Franklin native humbled by state’s recognition

Published 12:05 pm Saturday, February 7, 2015

On Wednesday evening, meeting some of the great men and women who had accomplished so much in the Commonwealth of Virginia, she felt like a country girl from Franklin. Yet, there Sheila Baxter was, one of Virginia’s Strong Men and Women honorees at the Richmond Marriott.

“I was just overjoyed and overwhelmed at the same time,” she said. “To be mentioned among so many great men and women of Virginia, with the history that was in that room, I never dreamed I’d be recognized at such a high level.

“It was an incredible moment, and one that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life, especially coming from my home state. I never dreamed it would turn into this, I never sought attention. Wow!”

Sheila Baxter of Franklin accepts an award from Dan Weekley, vice president of Corporate Affairs at Dominion. -- SUBMITTED

Sheila Baxter of Franklin accepts an award from Dan Weekley, vice president of Corporate Affairs at Dominion. — SUBMITTED

The program was put on by Dominion Resources and the Library of Virginia, which wanted to commemorate the leadership and accomplishments of eight African-Americans for the third-annual event. Baxter was honored as the first black female Brigadier General in the U.S. Army, as part of the medical service corps.

Some of the other award winners included performer and songwriter, James “Plunky” Branch; the country’s first black NBA player, Earl Francis Loyd; Alonzo “Zo” Mourning Jr., a retired NBA player and vice president of player programs/development of the Miami Heat; Jamelle Wilson, the first female and first black superintendent of schools; and receiving the honor posthumously, Sgt. William Harvey Carney — the first black man awarded the Medal of Honor, for his service in the American Civil War.

Each honoree received an opportunity to speak for three minutes.

“My message was what I learned throughout this journey through the Army and life,” Baxter said. “Life’s greatest achievement is helping other people fulfill their dreams.

“I love to coach, teach and mentor — that’s my motto right now, helping others around me to do what they want to do.”

For it, she drew inspiration from Alma Androzzo’s song, “If I can help somebody,” which was sung by servicemen at the end of WWII.

“If I can help somebody. If I can help someone when I pass along, then I know my living shall not be in vain,” Baxter said. “It was a sentiment to my heart.”

Even today, in retirement, she’s still giving back, working with homeless veterans in Atlanta at the VA Medical Center. She’s a chaplain who is part of an interdisciplinary team where she represents the spiritual side of recovery.

“I enjoy my job because, again, I have a passion for helping people, connecting them with God and getting them back in society — back on their feet and working,” she said.

Her parents, the late John and Mary Baxter, were also key.

“They were the ones who taught me my work ethic, and the value of getting a good education, persevering and helping other people,” she said.

She graduated from Franklin High School, where during her senior year, she was voted as the school’s first black homecoming queen for 1972-73, shortly after the school desegregated.

Baxter also played basketball, and the Peggy Wilkins coached team won championships. Following that, she attended Virginia State University, where she was the first female basketball player to score more than 1,000 points in her career. During that time, she was a part of the Reserves Officers’ Training Corps at VSU, and after graduating, she joined the U.S. Army.

Baxter said her father was in the military, and so were many members of her family.

“I had a lot of support from my family and my friends, and I cannot say enough about my parents,” she said. “They didn’t deter me from going into the military.

“The Army was a wonderful journey — a wonderful experience for me. It was tough, but also rewarding. I was able to lead soldiers, to enjoy them, to learn from them and now I have lifelong friends, who I met in the military. I got opportunity to travel, see the world, but also to serve my country and help other people.”