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Celebrating the leadership, vision, tenacity, and love of community shared by the recipients of the Great Living Cincinnatian Award, presented annually by the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber since 1967.
Myrtis Hall Powell, Ph.D., always loved learning, even as a small child. Growing up in Evergreen, AL, Powell enjoyed walks to school with a teacher who strolled by her home daily. She trekked along, even though she was too young to go to class.
From her earliest days, nothing could stop Powell – the oldest of 14 children – from soaking in knowledge and bettering herself. Powell earned her high school degree from Conecuh County Training High School in Alabama when she was just 16.
“I always believed in the power of education,” she recalls. “I always loved books even as a small child. My family insisted school was so important.”
This is why Powell’s most recent career stop, as the outgoing president and CEO of the Cincinnati Youth Collaborative, is a fitting exclamation point to a pioneering and distinguished career in education. She has held the CYC post since October, 2003. Previously, she worked at Miami University for 21 years, most recently as the vice president for student affairs, retiring in 2002.
Powell is the first African American to be an associate dean at the University of Cincinnati; the first African American to hold an upper management position at Miami University; and the first African American to serve as a program officer at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York City.
A testament to her tenacious spirit, early in her career Powell climbed the ladder of higher education by taking evening and part-time classes at the University of Cincinnati while holding down secretarial and similar jobs. In 1969 she earned a bachelor’s degree in administrative management; in 1974 earned her master’s in sociology; and in 1978 earned her doctorate in sociology and higher education administration. She also holds a certificate in Executive Management from the Harvard Business School.
Powell moved to Cincinnati in 1955 to live with her aunt, a customary move in the mid-50s to give young African American women from the Deep South an opportunity for a better life. Following training at the Katherine Best Secretarial School, Powell applied for a position at the University of Cincinnati, only to be told by the personnel director that the institution did not hire African Americans.
Undaunted, she applied to work as a secretary in the College of Nursing at General Hospital, a UC affiliate, and later was transferred to the UC graduate nursing program on the main campus. While there she was offered the position of assistant to the department chair in the biology department. In the span of a couple of years the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences became ill and Powell stepped in and assumed many of his responsibilities. When she asked to be promoted to assistant dean in his absence, the offer wasn’t forthcoming. That’s when she gave UC a lesson in the strength of her will. “I figured that I would go home. . .and that got me promoted,” she recalls.
She served as assistant dean in the College of Arts and Sciences from 1971-73; as associate dean from 1973-78, while also serving as an adjunct assistant professor from 1969-78.
In 1979 she joined the Clark Foundation in New York as program director. In 1981, she received a call came from Paul Pearson, then-president of Miami University. At the time the Oxford campus was struggling with a lack of diversity. “He talked to me about the issue and asked if I wanted to come and help. . .to improve race relations and to recruit a more diverse population,” she recalls.
Powell joined Miami as executive assistant to Pearson. She had no thoughts of changing positions, but as she met and worked with students, her desires changed. In 1989, following a national search, she became vice president for student affairs.
During her tenure in that post – 1989-2002 – Powell helped better the student affairs office and saw an increase in the number of minorities on campus, in both the student and faculty/staff populations. She instituted an enrollment management structure for admissions and financial aid, and served as its first director. She established resident learning centers which were connected to academic course work. And she also made it her business to create a more tolerant campus climate.
“The diversity of the campus was much greater when I left,” she said. “I believe I had an influence. It was one of my most rewarding chapters.”
An indication of the respect she earned while on campus, shortly after retiring she was named grand marshal of Miami’s homecoming parade in 2002. A scholarship was established in her name, and an annual Myrtis and Lavatus Powell Community Building Day was funded.
Just months into retirement, Powell signed to lead the CYC for two years at the request of the executive committee, headed by Judge Nathaniel Jones, John Pepper and Chad Wick. “I’ve done what I have promised to do, steadied the place, put our financial house in order and found my successor,” she said. “It’s been great fun.”
The Amberly resident was very active in the community, serving as a board member for the Mayerson Academy, Bethesda Hospital Inc., Union Central Life Insurance Co., the Center for Holocaust and Humanity Education, Art Links, CET and the Greater Cincinnati Foundation. She was a Leadership Cincinnati alum and former board chair of the Hamilton County Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board.
Powell earned many honors through her commitment to her goals. She received the Talbot House Community Service Award and the Glorying the Lions Award from the Urban League in 2005; the Miami University Alumni Association A.K. Morris Award in 1999; the Beacon of Light Award from Lighthouse Youth Services and the Joseph A. Hall Award from the United Way and Community Chest in 1996; one of 10 Women of the Year by The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1991; and the YWCA Career Women of Achievement Award in 1984.
Powell lost her husband, Lavatus Powell Jr., a former vice president at Procter & Gamble and community leader, to a stroke in February of 1999. He was 64. She was the mother of one daughter, three stepchildren and grandmother to five.
Recipients are selected from candidates by the Cincinnati Chamber’s senior council based on the following criteria: – Community service – Business and civic attainment on a local, state and national or international level – Leadership – Awareness of the needs of others – Distinctive accomplishments that have brought favorable attention to their community, institution or organization