Jessica McCrary has wanted to teach for as long as she can remember. “Ever since I got a ‘teacher kit’ when I was little, it was something I knew I wanted to be. I can’t picture myself pursuing another major.”
Jessica’s mother can vouch for her daughter’s calling to the classroom. “Jessica always wanted to be a teacher,” said Susan McCrary. “I remember how she would line up her stuffed animals and dolls and play school. She never wavered in that desire, not one bit.”
Jessica is an education major who will graduate in 2014 with certification to teach Pre K through fourth grade and special education. It is hardly surprising that she feels so strongly drawn to the field, since intellectual and academic achievement are defining characteristics of her family legacy.
Jessica comes from a long line of scholars stretching back to her great-grandmother, Mary Catherine Hobday, the daughter of an Episcopal minister. Born in 1897 in Danville, VA, Hobday attended what was then Virginia State College and graduated with a degree in home economics. She went on to teach at the college, married Lionel Ollivierre and with him raised nine children. Originally from Trinidad, Jessica’s great-grandfather studied at Oxford before coming to the United States, and his brother, Donald, was the first black student admitted to the medical school at the University of Edinburgh where a plaque bearing his name bears witness to his extraordinary achievement.
The third of those nine children is Carmen Ollivierre Lewis, Jessica’s grandmother. Lewis is a retired pediatric nurse practitioner who attended Mercy Douglas Hospital Nursing School, class of 1946, and earned her B.S.N. from the University of Pennsylvania. Her siblings are similarly distinguished, with one brother who earned two master’s degrees and served as a diplomat under the Kennedy administration, and one who is still working in Naval Intelligence; a sister, Muriel, who went to music school; Mary, who taught home economics; and Ethel, an attorney who worked with the Justice Department and who is also retired. “There are only three of us left now,” said Lewis. “My brother Danny, my sister Ethel, and me.”
Lewis decided she wanted to become a nurse when she had her tonsils out as a child. “I saw the nurses in those white dresses and I told my mother I would love to have a white dress like theirs. She told me I had to go to school and study hard if that’s what I wanted to do.”
And that’s exactly what Lewis did. In 1942, she went to Temple University for a semester, brushing up on subjects she knew she would need when she entered nursing school the following year. “We stayed on campus for nursing school,” said Lewis, “and one of the things we did every morning after saying our prayers was look at our four-year calendars and say what we were going to accomplish that day. We used to call it our inspiration.”
That kind of positive focus served Lewis well. “It was tough for a black woman,” she said. “They didn’t want us around.”
On one of her job interviews, Lewis was told that, if hired, she would have to eat in a separate dining area. Undeterred, she eventually interviewed and was hired at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where she worked until 1954. One of the first questions she asked the nursing director was why they hadn’t hired any black nurses. When the director told her it was because none had applied, Lewis responded, “Well, they have now.”
When she arrived early for work on her first day, she went looking for the office she had been told would be ready for her. “The cleaning lady was still in there,” said Lewis, “so I knocked on the door and asked if this was the office for Ms. Carmen Lewis. She said, ‘Yes, but she’s not here yet.’ And I said, ‘Oh, yes she is.’ And the woman fell back into a chair and said, ‘I heard you were coming, but I never thought you would look like you do.’ That was the flavor at that particular time. But it was a pleasure working at Children’s Hospital. I loved it there.”
Lewis took a break from her career when she had her daughters, Kathleen and Susan, then returned to professional life in 1960, this time with the City of Philadelphia as a nurse practitioner in the city’s pediatric clinic. Advanced training for her new responsibilities came from courses at the University of Pennsylvania and lectures at Johns Hopkins. Lewis ran the department for the last 15 years she was there until she retired to care for her husband, James Boyd Lewis, who passed in 1986. “He was such a loving man,” she said. “We were married for 39 years and 10 months, and that was the best marriage God ever put together.”
That blessed union produced Susan McCrary, Jessica’s mother, who sees her family’s emphasis on education as simply their way, but not at all remarkable. “I never felt any pressure, but it was always the expectation way back when that we would do well in high school and then go off to college. I never thought there was anything special about our family because everyone went to college. That was just the way things were.”
Susan and sister Kathleen attended Merion-Mercy Academy in Merion Station where they both excelled and won college scholarships. Kathleen went on to major in political science at Boston College, and Susan studied psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, part of her academic award being the prestigious Mayor’s Scholarship.
After graduating, Susan did some counseling work at Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia, but was soon hired by Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company to be trained as a computer programmer. “I took the test, passed, and went to work for them.”
After more than 20 years as a database specialist, Susan moved into a new career as assistant administrator at St. Ignatius Nursing Home in Philadelphia. “I was ready to move on from IT,” she said. “I wanted to do something a little more meaningful to me, and this just felt right.”
Working as a nursing home administrator requires state and federal certification exams and ongoing education to keep the required licensure current, which must be renewed every two years. For Susan, the effort is more than worth it. “The reason I get up in the morning is to be there and make sure the residents have the best quality of life possible. Our mission at St. Ignatius is to minister to the poor elderly, and it makes a difference in my life to see that they are happy, well fed, and living out the last years of their lives in a nice environment.”
Jessica is clearly following in her family’s high-achieving footsteps. When she graduated from Upper Darby High School, she won a math award for Outstanding Accomplishment in Advanced Algebra and Trigonometry, and the Ruth M. Longacre Memorial Scholarship, given to a student planning to major in education. When she received the honors at graduation, her grandmother was in the audience, seated next to Jessica’s brother Ryan, a 2011 graduate of Temple and employee of The Vanguard Group. Carmen Lewis held her grandson’s hands in hers and said, “Your father is looking down on us right now and is so proud.”
Jessica’s father, Guy McCrary, died 22 days before she was born. “I remember Susie saying that out of this tragedy will come a blessing,” said Lewis. “And Jessica is a blessing.”
“My daughter never knew him,” said Susan. “Ryan was 5, so he remembers a little. I had so much support from my mother and my sister and from my husband’s family. The three of us may have lived in our own place, but we were by no means on our own. I could not have come this far without all of them.”
Jessica is quick to add, “The most important thing my family has given me is unconditional love. My family has always been there for me through the bad times and the good times, and have never stopped loving me. I don’t know what I would do without their love and support.”
Perhaps the importance of those close family bonds is one of the reasons Jessica finds Immaculata such a good fit.
“I chose Immaculata mainly because of the environment,” she said. “I went to a big high school and I was looking for a small college where I would feel comfortable. Immaculata is such a friendly school. It has such a warm atmosphere that I immediately felt at home when I got here.”
Though IU is in her “comfort zone” as far as size and surroundings, Jessica continues to uphold the family tradition of working hard to maintain academic excellence. Having made the Dean’s List for fall 2011, spring 2012 and fall 2012, she will be inducted into the Honor Society in April.
“My family always impressed upon me that with a good education I could do anything,” said Jessica. “I remember my grandmother telling me about when she first started college and she was set up to room with a woman. When the woman found out my grandmother was a black woman, she refused to live with her. However, my grandmother did not get discouraged because of this. She continued her education and eventually achieved her dream of becoming a nurse.”
Jessica’s dream is to secure a teaching job right after graduation. “My dream school is my old grade school, Waldron Mercy Academy. I would love to teach either second or third grade. I would also love to get my master’s, but not before working for a couple of years first.”
And if she had only one word to describe the women in her family? Jessica doesn’t have to think long to answer. “I would have to say inspirational.”