a house. She took part in the civil rights movement at “a very ugly, ugly time.
She met her future husband, Ed Finn, then living in Greensboro. Between Bobbie and Ed the shy, serious, lonely girl learned to laugh and enjoy life as she never had before. Ed’s smooth dancing swept her off her feet. They married in 1963 in Elizabeth City in an Episcopalian ceremony.
Hours after the afternoon wedding, the newlyweds headed for Texarkana, AR, Ed’s hometown, Texarkana became her base—and crucible—from 1963 on.
“I took one look at Texarkana,” she recalled earlier this year, and I thought, I have gone back to the Dark Ages!” Signs still proclaimed “White Only,” Eventually Texarkana became her home and the center of her most productive and satisfying years.
She had applied, by mail, for a nursing position at Wadley Hospital. She was accepted, by mail, on the basis of her credentials. What sort of work did she want to do? Operating room nursing. Oh, no, she was told; surgeons would never allow that. But that day an OR nurse called in sick. The new nurse had OR experience. Would she fill in?
She became the first black RN in the operating room in Texarkana, as well as the first black RN in a local hospital. The next day the white OR nurse returned, and Shirley was assigned back to the floor but eventually worked again in the OR at Wadley.
Seeking a church home, she and Ed went to see Fr. Richard Allen, rector at St. James Episcopal Church. The church had no black members. Fr. Allen was delighted to have them but warned that many would not welcome them. Some left the church, others coolly ignored them.
With a housing shortage, they’d moved in with Ed’s parents. When Shirley became pregnant with their son, they could find no suitable apartment. One day Ed mentioned the problem to Fr. Allen, who immediately offered them the garage apartment behind the rectory. Euphoria soon switched to despair. White neighbors complained, even threatened violence including bombs. The church’s vestry ordered Allen to evict them or leave himself. Fortunately the couple found refuge in a new apartment development on the Texas side.
Acceptance came slowly. Eventually Shirley taught Sunday school, sponsored the youth group, and served as the first black member of the vestry. Ed was confirmed in the church, and young Michael was baptized.
In time she acquired a broad range of nursing experience in Texarkana. After two years at Wadley hospital she worked as a public health nurse in Miller County, Arkansas, and as a school nurse in Texarkana (Texas) ISD.
After time off to give birth to her son Michael, she resumed her career, now as an assistant professor at Texarkana Collage’s school of nursing and soon afterward rose to chair of the program. She remained at Texarkana College until her retirement in 1995, by which time she was chair of the Health Occupations Division. In the interim a world of change had come. Dr. Finn, as she was by then, worked tirelessly for improvement of nurse education in Texarkana and enlargement of its facilities. Along the way she earned a long list of honors and recognitions.
She and local dentist Dr. Denzer Burke became the first African-Americans named to the board of CHRISTUS St. Michael Hospital board, with Shirley the first black woman in the position.
The C.E. Palmer Award in 2007 recognized her contributions to Texarkana, a culmination of her varied community service as well as her professional achievement.
Typical of her community concerns was the support she and Ed gave the African-American section of the Woodlawn Cemetery on State Line. They took a personal interest in maintaining the gravesites, for a while contributing funds that enabled inmates of the Miller County Correctional Unit to weed, mow, and keep the graves in good condition.
“The Finns were established and respected in the community,” said Ed, “but Shirley came along and elevated the family name to a new level.”
Survivors include her husband, Edwin, her son Edwin Michael Finn and wife Janet, of Cedar Hill; four grandchildren, Brittnei, Kayla, Jasmine, and Reginald: two great-grandchildren, Jonathan and Reginald Jr.; one aunt, Ms. Dolly Jones of Norfolk, Va.; two special cousins, Bennie Williams of Denver, Colorado, and Ardis Hendrix of Pasadena, California; a special nursing department secretary, Linda Arnold of Texarkana, and special friends, Dr. Barbara “Bobbie” Reid of Knoxville, Tenn., and Charles and Shirley Cleveland of Texarkana, AR. Also included in the family are Frances, Debra, James, Kenneth (wife Valeria), and Karen Curry, all of Dallas, Odis and Almeda Bell of Ashdown, AR, Charles (Tank) McDuffie of Texarkana, TX, and John Clifford Roberts of Texarkana, TX.
A small private service was held Tuesday, June 18, at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Cedar Hill.
Services will be held in Texarkana at 11 a.m. Saturday, June 29, at St, James Episcopal Church, with Fr. Douglas Anderson officiating. Interment of her cremains will follow in St. James Columbarium.
In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in her name to Dr. Shirley Finn Scholarship Fund, Texarkana College Health Occupations Division, 2500 North Robison Road. Texarkana, TX, 75599, or a charity of your choice.