By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
Each community’s foundation is upheld with pillars who strengthen, support and strive to evoke positive change in all lives they touch, remaining resolute in their efforts to inspire. Though one prominent pillar in the Etowah County community, Dr. Gertie Lowe (pictured at right), finished her work in late January, those who knew her recall an incredible and undying legacy that will live on for generations to come.
Dedication, determination and compassion coincide to characterize Lowe’s efforts to uplift her community for the better. She sparked magnitudes of change wherever she walked – her influence spanning across several professional fields and movements such as mission work and mentorship.
Beginning her professional career as a nurse, Lowe’s deep-rooted understanding of the importance of education inspired her to share her wisdom with others who would lend a listening ear. Lowe (pictured above) recognized that children in her community often lacked the resources to continue their education year-round, and those who might have struggled during the school year could fall further behind in the summer. She also recognized that summer provided children a time to play and unwind.
Lowe realized that educating children does not entail the absence of fun, but rather the presence of fun could serve as motivation for students to strive for academic success. Lowe channeled this philosophy into a program she pioneered herself in 2001, at 70 years of age – the Summer Enrichment Program.
Each summer, the Summer Enrichment Program provided an average of 125 students with free tutoring (taught by active or retired local educators) in core subjects like math, science and literature. As a reward for the students’ diligence, Lowe offered those enrolled the gift of experiences, traveling on field trips to cities like Huntsville, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. The Summer Enrichment Program’s mission proved two-fold, granting students education alongside exposure to a world of possibilities outside their everyday routine.
“Dr. Lowe’s understanding of the importance of education is paramount,” said Gadsden City Schools Superintendent Tony Reddick. “Education is paramount. That simply means that in order for any of us to accomplish anything worthwhile in life, you have to have some type of learned foundation behind you. In other words, we can all go out into the community and do whatever pops up in our minds, but there’s always something behind it, there’s always a reason.
“A lot of times we use the term ‘educate’ and relate it to schools – you go to school to get an education. Dr. Lowe realized that you can get an education by sitting on the back of a pickup truck with somebody, learning wisdom, as long as you’re willing to listen and learn. She was that type of person who was well-learned on her own and brought all that knowledge with her so that any inquiry presented to her, if she didn’t know the answer, she knew enough people to get you the answer. She’d be like that mom sitting on the porch rocking chair, waiting for everybody to come sit at her stoop. She taught you how to go and find those answers and where.”
While Reddick’s relationship with Lowe began professionally as colleagues, their unified love for children and education nurtured a friendship that Reddick treasures. This friendship grew from a mutual trust that formed when Lowe asked Reddick to tutor her granddaughter Samantha for the ACT one year and blossomed into a respect that Reddick still holds to this day. He considers the memories formed from the time tutoring Samantha with Lowe a gift, because of the result of their friendship that followed.
Reddick shared that commitment and community were two things he learned most from Lowe, describing Lowe as a woman firm in her beliefs and unwavering as she marched towards her accomplishments. A positive woman, Reddick said that Lowe did not waste time on negative matters, instead forming a mission in every venture and fighting until she saw the manifestation.
Reddick even noted that after her passing, he received a phone call from a former college classmate who lived in Atlanta, yet she knew and was impacted by Lowe.
“You hear these names of these pioneers of civil rights and education,” said Reddick. “Dr. Gertie Lowe’s name is right there among all those great names of Etowah County, and then far beyond. She’s definitely one who was well respected and well loved in the community. I don’t know of any person who had a bad thing to say about her. We realize that as time goes on, a lot of our older leaders will settle down a little bit, but there are ones we could always call or visit their homes to get that tidbit of wisdom to serve as a catalyst for another movement, or a continuation of a movement that has not been completed. I think that’s what she brought to our community and other communities as well.”
While Lowe’s commitment to education proved everlasting, her dedication to her faith shone just as bright. Crowned Queen of the National Baptist Association’s Women’s Auxiliary in 2015, Lowe also served as president of the Alabama Baptist Women’s Association, encouraging women and equipping them for outreach and missionary work. Most recently, she joined Antioch Baptist Church, where her friend Pastor Larry Weathers acknowledged her contribution.
“[Lowe] was always pleasant, always encouraging and always supportive,” said Weathers. “She will always be a friend. I’ll remember her for her purpose. She understood her purpose and worked at it and was determined to impact the world. That’s what all of us want to do – impact the world in a positive way.”
Lowe’s righteous example influenced one prominent woman in Etowah County, former county commissioner Carolyn Parker. After meeting Lowe at a political organization, Parker developed a friendship with the encouraging person she considered a mother figure. Lowe’s engagement in Christian activities arose as another extension of her passionate persona, sharing wisdom with Parker that she will never forget.
During Parker’s mayoral campaign, Lowe confessed she understood what it was like to be a young, single woman balancing motherhood with personal ambitions. Though she was no stranger to those challenges, Lowe advised Parker to pray that God’s will be done in her life, inspiring Parker to keep going and amplifying Parker’s faith in God.
Lowe’s faith converged with her involvement in politics in Parker’s life among others, who she aided in successful campaigns. Though Lowe ran and lost the same seat Parker gained on the county commission years prior, with a difference of under 30 votes, Lowe represented a political legacy for Parker that exemplified women empowerment.
“You don’t have to be a politician to be in the political community,” said Parker. “When we look back later in the history of Etowah County and Gadsden and we look at political figures, [Lowe] was a great factor. She leaves a political legacy in this community even though she never served a political office. I was only the third female to hold a seat on the county commission. Gertie ran as one of the few females to run for county commission, especially females of color. She was a voice to be reckoned with.”
Though Lowe’s voice was powerful, it was also comforting. Parker shared that Lowe never missed an opportunity to express her love for someone, emphasizing her caring and compassionate nature that extended to all who knew her.
Lowe visited Parker a few weeks before her passing, on a cold day when Parker noticed she seemed weaker. Even then, Lowe’s consideration for her neighbor was unfaltering, and she nudged Parker to stay warm and healthy inside. From their unified love of politics to their bond over soul food, Lowe’s life lessons to Parker are moments she will forever value.
“I told [Lowe] when she died, I was going to say this about her,” said Parker. “She never stopped. She never gave up. Even though she was retired, you’d never know she was retired. [Dr. Lowe] taught me that once you give someone your word and commit to something, you see it through to the end. She taught me to be loyal; to be there for your friends and family. She never failed to tell someone I love you. She always told her friends and family ‘I love you,’ as she was hanging up the phone. The biggest thing she taught me was to live your life to the fullest to the very end.
“Even with all the things she accomplished throughout her life (and she did live a long, blessed life), she was still very approachable to any and everyone. She was authentic and genuine and she would help anyone who needed it. It didn’t matter if she met you 50 years ago [or yesterday], she was always the same person. She didn’t have a problem being honest and telling people the truth, whether you wanted to hear it or not. I think when people get titles or reach a certain level of success they change, but I think that Gertie Lowe never changed. She was always the same person that ended all of her phone conversations and her in-person conversations with ‘I love you.’”
Former state representative Craig Ford reiterated Parker’s perception of Lowe, marveling at the multitudes of lives Lowe impacted. When Lowe contacted Ford regarding her Summer Enrichment Program, he was astounded to witness the service Lowe was providing for so many students throughout the area. Through their mutual advocacy for education, Ford partnered with Lowe in her endeavors, learning from her along the way.
“She was a close personal friend of mine ever since I started in political office,” said Ford. “She was also a close personal friend of my father’s, the late representative Joe Ford. She was not only a counselor and a confidant, but also like a second mother to me. She was definitely a pillar in the community. There are pillars among pillars, and she was one of those. Losing her is a big loss to Gadsden and the people of Etowah County.”
Ford also noted perhaps the man who knew her best of all, one half of a dynamic duo.
“Jack Lowe, her husband, is very instrumental in the community too,” said Ford. “They were a team together.”
Lowe attended public school with her future husband until leaving Gadsden to further her education. When she returned, the pair reconnected, entering a five-year courtship before their marriage almost 40 years ago.
“She was a beautiful woman and a super human being,” said Jack Lowe. “She was the best person you could meet in the world. She was an asset to be acquainted to and somebody to know. She was the person that the Lord blessed me with the opportunity to share part of life with her, and that was awesome.”
Jack described Lowe as a woman who possessed a true love for humanity. From both a religious and educational perspective, she witnessed the impoverished conditions of her community and sought to evoke positive change in her hometown. She understood education as the survivorship of life and shared a love of “church and politics” with her husband, who supported her in every endeavor she pursued.
“She couldn’t stay around forever,” said Jack. “Jesus couldn’t stay around forever, or He didn’t. She stayed her time. When the Lord saw fit to take her home, He did. Those that did not grasp the opportunity to have known her or learn themselves, that was their fault. I think God broke the mold when he made her. She’s one in a million – she’s not be to duplicated.”
Jack stood alongside his wife every step of the way, echoing the sentiments of others like Parker who admired Lowe for her loving character.
“I learned a long time ago that was just her,” said Jack. “I would never be a mate that would take away from that. The last thing she would tell you was, ‘I love you.’ That grabs a lot of folks because they don’t hear that often, they don’t hear that gesture. When it’s said, it’s said in a sincere tone that they know it was for real. She loved everybody in Gadsden – I don’t care what color or nationality. She would do anything she could to help you within her power or steer you in the right direction.”
Jack shared some advice of his own for those who admired his wife.
“I’ve overheard a conversation [where someone said], ‘I want to be like Mrs. Lowe,’” he said. “Well, you be like yourself. God made you an individual. You might be better than what you think Mrs. Lowe is.”
Lowe’s son Sidney Thomas recalls his mother’s educational legacy that trickled into their home. While Lowe frequently developed fundraisers throughout the community, Thomas remembered his mother campaigning for UNICEF to raise money for education. A nursing instructor for several years at Gadsden State Community College, Lowe’s life inspired two scholarships the college offers students each year named in her honor.
“At the same time, she was my mother and not my friend,” said Thomas. “Even with my children, I’m their father, not their friend. They can talk to me about anything, and we could always talk to our mother about anything, but at the same time, that was mother and we were always respectful to her. She raised all of us to be respectful to other individuals. Growing up, mother was actively involved in PTA (PTO). She was just as loving as could be, too. You couldn’t ask for a better parent.”
While Lowe’s passing emerges as a great loss to Gadsden and the county, her lifelong passion shines brightly in the work she established, evidenced by those left with her inspirational memory. From Lowe’s involvement in politics to her advocacy for civil rights, from her compassionate personal advice to her emergence as the pioneer of an incredible educational program, Lowe’s influence far surpasses Etowah County. With each countless moment, Lowe represented a poetic and powerful woman who not only spoke words of encouragement but performed the actions necessary to manifest those words into reality, leaving behind a hope of continuance and a memory that never withers away.
“Legacy probably means different things to different people,” said Reddick. “[Lowe] knew the importance of [younger generations] growing into her shadow. She realized what she had to offer and that somebody was going to have to pick up that mantle and move on after she was gone. We would’ve loved her to live a much longer life than she did, but it’s almost she was a scout – always seeing which young men and women could carry on that mantle. She had no intention for anything she did to die, for those things to not continue after she let it go. She understood that the torch has to be passed.
“For people who remember her, my prayer is they won’t just remember the woman, but they’ll remember the work as well. It’s easy to love on somebody because of the personal relationship you have with her, but there’s still work to be done. That legacy she left behind was the pathway, the footsteps. Anybody who is true to her and truly has the respect for her we all proclaim will continue in trying to finish the work she started.”