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Column: Beulah Rucker and other local women who made a big difference
Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

The coronavirus pandemic put a hold on almost everything. That’s why the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution wasn’t observed until a year later at the Northeast Georgia History Center.

The amendment passed Congress on June 4, 1919. But, it wasn’t until Aug. 18, 1920, before enough states ratified it, officially allowing women to vote. It’s hard to believe that for almost a century-and-a-half after July 4, 1776, American women were denied the ballot box.

The history center’s “Taste of History” toasted a few women who’ve made an impact on the community and the lives of others.

The story can’t be told enough of Beulah Rucker Oliver, who with little money of her own, helped educate students of all ages for most of her life. 

Overcoming obstacle after obstacle, she established elementary schools, an industrial school to train people for jobs such as builders or masons and later a night school for veterans. Her industrial school was aimed for Black people, who had few opportunities for good-paying jobs.

Her education legacy lives on through the Beulah Rucker Foundation and museum off Athens Highway in Gainesville.

Likewise, Helen Longstreet’s story is often told. She was the widow of Confederate Gen. James Longstreet and defended his honor in a book responding to critics of his actions at the Battle of Gettysburg.

However, she became her own person, establishing a number of firsts for women when they didn’t have the same opportunities as men in several areas. Helen Longstreet became the first female postmaster in Gainesville. She was a prime mover in getting a new post office, a building that still stands as part of the Federal Building complex between Washington and Spring streets in downtown Gainesville.

The environment and rights for women and Black people, including voting, were among her favorite causes. She fought Georgia Power Co.’s plans to dam the Tallulah River.

Helen Longstreet was the first woman to hold statewide office in Georgia as assistant state librarian, and she lobbied for legislation to allow women to hold the office of state librarian. 

She ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor against the powerful Herman Talmadge. She became an inspiration for women and the elderly when she worked as riveter for Bell Aircraft Corporation during World War II

Health care in Northeast Georgia benefitted from the many contributions of Ocie Pope, a Hall Countian who saw a shortage of nurses and did something about it. 

Working as a nurse herself, Pope had started her career at Georgia Baptist Hospital in Atlanta, where she helped put to sleep such celebrities as Al Capone, Gene Autry and war hero Eddie Rickenbacker. She joined the old 35-bed Downey Hospital in Gainesville in 1937. It had only 35 beds and in 1951, moved to the new 90-bed Hall County Hospital.

Pope pushed for a nursing school as part of the hospital, which is today’s Northeast Georgia Medical Center. That school was given her name before it became a part of Brenau University.

She also was the first female member of the Gainesville school board and Hall County Library board.

In addition to highlighting notable women in Northeast Georgia’s past, the history center also featured those alive today who continue to make history in their respective fields.

Like Pope, Carol Burrell is a giant in the health care industry as president and chief operating officer of the expanding Northeast Georgia Health System. She started out from high school studying medical technology and advanced through several health care positions before arriving in Gainesville.

Burrell said she always wanted to make a difference in whatever role she played, not caring as much about a title or money. She cites the “phenomenal growth” of the health system, which is beyond capacity in serving not only Hall, but neighboring counties. Her goal is to make health care easier for Northeast Georgia residents.

Martha Martin is a partner at Phil-Mart Transportation in Braselton. She started out with Furman Greer at Arrow Trucking after working for Joe Hatfield at Fieldale Farms. 

Working with truckers, she loved the opportunity to be involved with her own business. This has allowed her to be generous with her time and resources to benefit others, something that her parents taught her as a young child. 

One of Martin’s favorite projects is helping children in need through the local Rotary Club. Because of her efforts for 15 years, the club named its fundraising reverse raffle after her.

Martin’s philosophy is when you’re doing something for others, you’re doing something for yourself.

Martha Nesbitt is retired president of what was once Gainesville Junior College or Gainesville State College, now the Gainesville campus of the University of North Georgia.

Nesbitt said she found the college in great shape when she arrived with “nothing to fix.” 

Nesbitt and her staff did establish a minority affairs department and promoted English as a Second Language to enhance opportunities for Hispanic and Black students.

She remembers a student who left Cuba as a teenager and struggled at Georgia Tech before transferring to Gainesville State College. The staff helped him overcome language barriers, and he ended up earning straight A’s and was one of 25 students nationwide to be named an “outstanding community college student.”

The student, Juan Llanes, returned to Georgia Tech, made all A’s while completing his master’s degree, joined Microsoft and now works with another information technology company.

“That’s one of our major successes,” Nesbitt said. 

These ladies are just a small sample of the past and present women who have made a big difference in Northeast Georgia. This area is so rich in talent, many more names could be added.


Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326; email, johnnyvardeman@gmail.com. His column publishes weekly.

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