Adams-Ender, Clara 1939–
Clara Adams-Ender 1939–
Retired U.S. Army general, entrepreneur
On her way to achieving the rank of Brigadier General, Clara Adams-Ender forged a career studded with “firsts,” which included being the first army nurse to command a major army base. At the height of her career, she oversaw 22,000 nurses and was one of the most powerful women in the military. It was a long way from her humble days as a young African-American girl picking tobacco under the hot North Carolina sun. In her book, My Rise to the Stars: How a Sharecropper’s Daughter Became an Army General, Adams-Ender wrote that it was the very odds against her that bred her success. “The lessons [I learned in overcoming obstacles] were to be courageous, strong in your convictions, and never lose sight of the main goal. As I reflected, overcoming obstacles had been the story of my personal life and my career. Obstacles had really been opportunities to excel.”
Clara Mae Leach Adams-Ender was born on July 11, 1939, in Willow Springs, North Carolina. Her parents, Otha and Caretha Leach, were sharecroppers on a tobacco farm, and Adams-Ender, along with her nine siblings, spent much of her childhood alongside them in the fields. As a result she missed a lot of school. However, her parents, though lacking in formal education themselves, understood that it was only through education that their children could break free from the toils of farm work. Adams-Ender recalled in a interview with Notable Black American Women that her parents always reminded her, “You can do anything you want if you put your mind to it.” Young Clara Mae took this advice to heart and became an avid student. In order to make up her missed schoolwork, she had classmates give her assignments to the local bus driver, who would drop them off in the evening. She also began reading voraciously, going through close to 100 books during the summer recess. Her dedication paid off when she graduated second in her class from Fuquay Springs Consolidated High School at the age of 16.
Following graduation Adams-Ender wanted to study law, but her father felt nursing was a more suitable career choice for a young woman. He couldn’t have known just how far she would go in the field. In 1956 she enrolled in the nursing program at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (A & T) in nearby Greensboro. “For me, coming to A & T represented freedom,” the News & Record of Piedmont Triad, North Carolina, quoted her as saying during a 2001 speech to ROTC students at A & T. “Freedom to get away from that tobacco farm.” She continued, “There were no days that I woke up and said, ‘I don’t want to go to school today.’” While at A & T, Adams-Ender received an army scholarship in return for her enlistment following graduation. During her junior and senior years, she held the rank of private in the North Carolina Army Reserve, and just before graduating in 1961 she was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps—the beginning rank for an army officer.
At a Glance…
B orn on July 11, 1939, in Willow Springs, NC; daughter of Otha Leach and Caretha Bell Sapp Leach (tobacco farmers); married Dr. F. Heinz Ender, 1981; children: Sven Ingo. Education: North Carolina A & T State University, BS, nursing, 1961; University of Minnesota, MS, medical surgical nursing, 1969; Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS, master’s degree, military arts and sciences, 1976; diploma, management relations and leadership, 1982. Religion: Roman Catholic. Military Service: U.S. Army, brigadier general, 1961-93.
Career: U.S. Army, career officer, 1961-93: Army Nurse Corps and director of Personnel, Office of the Surgeon General, chief, 1987-91; Fort Belvoir, VA, commanding general, and Military District of Washington, DC, deputy commanding general, 1991-93; Georgetown University, adjunct professor; Oakland University, Rochester, MI, adj prof; author; CAPE Management Consulting, founder.
Selected memberships: Military Aide-de-Camp, State of Virginia, 2003–; Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Service, 1994–; fellow, American Academy of Nurses.
Selected awards: Distinguished Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster; Legion of Merit; Meritorious Service Medal with Three Oak Leaf Clusters; German Army, Cross of Honor in Gold.
Address: Office—CAPE Associates, Inc., 3088 Woods Cove Lane, Lake Ridge, VA 22192.
With a bachelor’s degree in nursing and an army commission, Adams-Ender eagerly embarked on her military career. In recalling how she had felt at the beginning of her career, she said in an interview with M, a publication of the University of Minnesota, “You get a real deep sense of doing something important.” Her first stop was Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, where she completed the Army Nurse Corps orientation course. Her first post was at Fort Dix, New Jersey, as a staff nurse in the intensive critical care unit (ICU) at Walson Army Hospital. In 1963, as the Vietnam War was heating up, Adams-Ender was sent to work as an ICU nurse with the 121st Evacuation Hospital in Korea, where she also worked in the ICU. She was never assigned to combat duty, and after 13 months returned to the United States to complete an advanced nursing course, again at Fort Sam Houston. In 1964 Adams-Ender became a surgical nursing instructor and ward chief at the base’s medical training center. It was her first experience with teaching, but she would prove to be a natural, and for the rest of her career—both military and civilian—teaching would be an essential part of her life. While stationed at Fort Sam Houston, Adams-Ender achieved one of many “firsts” in her career: she became the first woman in the U.S. Army to earn the Expert Field Medical Badge.
In 1967 Adams-Ender enrolled at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis to pursue graduate training in nursing. Though she told M, “I remember the school fondly, and I believe in its ideals and ideas,” it was in Minnesota that she first confronted racism. While growing up in North Carolina she had escaped a lot of the viciousness of racism, since both white and black sharecroppers were equally oppressed by the moneyed landowners. Later, while a student at A & T, she participated in lunch counter protests, but kept her focus on school books, not on racial politics. However, by 1967 Adams-Ender could no longer avoid the tide of racial discord that had engulfed the country. The civil rights movement was still unfolding, and the country was painfully adjusting. Martin Luther King had marched on Washington, the Voting Rights Act had passed, and a few brave black students had begun to desegregate Southern universities. “When I got to Minnesota, people were up in arms,” she recalled to M. “Many people had never seen an African-American person in their lives, but most had their opinions and most of them were bad.” She added, “I really did not realize the depth of hatred based on ignorance that existed. It was a very illuminating experience for me.” With a directness that would come to characterize her leadership style, Adams-Ender confronted the problem head-on. She joined a local priest and “[held] little sensitivity sessions. We did a lot in terms of enlightening people,” she recalled to M.
After earning a master’s degree in surgical nursing in 1969, Adams-Ender resumed her career as a military officer. Although she was a black female in a traditionally white male environment, Adams-Ender was not bothered. She confessed to M, “My own expectations for myself were so much greater than anyone else’s that I didn’t pay much attention to what was going on around me.” By that time she had already been promoted to the rank of captain. From 1969 to 1972 Adams-Ender served once again as a surgical nurse instructor, this time at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., the largest healthcare facility in the armed forces. She then moved up to the post of education coordinator at Walter Reed’s Institute of Nursing. At the same time she served as assistant chief of the department of nursing at Kimborough Army Hospital, located at nearby Fort Meade, Maryland. During this time Adams-Ender sailed through the rank of major and in May of 1975 was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Later that year Adams-Ender enrolled in the Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. When she graduated in 1976 she added three more “firsts” to her resume: first woman, first African-American woman, and first nurse to earn a master’s degree in military arts and sciences from the school. Her next post was that of inspector general at Fort Sam Houston’s Army Health Services Command. In 1978 she was transferred to West Germany, where she became chief of the department of nursing at the army’s 97th General Hospital in Frankfurt. Adams-Ender oversaw four ICUs at the hospital and actively worked to recruit and train skilled ICU nurses. The American hospital maintained close relationships with local German hospitals, and Adams-Ender was instrumental in the development of one of West Germany’s first neonatal ICUs. For her service, the German Army awarded Adams-Ender its Cross of Honor in Gold. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army promoted her to the rank of colonel. Before leaving Germany, she met F. Heinz Ender, an oral surgeon and orthodontist. The two were married in 1981 and later had a son, Sven Ingo.
Back in the United States, Adams-Ender became chief of nurse recruiting for the army at Fort Sheridan, Illinois. During this assignment, she took time off to attend the army’s prestigious War College and became the first African-American Nurse Corps officer to graduate from the school, earning a leadership diploma in 1982. In 1984 Adams-Ender scored another “first” when she became the first African-American nurse to hold the position of chief of nursing at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In August of 1987 Adams-Ender transferred to the Office of the Surgeon General in Falls Church, Virginia, where she became chief of the Army Nurse Corps. The following month she was promoted to the rank of brigadier general. According to Ebony she was the “second black to head command.” At the same time, Adams-Ender assumed the role of director of personnel for the Surgeon General. She was the first army nurse to hold this position. As the eighteenth commander to lead the Army Nurse Corps, Adams-Ender oversaw 22,000 nurses. Under her command, thousands of nurses were sent to battle during Operation Desert Storm in 1990 and 1991. “She was basically the top nurse in the Army,” an officer told the News & Record. “There’s not too much further you can get than that in the nurse corps.”
While that may have been true, Adams-Ender wanted to go further. Normally, after finishing a term as a corps chief, an officer retires. Adams-Ender became the first corps chief to remain on active duty as a general officer after her tenure. In 1991 she was appointed deputy commander for the military district of Washington, D.C., and commander of Fort Belvoir, Virginia, making her the first nurse in army history to become the commanding general of a major military base. In this role she oversaw 12,000 personnel and a budget of $90 million. Meanwhile, she did not abandon her love of teaching and held adjunct professorships in nursing at both Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.
In August of 1993, after a brilliant 32-year-long military career, Adams-Ender left the U.S. Army. During her retirement ceremony, composer Marge Wheeler conducted a performance of “The General Adams-Ender March,” a majestic musical piece created by Wheeler in honor of Adams-Ender. Following her retirement, Adams-Ender and her husband settled in the town of Lake Ridge, Virginia, where she soon wrote and self-published her autobiography, My Rise to the Stars: How a Sharecropper’s Daughter Became an Army General, along with co-author Blair Walker. As quoted on Walker’s website, prominent physician and author Dr. Benjamin Carson wrote of the book, “General Adams-Ender treats us to an intimate glimpse of the trials as well as the exhilaration associated with military life. She helps us to realize that our own drive, determination and hard work can guide us to the realization of our dreams. This is a great book for both ‘young’ and ‘old’ dreamers.” Adams-Enders also established CAPE Associates, an acronym for Caring for People with Enthusiasm. CAPE is a management consulting firm with an emphasis on developing motivation and leadership. “With CAPE, I’m trying to help make people stars. Not everyone can be a general, but everyone can be a star if you care about yourself and make sure you are dealing with folks with dignity and respect,” she told M. It is the same message she learned from her parents years ago while working in the tobacco fields. With another book in the works, as well as a very full schedule of seminars and speeches, it is a message that she plans on sharing.
(With Blair S. Walker) My Rise to the Stars: How a Sharecropper’s Daughter Became an Army General, CAPE Publishing, 2002.
Adams-Ender, Clara, and Blair S. Walker, My Rise to the Stars: How a Sharecropper’s Daughter Became an Army General, CAPE Publishing, 2002.
Black Enterprise, June 2002, p. 254.
Ebony, June 1989, p. 64.
Jet, October 21, 1991, p. 8.
News & Record (Piedmont Triad, NC), March 16, 2001, p. B3.
“Adams-Ender Saluted for Extraordinary Service,” NTI News, www.slackinc.com/nti/2003/tues.htm (May 23, 2003).
“Brigadier General Clara Adams-Ender (Ret.),” DefenseLink Biographies, www.defenselink.mil/specials/AfricanAm2003/ender.html (May 23, 2003).
“Clara Adams-Ender,” Army Nurse Corps, http://history.amedd.army.mil/ANCWebsite/18_Ender.html (May 23, 2003).
“Clara L. Adams-Ender,” BlackSeek, www.blackseek.com/bh/2001/208_CEnder.htm (May 23, 2003).
“Great (and Grateful) Grads,” M, www1.umn.edu/urelate/m/winter2002/greatgrads.html (May 23, 2003).
“Inspirational Memoir Recounts Lessons Learned on the Way Up,” Army Magazine, www.ausa.org/www/armymag.nsf/(reviews)/20025?OpenDocument (May 23, 2003).
“My Rise To The Stars,” Blair Walker Official Website, www.blairwalker.com/books.htm (May 23, 2003).
“Rise to the Stars,” OR Manager, www.ormanager.com/mtors/mtorsdocs/mtors02.pdf (May 23, 2003).
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