Drs. Marye J. Jeffries and Kimberly Jeffries Leonard lead by example and as inspiring trailblazers
STORY BY JANET GIBSON
Together, they comprise 150 years of wisdom, beauty and trailblazing wonder.
A mother and daughter with close ties to Fayetteville State University – past, present and future.
Just say the name “Jeffries,” and many will immediately know about whom you speak: Dr. Marye J. Jeffries and Dr. Kimberly Jeffries Leonard. Ages 90 and 60, respectively.
Dr. Marye J. Jeffries is synonymous with education and excellence. An established educator and Army spouse when she relocated to Fayetteville, N.C. in 1963, she became the first Black teacher at Vanstory Hills Elementary School. While teaching there, she received her master’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and went on to become an associate professor of education at FSU.
Always one to aspire higher, Dr. Jeffries earned her doctorate of education administration and supervision from UNC-Chapel Hill. She held various positions at Fayetteville State University, culminating in her appointment in 1995 as associate vice chancellor of academic affairs – the first African-American woman to hold that position. She retired in 1998, and remains active in the community.
Among that involvement is being named in 2022 as an honoree trustee of Fayetteville Technical Community College after serving on its board of trustees for 26 years, including four years as chair – the only African-American woman to do so.
Her community service also includes board chair for the Fayetteville/Cumberland County Arts Council and the Cumberland County Auditorium/Arena Commission (now the Civic Center Commission).
She has been awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine and the Old North State Award, the top two civilian honors in the state. In 2011, she was recognized by Fayetteville State University as an Outstanding Black Woman in American Culture and History.
Dr. Kimberly Jeffries Leonard says her mother set the bar exceptionally high when it came to work ethic and breaking glass ceilings. She and her mother both lead by the FSU motto, “Res Non Verba” (Deeds, Not Words).
The daughter “literally grew up” on the campuses of Fayetteville State and UNC-Chapel Hill. Where mom went, so did she go, and her younger brother, Kenneth (a biologist at the National Institutes of Health).
“I hung out in my cousins’ dorm rooms and took piano lessons in Rosenthal Hall,” she reminisces, during a Zoom interview alongside her mom from her family home in northwest Washington, D.C. In the background, we see a grand piano that she found at an estate sale. She still enjoys the instrument, but says it is used most by her husband, who plays by ear.
This appears to be a bit of down time for Dr. Jeffries Leonard, who is often rushing to catch a plane or meeting with clients. She is the founder, president and CEO of Envision Consulting, LLC, a boutique public health consulting firm specializing in strategic and innovative executive level solutions for public, private and government entities. Previously, she was the chief operating officer for the District of Columbia’s Department of Health.
Dr. Jeffries Leonard’s list of achievements would take up reams. Included among them are appointments by Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, such as chair of the Commission on African American Affairs and as a member of the coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic ReOpen DC Advisory Group and the ReOpen DC Task Force on Equity, Disparity Reduction, and Vulnerable Populations Subcommittee.
But the road always leads back to FSU.
“Fayetteville State is the foundation of everything I am today,” she says. “I learned leadership there.”
She graduated in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree from FSU, going on to earn a master’s degree from N.C. Central University and a doctor of philosophy degree from Howard University – all in psychology. Fellowships and special programs that she has completed cover the realm of cardiovascular and cancer epidemiology, HIV-AIDS research, psychiatry and more.
She currently is a member of and serves as secretary on Fayetteville State’s Board of Trustees, has been honored as Alumni of the Year, reigned as the 2018 Homecoming Grand Marshal, was the featured speaker for the Sesquicentennial Founders Day, and is a recipient of the Chancellor’s Medallion, the University’s highest honor bestowed upon an alumnus.
IT'S ABOUT SISTERHOOD, TOO
Perhaps we model what we see.
Both mother and daughter have made their marks as leaders in Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated and The Links, Incorporated, a service organization with worldwide membership totaling more than 17,000 professional women of African descent. Dr. Jeffries served two terms as chapter president, and Dr. Jeffries Leonard is the immediate past national president after serving a four-year term.
Dr. Jeffries Leonard was executive producer of The Links, Incorporated’s documentary “The Invitation,” chronicling the history of the organization and featured at the 2022 Official Selection Diversity in Cannes Short Film Showcase. She was also a cultural advisor on Disney Pixar’s “Soul.”
Both women credit strong women who came before them – pioneers – such as Dr. Jeffries’ mother, Lorraine Tillmon, who lived to the ripe age of 109. Dr. Jeffries Leonard remembers her grandmother for her courage in trying times. Mrs. Tillmon devoted herself to community involvement with various organizations and spent half her life as a Red Cross volunteer.
Both are quick to also thank supportive spouses for encouraging them on their educational and career journeys. Dr. Jeffries husband, Captain Onde H. Jeffries, was a Veteran who served in World War II and Korea. He was supportive when his wife lived in Chapel Hill during the week and came home to Fayetteville on weekends during completion of her doctoral studies. Captain Jeffries passed away in 2004.
Dr. Jeffries Leonard has been married since 1992 to retired DC Fire and EMS Battalion Fire Chief Stephen V. Leonard. The couple have two grown sons, Victor and Alexander, and a senior Jack Russell terrier mix named Ombré.
STANDING ON HARD WORK – AND FAITH
They beam with pride when one talks about the other. And there’s a bit of banter and good-natured ribbing, too.
“She’s the reason I stopped coloring my hair!” says the mother, referring to her daughter’s striking silver locks, adding that it’s the older one who typically goes gray first.
“Never going to happen,” the daughter chimes in, referring to the possibility of any dye touching her roots.
She has a point – and the award to back it up – receiving national exposure as a recipient of an inaugural CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Award from Dove and the CROWN Coalition in 2021.
For both women, dedication, servant leadership and keeping it real pays off in the long run.
Dr. Marye Jeffries says she is also grateful that both her children nurture their spiritual side. Growing up, service to College Heights Presbyterian Church on Seabrook Road in Fayetteville was, and continues to be, important. Dr. Jeffries is a ruling elder there. Dr. Jeffries Leonard is a ruling elder at 15th Street Presbyterian Church in the District.
Both women believe great leaders exhibit a perfect mix of empathy and boldness, vision with a deep understanding of issues, an excellent team – and giving credit where credit is due.
“One of the things I admire about you,” the mother turns to her daughter, “is your role as president of The Links. It’s not easy being the head of an organization. But she did it with grace. She did it with style. She did it with compassion.”
The daughter is taken a little aback – delightfully so. “I’m not rattled easily,” she says, smiling. “I come from amazing stock.”