I have known many formidable women in my time, but none can hold a candle to the force of nature that is Nellie Dunaway Duke.
Governor Deal’s office called me almost four years ago to ask me to consider accepting an appointment to the Georgia Commission on Women. I asked all the important questions you ask when you get a call from someone wanting you to volunteer your time: What does the Commission do? What kind of time commitment are we talking? (I have learned to double this estimate.) With whom will I be working?
I do not remember the specifics of the answers to the first two questions, but I do remember hearing that Nellie Duke was the chair of the commission and that I would love working with her. I was encouraged to call her to find out more details, so I did. That began a friendship I will always cherish.
The first thing Miss Nellie told me was that she was born on International Women’s Day and was about to turn 81 years old. We chatted it up as if we were old friends catching up with the news instead of complete strangers who were soon to be working together. She talked my ear off, really, and I enjoyed every minute of it. We found out that we both played basketball as young women; in fact, she played semi-pro basketball in 1947-48. I was not quite that good, although I did play my freshman year in college. When her kids were young, she was knee-deep in all the things I am doing today like PTA, Girl Scout leadership, coaching, and school volunteer work. It was fun to talk about how things are different and how much they are the same this time around.
Obviously, I accepted the appointment. I really could not turn it down after talking to Miss Nellie. She has a knack for making you feel welcome and comfortable. She came to my swearing-in at the Governor’s Office and immediately pinned me with my nametag. Next thing I knew, I was attending meetings and finding myself put to work. That is how she operates.
Serving on the commission has been one of the most enriching experiences of my life, and I am grateful to Governor Deal for giving me this opportunity. I have had the good fortune to meet the kinds of people who are working on the front lines and dedicating themselves to making the world a better place. I sit and listen to them talk about the work they do and what motivates them to do it, and I always leave with a full heart, inspired to do more in my own tiny sphere of influence.
Many of these inspiring people are serving beside me on the Georgia Commission on Women. Led by Miss Nellie over the years, the commission has published a book called, “Women & the Law: A Guide to Women’s Legal Rights in Georgia,” commissioned studies on the status of women in Georgia, led a continuing awareness campaign on the dangers of osteoporosis, created a self-defense course, and worked with community partners to combat Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST) in our state. The stories these women tell of community events, sponsored studies, and meetings with legislators have proven to me that each individual can make a difference.
Some of my favorite stories, however, come from Miss Nellie, herself. She tells about trying to teach the other commissioners how to make jelly years ago at Commissioner Bette Rose Bower’s house. They all got to talking and laughing so much that they forgot about the strawberries simmering on the stove. The next thing they knew, the pot boiled over with molten strawberries streaming all over the stove and onto the floor. I think it took Bette Rose hours to get that sticky mess out of her stove.
My most favorite stories are Henry stories. Miss Nellie’s husband, Henry, was a mainstay of the commission. He suffered from Alzheimer’s disease the last years of his life, but he went everywhere with Miss Nellie and was at all of our meetings with a big smile and big hugs. Years ago, a local man who was unhappy with Miss Nellie’s advocacy for women in town woke Henry in the wee hours of the morning with a phone call to tell him he needed to get control of his busybody wife. Henry thanked the caller for his feedback and asked him when he was planning to go to bed that night. When the guy told him, Henry thanked him again and said that when he was good and asleep Henry was going to call and tell him how to run his life. Then he hung up the phone. Henry died last June, and we all miss him.
On Saturday, August 15, 2015, the commission met at our favorite lunch spot, Mary Mac’s Tea Room. It was a called meeting, but in addition to our current members, there were past members and friends of the commission present because Miss Nellie had some big news. After 21 years, she was stepping down as chair of the commission.
Our meeting was a celebration of the work and dedication of Nellie Duke in advancing the rights of women in Georgia and across the nation. She has been influential in achieving for us many of the rights we younger folks take for granted. As people stood to speak, a theme emerged. People talked about her kindness. They talked about her work ethic. They talked about her friendship and mentorship. They talked about the times she had stepped up to do something selfless for someone else. Everyone there had been touched by Miss Nellie in some way that they felt made them a better person. This is her legacy.
On Tuesday, November 17, 2015, we elected our slate of officers for the 2016-2018 term. Our vice-chair, Julianna McConnell, secretary, Dianne Rogers, and treasurer, Linda McWhorter, are all returning in their positions, but for the first time in 21 years, we have a new chair. I am excited and humbled to report that I am the one stepping into that position.
I will admit that I am feeling a little overwhelmed but honored that my fellow commissioners believe I can do this job. You will be hearing often from us in the coming months as we hone our vision and focus our mission for advocating for the women in our state. Miss Nellie’s hard work ethic and her commitment to service for the women of Georgia are a tall order to live up to, but her inspiration will guide us as we move into this new phase of our work.
In this season when we focus on gratitude, I am thankful for women like Miss Nellie who envisioned a better world for women and fought for it. I am thankful for the women on our commission who have dedicated themselves to continuing to realize that vision. And I am thankful for the opportunity to do my part to make Georgia a great place for women to live, work, and raise their families.
Karla Jacobs is a member of the Georgia Commission on Women. She lives in Marietta with her husband, two kids, a dog, and assorted fish.