Compassionate Command

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Sharon Richie-Melvan ’71 made history at Wagner College 40 years ago. Since then, she has lived up to her life’s promise.

By Lee Manchester

Wagnerians first came to know a hard-working Philadelphia girl named Sharon Richie in 1967, when she matriculated as a nursing student. Two years later — 40 years ago this fall — she made College history as Wagner’s first African-American homecoming queen.

“I learned early on that I was never going to get the assignment I asked for,” she says. “I always got something better.”

This is the story of the remarkable life — the “something better” — that Sharon Richie-Melvan has found since leaving Grymes Hill in 1971.

Growing up Richie

William Richie Sr. and Helen Lucille Richie raised their seven children — four girls, three boys — in the projects of South Philly. Bill worked in a sporting goods store; Helen stayed home with the kids.

“My dad instilled in us the belief that no one was better than you,” Sharon Richie-Melvan says.

“Our family had a drive to excel, to rise above our circumstances,” adds her younger sister, Marsha Richie Williams. “Even when we were living in the projects, we had a plaque on the wall. A man was sitting in a boat, fishing, and the caption read, ‘If you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?’ We changed it to read, ‘If you’re so smart, why ain’t you a Richie?’

“She always had that drive; there’s always been a moving force about her,” Williams says. “Sharon was always ‘The General,’ was always encouraging us, and when I looked at her, I knew I could achieve anything.”

Sharon and her brother, Bill Jr., were chosen to attend Philadelphia’s highly selective public magnet schools, which at the time had a mostly Caucasian student body.

“It was a revelation for me to learn that most people didn’t live in the projects,” Richie-Melvan says.

When the time came for Sharon to find a college, her school’s first-ever African-American guidance counselor steered her in the right direction, with help from the NAACP.

“They sent out a list of colleges who needed black students,” Richie-Melvan recalls. “I wanted a liberal arts college with a nursing program located close to Philadelphia, and Wagner offered a very tight financial package of scholarships and work-study — just enough to make it possible for me to enroll.”

Queen Sharon the First

“In the fall of 1967, when I first enrolled, the College had eight or nine black students,” Richie-Melvan says. “By the time I was a junior, in 1969, there were 83.”

Though most of her energies went into her studies, Richie-Melvan was also an active member of Black Concern, an African-American student group. In the fall of 1969, as homecoming approached, Black Concern decided to take an unprecedented step: It would put forward a candidate for homecoming queen in the contest previously reserved for Greek organizations.

As one of the few female upperclassmen in Black Concern, Richie-Melvan was drafted for the role.

Lonnie Brandon ’78, the group’s president, recalls the astute electioneering that probably won Sharon her crown.Sharon_Queen

“There were 83 black students out of a student body of 2,400,” Brandon says. “We couldn’t win with just the black students’ votes. We enlisted a group of white students who otherwise wouldn’t have voted for anyone. You’d probably call them ‘hippies.’”

On the night of October 30, 1969, when the votes were counted, Sharon Richie had won.

“I was shocked!” she says. “I couldn’t believe it!”

But one of Richie-Melvan’s roommates, Mary Ann Murphy Pekaar ’71, wasn’t surprised at all.

“There was a lot of excitement generated around that,” Pekaar says, “but I don’t think it was any surprise that Sharon won. She was vivacious — just a real person.”

Falling in Love with the Army

While she was still in college, Richie-Melvan had signed up for a three-year tour of duty in the Army, more out of financial desperation than anything else. It proved to be a fateful decision on more than one count.

First of all, the Army’s scholarship and stipend allowed her to quit her part-time jobs and focus on her studies. “For the first time, I made the Dean’s List,” she says. “Before, I had been a B or C student.”

The summer after her graduation from Wagner College, Second Lieutenant Sharon Richie reported to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, for basic training in the Army Nurse Corps.

“After just one week in basic, I told them, ‘I want to sign up for that 20-year program.’ There was something about the camaraderie of the Army that grabbed me right away,” Richie-Melvan says. “We’d go to class from 7:30 to 4 and the instructors, all lieutenant colonels, were so tough on us — but at 5 o’clock, we’d all go over to the officers’ club, and you’d be dancing with your instructors. Then we’d go back to the barracks, study, sleep, get up and do it all over again. I loved it!”

And the Army loved her back.

For 11 years, Richie-Melvan cultivated her career as a military nurse, starting in an orthopedic ward with Vietnam amputees at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. After taking a year off active duty, with pay, to finish her M.S. in psychiatric nursing at the University of Texas at San Antonio, she helped break ground for the Army’s first residential drug and alcohol treatment program in Stuttgart, Germany, before returning to the States for a tour in the Pentagon’s Office for Drug and Alcohol Abuse.

A bulletin-board flyer, however, sent Major Richie on a detour — to the White House.

Leadership at a Higher Level

It was her husband, Richie-Melvan says, who saw a flyer on a bulletin board advertising the White House Fellows program while the couple was living in Germany. He thought the prestigious leadership program, which allows young men and women to work for a year at the highest levels of the federal government, sounded like something Richie-Melvan would enjoy.

In 1981, the Army personnel office rejected her application, claiming that she was too young for the fellowship. When she shared that information with the head of her office at the Pentagon, Brigadier General William Louisell, he said, “I want that application.”

SharonColinThe following year, Richie-Melvan was one of the 14 young professionals selected from among 1,200 applicants nationwide to become a White House Fellow. She spent her fellowship year working with Richard Williamson, President Reagan’s assistant for intergovernmental affairs.

For some Army White House Fellows — like a young lieutenant colonel named Colin Powell, who had made his first foray into the wider world of government service as a White House Fellow 10 years earlier — the experience changed their careers.

“As White House Fellows, we were taught that government is here to serve everyone,” Richie-Melvan says. “An ordinary person ought to be able to write a letter to the president and get an answer. That’s the kind of government we were reaching for.”

A Service Ethic

That service ethic guided Richie-Melvan through the next stage of her military career.

In 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Richie returned to active duty in the Army Nurse Corps, serving in various positions at several duty stations. At San Francisco’s Letterman Army Medical Center, Richie-Melvan was chief of staff for more than 500 Army nurses. As Charles P. Garcia writes in a recent book, Leadership Lessons of the White House Fellows: Learn How To Inspire Others, Achieve Greatness and Find Success in Any Organization, she was known for her personal touch: meeting every nurse, helping them achieve their personal and professional goals, and sending congratulatory notes to individuals celebrating their promotions, birthdays, anniversaries, and births.

“The bottom line was they knew they could always call me to help them if they needed it,” Richie-Melvan told Garcia. “At their exit briefings, when they were changing duty stations, many staff members shared that they knew I cared about them and that I made a difference in their lives.”

Later, as chief nurse for the Army Recruiting Command, she visited nursing schools around America, offering students the same opportunity that had started her on a military career at Wagner College.

“I felt like I had birthed these hundreds of nurses,” Richie-Melvan says. Fifteen of those Army nurses, now stationed across the globe, made her the godmother of their children.

In 1986, at the age of 36, Richie-Melvan was promoted to full colonel — at that time, the youngest officer of that rank in the entire Army.

“She had the ‘colonel stance,’ the command attitude, and she knew what she was doing,” says sister Marsha Williams, “but there was always that compassion in the middle of it.

“As long as she has something to give, she’ll find a way to give it.”

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Reaching Out

Since Richie-Melvan’s retirement from the Army in 1996, her giving has in no way slowed down.

During her first year of retirement, she completed a Ph.D. in organizational behavior and development at George Washington University and began working as a consultant. For several years, she lived in the United Arab Emirates while working on a project to upgrade military health services for Emirate soldiers and dependents.

She has also stayed intimately connected to what she calls her “forever family” in the Army Nurse Corps. Several years ago, Richie-Melvan was attending the annual convention of the Army Nurse Corps Association when the group’s president announced that she wanted ANCA members to reach out to nurses coming back from combat hospitals in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I had already written about the experiences of combat nurses returning from Vietnam,” Richie-Melvan says. “That was the subject of my big paper for the Army War College. At the convention, I decided to do phone interviews with Iraq and Afghanistan nurses around the country.”

In August 2006, the ANCA newsletter started publishing Richie-Melvan’s interviews in a column entitled “Lean On Me.” Later this year, Arnica Creative Services will publish her book, Angel Walk: Nurses at War, based on these columns and her previous research.

For Richie-Melvan, combat nurses are, indeed, angels. “I want you to know that you could meet one of these angels of the battlefield today in your church, at a school board meeting, or while shopping for groceries,” she writes in the book’s introduction.

For many, Richie-Melvan herself embodies this spirit of strength and service, whether she is providing for the needs of nervous employees whose company is being reorganized, checking in on her fellow church members as their prayer chaplain, or contributing to the local or national boards of the 370,000-member Military Officers Association of America.

“When she retired,” Marsha Williams says, “we gave her a rocking chair about two inches high, because we knew she’d never sit still.”