Clarksville, Tenn. is home to many impressive women. Athletics, medicine, business and the arts are all different fields with opportunities today because of the contributions of these seven Clarksville trailblazers. You’ll likely recognize some names, but you may not know others. Below are a few who excelled despite seemingly insurmountable odds. Let them inspire you. We hope you’ll plan a trip to explore more about their lives and stories in this place they each called home.
Ida Gray Nelson Rollins, Dentist
Orphaned shortly after her birth, Ida Gray was raised by an illiterate relative. In 1868, the family moved from Clarksville to Cincinnati where Ida and the three biological children all worked. In high school, Ida works in a dental office under the supervision of Jonathon Taft, who co-founded the American Dental Association. Among other professional accolades, Taft became the first head of the dental college at the University of Michigan in 1875. After expressing her interest in the dental field, Taft encouraged Ida to apply. She received a Doctor of Dental Surgery in June of 1890 where she was the 23rd female to graduate from the university and the first African American female to earn the degree. Ida later became the first African American female to practice dentistry in Chicago, where she served as president of the Professional Women’s Club of Chicago. She treated men, women, and children of all races.
Brenda Vineyard Runyon, Banker
Brenda Vineyard Runyon was active in the Clarksville community throughout the early 20th century. In addition to being a Sunday school teacher, Brenda was also the first woman to serve on the Clarksville Montgomery County Board of Education. Her efforts during World War I helped to establish Clarksville’s first local Red Cross chapter. Brenda’s most significant achievement, though, is her role in the creation and operation of the First Woman’s Bank of Tennessee. Opening its doors on October 6, 1919, First Woman’s Bank was the first bank in the United States to be directed, managed and staffed entirely by women. The bank was created during the women’s suffrage movement, at a time when many women desired a way to bank separately from either their husbands or their fathers. Welcoming deposits from men and women, the sensational new bank collected a deposit of nearly $20,000 dollars the first day that they were open for business.
Wilma Glodean Rudolph, Athlete
Born the 20th of 22 children, Wilma Rudolph weighed only 4.5 pounds at birth. Sickly throughout her childhood, she developed pneumonia then polio at age four, leaving her temporarily paralyzed. Regarding her infantile paralysis, Wilma said, “My doctors told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.” By the time of her days at Burt High School, Wilma became well-known in Clarksville with her basketball accolades frequently featured in local newspapers. Only one year after being recruited to Tennessee State University's track and field team, Wilma competed in the 1956 Olympic Games where she was the youngest member of the track and field team. She earned bronze in Melbourne Australia in the women’s 400-meter relay. Four years later, Wilma because the first woman from the U.S. to receive three gold medals in a single Olympics game. She earned the coveted medals in Rome in 1960 in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter relays.
Wilma was informed that upon her return to Clarksville, the city would hold a parade and ceremony held for her. She kindly informed the event coordinators that she was only willing to be there if her friends and family were welcome in a bi-racial, unsegregated event. The coordinators agreed, and in turn, Clarksville hosted its first large gathering that involved people of all races.
Pat Head Summitt, Athlete/Coach
Growing up on a farm instilled perseverance and an excellent work ethic in Pat Head Summitt from an early age. As a college basketball player, she was determined to compete in the 1976 Olympic Games, the first year that women would play Olympic basketball – despite a knee injury that doctors believed would be the end of her career. She persevered and earned a silver medal in that summer games then coached the US Women’s Basketball Team to a gold medal in 1984 in Los Angeles. At the time, Pat was the first U.S. Olympian to both win a medal of her own and coach a medal-winning team.
Shortly after graduating college, Pat accepted an offer as head coach of the University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball team. She had never led a single practice and was “absolutely overwhelmed and scared to death.” Pat again persevered and became one of the greatest basketball coaches in history. This was the beginning of her legacy. In her 38 seasons of coaching, she produced a record of 1,098 wins to only 208 losses. At the time of her retirement, Pat had coached more winning NCAA games than any other men’s or women’s basketball coach had at that time. Throughout her coaching career, her teams won eight NCAA National Championships and came in second on five occasions. Fourteen of the women Pat coached went on to play in the Olympic Games, and 34 went on to play in the WNBA.
Her list of accomplishments is many. In 2012, Pat retired from her position as head coach of the Lady Vols. She passed away in Knoxville in 2016. Pat's legacy is memorialized at the Pat Head Summitt Legacy Park in Clarksville's Liberty Park with a bronze statue and interpretative display of her life story.
Lenora Witzel, Photographer
For almost three decades, Clarksvillians climbed the dark, narrow staircase at 132 1/2 Franklin Street to face the foreboding Leonora Witzel. Some did so with confidence; many entered Miss Nora's photographic studio with a little fear. To most Clarksvillians, Miss Nora was an eccentric, an oddly dressed, "mannish" woman doing a man's business. Most had no idea that suicide, scandal and sly suggestions of sexual impropriety had shaped her life as she provided for her mother, her grandmother, and a cousin in a time when job choices for women were limited.
Nora documented the people and places of post-WWI Clarksville. She photographed the usual bridges and birthday portraits but also continued her fascination with outdoor photography. She climbed railroad trestles for unusual views of the Cumberland, and she began to experiment with light and tinting and other techniques of the American Pictorialists, a group of photographers who consciously separated themselves to become "artists." Shortly after her mother’s death in 1929, Nora opened her own photographic studio and continued taking pictures well into her 70's.
A memorial statue of Nora in her typical attire is at 3rd Street & Millennium Plaza. Her cameras and negatives are part of the collection of the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center. Her greatest legacy, however, still hangs on countless walls and fills countless albums in Clarksville homes - - her photographic memories of three decades of Clarksvillians.
Dorothy Dix, Writer & Columnist
Elizabeth Meriwether, more famously and internationally known as Dorothy Dix, a popular advice columnist, did not have a formal school experience as a young girl. When a stranger came to their home seeking shelter, he used their grandfather’s expansive library collection to teach her classics such as Dickens and Shakespeare. Later, when she enrolled in The Female Academy of Clarksville, she developed her fondness for writing. She graduated from the academy at 16, having established herself as an exceptional voice among her peers.
On a trip to the Gulf Coast, she met Eliza Jane Nicholson, the owner of New Orleans’s newspaper, The Picayune, and the first female publisher of a daily metropolitan newspaper in the nation. Nicholson purchased her first story, “How Chloe Saved the Silver,” from Meriwether. She explored different subjects for the paper until she was eventually asked to write an advice column, adopting the pen name, Dorothy Dix.
Dix became massively popular through her advice column, which was soon renamed “Dorothy Dix Talks.” She attracted the attention of the New York Journal and was offered a job reporting crime. She spent 17 years interviewing murderers and giving reports on popular trials around the world while continuing to write a regular advice column, Dix pioneered the way for advice columns, and her legacy can be seen today in columns such as “Dear Abby” and “Ask Ann Landers.”
Caroline Gordon, Author
Caroline Gordan was the only female enrolled in her father’s Clarksville Classical School for Boys. She continued her education at Bethany College in West Virginia where she graduated with a degree in Greek. She returned home to teach at Clarksville High School, then began writing for the Chattanooga news. While here, she became involved with the Fugitive Writers, a group of influential early twentieth-century poets and literary scholars at Vanderbilt University. She married “fugitive” Allen Tate and the couple took up residence in New York, England, and France, becoming prominent figures in the American modernist movement. Caroline and her husband returned to Clarksville in 1931, the same year she completed her first novel, Penhally. Caroline continued writing novels until she retired in 1979. During her time at her Clarksville home, BenFolly, she and Tate entertained literary notables such as Robert Lowell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, T. S. Eliot, Robert Penn Warren, and Ford Madox Ford. It served as a refuge for many of her fellow modernist writers, providing a place free of distraction and criticism. Her contributions to the literary community are significant, both in the writing that she provided and the space for other writers that she provided.