57CER, 58MA - Physical Therapy
Recipient of the 2006 Distinguished Alumni Award for Service
Gene Gary-Williams had never met a physical therapist, and she’d never visited Iowa. “I realize now that I have a very adventuresome spirit,” said the Newberry, South Carolina, native of her decision to study PT at the UI, a decision that would create new opportunities for those who followed her into the field, especially students of color.
After completing the one-year UI program, Gary-Williams moved to the Washington, D.C., area, were she practiced for nearly 20 years in a series of hospitals, clinics and community settings. In the mid-1970s she returned to academia to create a pioneering PT program at Howard University.
Congress had made money available for allied health programs,” she recalled. “I was invited to help write the grant proposal to establish a department of physical therapy at Howard. It launched me.”
Howard’s PT program was the first offered by a historically black college or university, and Gary-Williams was its first chair. Later, while completing a PhD at the University of Maryland, she chaired the physician assistant department and served as associate dean of the College of Allied Health Sciences at Howard. She spent a year as a Fulbright Fellow in Nigeria, and soon after her return was appointed the college’s dean.
Her work has touched other schools. After retiring from Howard, Gary-Williams established a PT program at Ross University in the Caribbean nation of Dominica, helped revitalize a program at Tennessee State University, and assisted in the creation of an orthotic and prosthetic program at Alabama State University.
Service to historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, has been a particularly important aspect of her career. “Other institutions will never be able to accommodate all the students of color who want to enter health professions,” she said. “HBCUs help us meet that need in an efficient and equitable manner.”
Also essential, she noted, is the chance for students to learn from mentors who share elements of their experience and culture, and the opportunity to build a PT profession that looks like the patients it serves. Today Gary-Williams continues her work toward these goals as executive director of the National Society of Allied Health, a small organization mainly made up of HBCUs.
She also is an active lay speaker at D.C. area churches, a hospice volunteer and a member of the AARP National Policy Council. She earned a master’s degree in religious studies from Howard after retirement. She has three grandchildren, including eight-year-old twins adopted from Dominica by her daughter.
Gary-Williams is “humbled and honored” by the attention to her work. “I don’t feel I have done anything so unusual,” she said. “I just feel I have done the things I was supposed to do.”
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