A 1952 article in The Augusta Chronicle described the late Marguerite Stark Stelling as a “person of vivid personality and charm.”
Stelling had just been named Georgia’s most outstanding clubwoman, for her work with the Junior Women’s Clubs of Georgia. This accomplishment is one of many that inspired Stelling’s granddaughter, Elizabeth NeSmith, PhD, and daughter, Martha Hawkins, to establish the Stelling Leadership Award at Augusta University’s College of Nursing to honor Stelling and support promising nursing PhD students through scholarly leadership development.
“I wanted to acknowledge the female legacy of leadership,” NeSmith explained. “My grandmother was the director of Junior Women’s Clubs for the state of Georgia, and she was the women’s editor for The Augusta Chronicle at a time when women didn’t have many leadership roles, during the 1950s and ’60s.”
A leading lady in her own right, NeSmith is a three-time Augusta University alumna who has earned an impressive range of credentials, including RN, MSN and PhD. NeSmith serves the College of Nursing as chair and professor of the Department of Nursing Science and director of the Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing program. She is also involved in several research studies.
NeSmith spoke proudly of another female trailblazer in the family. Her aunt was an architect who built many houses in Augusta and also ran her own downtown business in the 1910s and 1920s. But it was Stelling who had the biggest influence on NeSmith’s life.
“She was such an inspiration for me,” said NeSmith of her grandmother. “I was very close to her, and she mentored me, so I wanted to tell her story and have others be inspired by her, too.”
Not only was Stelling vice president of the Georgia Federation of Women’s Clubs, director of the Junior Section from 1950-52 and women’s editor of The Augusta Chronicle, but she was also instrumental in the development of Teen Town, a place where Augusta youth could go to have wholesome fun. Teen Town offered safe places for teens to gather, dance to Top 40 music, sip soft drinks, play games or just spend time together.
“She taught me about leadership and about doing the right things,” recalled NeSmith fondly. “She taught me about respecting oneself.”
While Stelling was a community leader in her time, NeSmith also remembers her as a pillar in the family and describes her as beautiful, smart and proper.
“I have a picture of her on the steps of one of our family homes,” said NeSmith. “It was just a Sunday afternoon or something and she was holding babies and that kind of thing, but she had her hair in a French bun and was in a dress and heels while everyone else might have been in shorts and very casual.”
NeSmith’s wish for her grandmother’s life story to inspire future female leaders is coming to fruition. In November 2022, NeSmith, together with her mother and sister, presented the inaugural Stelling Leadership Award to nursing student Danielle Gibson.
“Being awarded the scholarship was an honor, as it honors a strong, professional woman who I can imagine was a pioneer for women in her time,” said Gibson. “I am a first-year PhD student, seeking a terminal degree later in life than most. So, hearing her story was inspiring to me.”
Gibson has used the scholarship money to help pay for attendance at the Southern Nursing Research Society conference, as well as an upcoming Georgia Nursing Leadership Coalition conference, where she will present a professional poster.
“In addition, some of the money was used to help with the cost of my trip with a neonatal nurse delegation to the United Arab Emirates in January,” Gibson added. “All of these trips will not only enhance my professional development, but also complement my learning in the PhD program.”
After graduation, Gibson hopes to pursue a position in academia at a university with a robust research program where she may continue her research in neonatal care.
NeSmith plans to present the Stelling Leadership Award alongside her mother and sister every year for the foreseeable future. She sees it as a way for three generations of female leaders to encourage and support potential future leaders in nursing.
“I think this was the perfect time to be able to do this as we are trying to grow our College of Nursing footprint and move beyond our community and our nurse scientists program,” said NeSmith. “This was a way to be able to do that and to honor my grandmother, because I feel like she’s doing it with me, alongside me, through this work.”