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Champion for Seniors: Lennie-Marie Tolliver (1928—)

“Thelma Butler likes to spend her days at the Lennie Marie Tolliver Alternative Care Center. If she didn't visit the Tolliver Center, 72-year-old Butler would spend her days at home with little to do,” said a 1998 Daily Oklahoman newspaper story. “Instead, she boards a bus early each Monday through Friday for transportation to 2001 N Martin Luther King Ave.”

There, Butler enjoyed arts and crafts, bingo, Christian devotion and Bible Study activities, movies, and exercising, and fellowshipping with other disabled seniors.

Such is one of the many legacies left by longtime Oklahoman Lennie Marie Tolliver, U.S. Commissioner on Aging during Ronald Reagan’s first presidential term. She was the first African American female to hold the position.

A Cleveland, Ohio native, Tolliver earned degrees, including her doctorate, at Hampton University, the University of Chicago, and Union Graduate School. Tolliver served as a social work professor at Georgetown University, then at the University of Oklahoma. She was associate director of the OU’s School of Social Work when Reagan chose her to head the Administration on Aging following his 1980 election.

Among Tolliver’s many accomplishments as the federal government’s Commissioner on Aging was a pioneering inter-agency governmental campaign to alert and educate the public about osteoporosis and other aging-related diseases, their prevention, and their successful treatment with early diagnosis. This success brought her tremendous gratification: "In the early 1980s, most people hadn't even heard of osteoporosis," she said.

As Commissioner, she also initiated “small business adventures for older people and…projects that are funded to help us develop models that can be shared with other people around the country.”

And she championed a Reagan administration emphasis on churches and the private sector stepping up their game in providing work for the elderly and other jobless people. “People within their own environment can begin to take some responsibility for working with others,” she said, including “churches being a source of volunteer service. The majority of our nutrition sites are located in church facilities now.”

After four years serving as one of Reagan’s highest-ranking African American officials, Tolliver returned to OU as a professor of social work. She also provided the seed money for the afore-mentioned center which would bear her name and which she co-founded with the National Association of Black Social Workers. For more than a quarter-century, the Tolliver Center served as the only such institution for senior citizens with disabilities in predominantly-black northeast Oklahoma City, where she herself lived.

Additionally, Tolliver directed the Oklahoma affiliate of the National Energy and Aging Consortium. Supported by utility trade organizations as well as senior citizens groups, the consortium fit with her continuing commitments to preventative health care for seniors and integrating public and private sector efforts to help them. Among other projects, it produced public service announcements regarding heat and cold stress dangers to the elderly, and how to protect against them.

Tolliver’s typically superior leadership led Oklahoma’s consortium into prominence. This generated a government grant to guide development of similar organizations in other states.

As the much-accomplished Tolliver herself aged, her own doctor ordered a by-then-routine osteoporosis X-ray examination for her. She tried to conceal her smile. “I didn't try to explain to him that I was part of the reason why he was ordering that X-ray,” she said.


The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book

Oklahomans Vol 2 :

Statehood - 2020s

which can be purchased HERE.

View the inspiring 2-minute preview video HERE.

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