The Cole Sisters, by Pamela Wimbley
I am one of the 431 Cinderellas of the Adult Education Center (AEC) who graduated in 1971. I am also one of four sisters who attended, at different times, and graduated. I think of our attendance at AEC as “a legacy” which began with the first graduate, my sister, Carol. If memory serves me correctly, it was in 1965 when Carol learned of the Adult Education Center and its efforts through a friend. At the time she was a 21-year old dishwasher at a local restaurant, not looking to remain in that line of work. Carol was not accepted because she did not meet the criteria – she did not have children, nor was she on welfare, the program’s targeted market. When an accepted candidate later dropped out, what we call “divine intervention” occurred and Carol was selected as the replacement. I believe the program’s duration was nine months for completion, and the government paid a $65 per week stipend – perhaps a necessary incentive. Unknown at the time, with her acceptance, our lives would forever change. Carol’s success at AEC led to the next three of us attending and to later experience our own success.
I was a teenager at the time and I remember the nightly pecking on the manual typewriter Carol rented to increase her typing speed to the required 32/wpm. It was a sweet lullaby that would sing in my ears until I fell off to sleep. Whether it was the constant clickety-clack of the keys hitting against the paper as she spelled each word aloud; the ping of the bell signifying she had come to the end of the margin, or the sound of the carriage return to start anew, it was music to my ears. There was also her daily routine of practicing the shorthand strokes, enunciating the sound as she made the stroke on her steno pad. I am being facetious, but I think I understood verbal shorthand before I learned the strokes.
When Carol graduated we could not have been more proud of her and her achievement. Carol had a new walk -- thanks to the Charm class (that taught us how to walk straight and upright); a new talk – kudos to the speech class, and she was a powerhouse of enthusiasm and confidence with her newly acquired skills in Gregg shorthand, typing and other courses, including telephone training. Carol would speak often and with much respect about “Mrs. Geoffray.” While she admired all of the teachers, she held Mrs. Geoffray in particular high esteem. She saw her first as a mother of a large family (same as ours) and secondly as someone who wanted to impact the lives of others. By the time I started at the AEC, I was well acquainted with Mrs. Geoffray. Following in Carol’s footsteps, my next to the eldest sister, Brenda became a student; followed by Eunice in 1969, and finally me in 1971. I was the last in the family to attend. Neighbors saw us and were impressed, and we made our parents proud. One of those neighbors later became a student and was a graduate in the final class, as well as one of my dearest high school classmates and friend, Linda Phoenix.
In 1965 when the school first opened, it was during a time when cultural changes were occurring nationally. It was a time when Black pride and black awareness was sweeping across the country; young men were being drafted for the Viet Nam war; and protests and turmoil of every kind were seemingly the norm. Black women, in particular, were coming into the forefront as fashion models featured in magazines; there was the first Black in a popular TV series, “Julia” starring Diahann Carroll as a single mother and professional nurse; and Angela Davis was in the news as a militant activist. More Black women were choosing to style their hair naturally in an “afro” as a statement of racial pride. The Cole sisters were no different. When Carol decided to sport an “afro”, so did we. She was our sister, but more our role model.
Of all the classes, I think everyone would agree charm class was the favorite; it was for me. In this class we were taught the importance of wearing the proper “foundations” (undergarments that is – slips, girdles and bras, can you imagine); how a simple scarf could change the look of a dress (if you had only one good dress to wear, change the accessories); how shaving your legs and underarms and wearing hosiery (pantyhose) without a run were the norm in corporate America; and to keep your shoes polished at all times.
One of my most vivid recollections is how long and hard the typing teacher worked to teach me the “home-row” keys. I was a good “hunt and peck” typist (thanks to the rented manual typewriter I used in Carol’s absence). I could type pretty fast using my two index fingers, alas, I would soon learn that was not the correct way to type. The first time I was able to type 32/wpm with fewer than six typos, and without looking at the keyboard, she and the entire class applauded me. Her method was to have me type repeatedly, 3-letter words she made a list of, then 4-letter words that encouraged me to remember the home row keys, to spell as I typed, and to use my “little fingers”.
A Song In Spite of Myself
Never love with all your heart; it only ends in aching…
and bit by bit to the smallest part, that organ will be breaking.
Never love with all your mind, it only ends in fretting
in musing o’er sweet thoughts behind –
too poignant for forgetting.
Never love with all your soul, for such there is no ending.
For a mind that frets may find control and a shattered heart find mending.
Give but a grain of the heart’s rich seed,
confine some under cover and when love goes bid him Godspeed
And find another lover!
Another teacher who had an impression on me, was a nun from St. Mary’s Dominican College who taught speech. On one occasion she shared a poem that I have memorized, to this day. She shared that she thought it was a poem written by Countee Cullen, a Black poet, as it was written in a style similar to how he wrote, but the author was unknown. It was entitled “A Song In Spite of Myself.” Since, I have become interested in learning more about Countee Cullen. The seed was planted by her and developed my love of poetry. I have shared this poem countless times.
For me, the AEC has served as evidence of how positive influence and enforced class structure produced the successful results in changing the course of the lives of the students. And while wanting all of this, and more for us, the administrator and teachers were dealing with cultural differences, circumventing negative attitudes, and keeping students on target to completion; and above all, securing employment for all students in a society where “natural” styles and minorities were not openly accepted. The school was breaking new ground and we learned that compromise would be necessary to get a foot in the door.
My three sisters who attended AEC before me went on to have successful careers. Carol was employed with Shell Oil Company; Brenda became one of the first Black CRT Operators at Charity Hospital, and Eunice, was somewhat of a “rock star.” She was the first student ever offered employment prior to graduation (with AMOCO Oil Company), but waited until graduation before accepting. She had a “sponsor” in the form of Ms. Wanda Nichols, a top level employee at Amoco who was her supervisor and mentor, exposing her to a corporate life that would further develop her skills and business image.
My first employment was with the Shell Oil Company Data Processing Division located at the foot of Canal Street in the International Trademark (ITM) building. I got my “feet wet” in the mailroom as a mail clerk delivering mail. But to keep my “hard-learned” typing skills up to par, I would volunteer to type the metal vendor plates used at the service stations to imprint the station’s name on credit card purchases. These machines were loud, to the point of bursting an ear drum, but I persevered and would punch as many of these metal plates as I could using my ramp speed of 32/wpm. Unbeknown to me, it was revealed my efforts were observed and led to my being the sole mailroom employee selected to relocate to Houston, Texas with the data processing division move. I was in the first group to relocate in March, 1972. My assignment was to recreate and setup the mailroom operations as they were in New Orleans. Mission accomplished. I was all of 19 years of age, relocating to a big new city where I had no family, no car, but I had “will” and “grace” on my side. I was ready and excited about my new life.
The skills I learned have carried me far. While marriage presented the opportunity for me to work in St. Croix, USVI, New Jersey and New York; it was the skills acquired at the AEC that got me hired. In New York while most of the secretaries received their training at a prominent secretarial training school, where they were taught speed-writing, I knew Gregg shorthand. It became a “plus” for me. I competed with graduates from schools far greater than the AEC. On top of my “elite” training I used my “ables” – the things I was “able” to do. I was “capable”, “reliable” and “trainable.” To improve my letter writing, I was “able” to use my filing skills. As I filed I read the previous and responding correspondence to develop letter writing structure. It was in New Jersey and New York where I enjoyed my greatest satisfaction as a secretary. After losing an opportunity to work at Columbia University, I started a free-lance secretarial service catering to those who needed a part-time secretary and students who needed papers typed. This, too, improved my skill set. I became a “reliable” source for typing assistance and I “re-trained” myself. My business was at its peak when I decided to return home in 1979.
Returning south relegated me to positions with little more than the responsibilities of a file clerk. “Free-lance” was not common here, and though I was secretary to the Director of Human Resources he was none too comfortable with my typing “classified” papers. I then bid on a position that became available in the legal department and got it. The general counsel hired me because as he stated, he knew “I had no previous legal secretarial experience”, but he “saw something” in me. (I was trainable.) This same lawyer taught me to use the law library and encouraged me to join the Houston Legal Secretaries Association, which I did; as well as Professional Secretaries International (PSI) and later I enrolled in paralegal training and received certification in 1985. I was a legal secretary for over 10 years.
Looking back to when it all started, I realize what a task it was for Dr. Geoffray and all the teachers, who took personal pride in, and care of all the students. They instilled in us their hopes and expectations. They wanted us to be successful, above all else, but also to become vocal ambassadors, curators, and positive examples of what the school stood for – producing women who would be productive in the workforce and examples for their families to follow. We were the hope and dream for the continuation of the Adult Education Center, and for those who had invested in the school’s success.
Well done! “Well done is better than well said.” But “well done, my good and faithful servants.” You delivered 141 Cinderellas out of the soot and ash of poverty and mediocrity. You trained us to develop and master the skills necessary to compete with the best and finest secretaries; and then to excel beyond what we were destined to do, to become who we were capable of becoming. I owe much to Dr. Alice Geoffray, her family who had to sacrifice much of their mother with us, and who now strive to keep her dream alive, to tell HER STORY; and to all the wonderful teachers, mentors and investors who poured so much of themselves into the “school that wouldn’t die” so that, we the graduates, could live a life “fully-filled.”
Carol F. Cole McKendall
Following graduation from AEC, Carol worked at Shell Oil Company, and was later employed with the government in various programs to assist New Orleans residents in impoverished areas. She married her high school sweetheart, Alvarez McKendall in 1972 and they had three daughters. Carol became a “stay-at-home mom” to raise her daughters. One daughter, Angela, passed away in 1998 and their two remaining daughters, Alicia and Trishana, along with her only grandson, Dylan, all reside in Raleigh, NC. Alvarez resides in Slidell, LA where the family relocated after Hurricane Katrina. Carol’s eldest daughter, Alicia, works at Duke University Hospital and her youngest, Trishana holds a masters degree in social science. She is a social worker in North Carolina. Her grandson, who shares Carol’s love for cooking, is currently enrolled in college where he studies business administration, and hopes to one day become a chef and own a vegan restaurant. Carol passed away on May 7, 2012.
Brenda Joyce Cole
Brenda worked for Charity Hospital in New Orleans following graduation, and also worked in government with various programs designed to assist the needy. Brenda passed on March 11, 2015. She and Carol were the only two who returned to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and were extremely close. Brenda has two sons who reside in the family home in New Orleans and both work in the restaurant industry in New Orleans.
Eunice M. Cole Falls
Eunice attended Southern University in New Orleans (SUNO) part-time; was married in 1973 to Edward A. Falls, Sr. They purchased a home in New Orleans East where they raised their two children: Edward A. Falls, Jr. and Loren V. Falls. Edward passed away in 2001. He had 30+ years as a postman at the time of his death. Following Hurricane Katrina, Eunice determined it best to remain in Atlanta, GA where both her children and grandchildren were now living. Her son, Edward is a graduate of Southern University with a B.A. in Finance and is currently employed with a non-profit in Atlanta, GA. He is married to Evelyn Burruss Falls and they have three sons, Edward A. Falls, III (Trey), Elliott, and Elijah (all under the age of 11 years). Her daughter, Loren Falls Terrel is married to her childhood sweetheart, Lawrence Terrel, III. She is a graduate of The University of New Orleans (UNO) and holds a masters degree in Spanish. Loren is a Spanish teacher at the high school level and has five children: Lawrence Terrel, IV; Logan, Lawson, Luke, and Lila. Lawrence, the oldest, will graduate high school on May 26th and has a 4-year scholarship to a college in Lagrange, GA. Eunice passed September 19, 2017, in Jonesboro, GA.
Pamela A. Cole Wimbley
After graduation, I did attend on a part-time basis, both Rutgers University College (evening classes) and Fordham University in New York where I majored in communication. I did not graduate college. My son is a graduate of Southern Polytechnic State University, now Kennesaw State University and lives and works in Tuscon, AZ as a software developer with his wife, a graduate of Georgia State University.