Remembering a most remarkable woman

By John D. Pierce

Last Sunday morning, Dr. Virginia Boyd Connally of Abilene, Texas, died at age 106. Her legacy is both long and lasting.

Writing of her a few years ago I referred to Virginia as a remarkable woman. I would add: a most remarkable woman.

This kind and generous Temple, Texas native was a true pioneer — attending LSU Medical School in the ’30s following graduation from Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene.

Then, after her residency in New Orleans — where Catholic nuns impressed her with their concern for the poor and suffering — Dr. Connally returned to her college town in 1940 as the region’s first female physician.

As I wrote in an earlier article: “She has broken more West Texas ground than a dozen plowshares.”

It was good timing for her eye, ear, nose and throat practice since many male doctors were heading off to war. Someone once asked if there were patients who would not come to her because she was female.

Dr. Connally quipped: “I don’t know; I didn’t see them.”

There was a sparkle in her eyes that came with such a quick wit and clear compassion. She spent her long life caring for others and advocating for the causes of missions and ministries.

Virginia and her husband Ed Connally owned interest in an airline company that allowed for both extensive travel and bringing missionaries to Abilene where she provided respite in the home next door.

Among the close relationships she established was one with Bertha Smith, the legendary missionary to China who lived to be nearly 100. She would visit “Miss Bertha” at her South Carolina home as well, where the two would pray together.

“She was a precious thing; so devout,” Virginia once told me.

Later Dr. Connally established an endowed chair and missions center at Hardin-Simmons University.

Ed Connally’s involvement in Texas politics produced friendships with state and national leaders including President Lyndon B. Johnson and a longtime friendship with First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson.

Always active, Dr. Connally assumed the presidency of Connally Oil Co. after her husband’s death in 1975 — while continuing to serve as chief of staff at a local hospital. Dr. Connally continued her practice in Abilene until retirement in 1981.

My times with Dr. Connally were always delightful and memorable — whether discovering our Baptist roots in England, attending gatherings that promote faithfulness and freedom, or visiting alone in her Abilene home.

Virginia was well informed and insightful about a variety of topics outside her vocation by reading deeply and widely. As a young person she heeded a warning from her aunt: “Don’t ever let me catch you without a book.”

Boo Sheppard (right) of Clemson, SC, congratulates Dr. Virginia Connally on receiving the 2013 Judson-Rice Award at a celebration dinner in Gainesville, Ga.

In 2013, Baptists Today (now Nurturing Faith) presented its annual Judson-Rice Award — that recognizes a leader who has demonstrated important leadership while maintaining the highest integrity — to Dr. Connally. It was the part of our publishing ministry’s 30th anniversary celebration.

The larger story of her life is told in the book, Virginia Connally, M.D.: Trailblazing Physician, Woman of Faith by Loretta Fulton. I am pleased that the book references my feature story “Medicine & Missions: Groundbreaking physician’s full life marked by service to others” (Baptists Today, October 2009).

In the book’s introduction, my friend Marv Knox tells how Virginia — at age 94 — was determined to attend the historic Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant that President Carter called together in Atlanta in early 2008. She knew getting around the expansive convention center would require either wheels or stamina.

Virginia chose the latter. She moved her bedroom upstairs for this well-reasoned observation: “I figured climbing the stairs several times a day would build up my legs, and then getting around in Atlanta would be no problem.”

It worked. Several of us were witnesses. It is but one example of the determination that fueled her long and productive life.

Older persons are often asked for their advice — and Virginia would offer insight beyond the science of her profession. One jewel she passed along as she neared the century mark: “Never tell people how old you are. I did, and they started treating me that way.”

What so many of us will long remember, however, is how Dr. Connally treated us and everyone blessed by her presence.

Rest in peace, dear one. Your good life was a gift we will long cherish.

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