"Having an education means having the key for change"

January 20, 2006

It took a world of social change for Dr. Betty Jane Cleckley to travel six blocks – but once she made it, she stayed put and planted her feet so her students could soar.

Cleckley is a former social worker-turned college administrator who was recently honored by West Virginia University with its annual Martin Luther King Achievement Award. The award annually recognizes the state resident who best embodies the principles of the slain civil rights leader.

In Cleckley's case, that translates to a determination to make life better not only for her, but for others – specifically, the students of Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, where she's served as vice president of multicultural affairs since 1989.

The above-mentioned six blocks was the exact walking distance of Cleckley's girlhood home to Marshall 's main campus – a school she couldn't attend because she just happened to be a black woman who came of age before desegregation.

But in the way of most West Virginia blacks of her generation, Cleckley reacted to the prevailing social norm with a stoic determination to succeed. She inherited her work ethic and love of learning from her parents, Dan and Ellen Dorroh Cleckley, and she wasn't going to let them down.

And if Cleckley couldn't kick down doors – well, no one was going to work harder that she to get around them.

"That's just the way it was," she recalled. "We did what we needed to do, because there was no other choice."

She earned a bachelor's degree from Marquette University in 1958 and a master's in social work from Smith College. She was awarded a doctorate from Brandeis University and followed that up with a post-doctoral certificate in higher education management from Harvard.

Along the way, she logged several years as a social worker in San Francisco , and headed black college initiative programs on drug and alcohol awareness in Washington before making a career in higher education.

She was an associate dean in the School of Social Work at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville before moving on to Nashville 's Meharry Medical College , where she held numerous academic and administrative posts. She joined Marshall 16 years ago.

"It was Huntington and it was home," she said. "I couldn't say no."

Cleckley also holds numerous other honors and awards, including the W.E.B. DuBois Higher Education Award and the Governor's Living the Dream Award.

The American Public Health Organization also established its own Betty Jane Cleckley Minority Research Award in her name to recognize research on the health disparities of the elderly.

Fighting frustration and the burn-out factor as a social worker in California made her start to realize that maybe she could be more effective as an educational advocate – someone who could steer impressionable young people away from mean streets and into libraries and laboratories.

"Having an education means having a key for change," said Cleckley, who is now working to ensure her school reaches out to students of color, women, disabled and gay students.

Dr. King himself played a role in her redirection, she said. She attended one of his talks at an Episcopal church in San Francisco and came away impressed and motivated.

"He was eloquent, of course," she remembered, "but he was also profound – so very profound. I remember leaving the church that night and thinking, 'I want to help do that work. I want help him and us, so we can lift up and be better.' He just commanded the whole church with his presence."

His life experience makes a good lesson, Cleckley said.

"I always tell our students, 'Don't be afraid to get out there and live in the world.' It's vital that they learn to interact with people who are different from themselves. We live in a diverse society."

And in the end, she said, Martin Luther King did make a difference, even if his Dream has yet to be fully resolved.

"We aren't there yet," she said. "But we're working on it."

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