Chattanoogan: Charlotte Boatwright – “I Have Always Done My Own Thing”

Wednesday, February 26, 2014 - by Jen Jeffrey

Conforming to the norm has never been Charlotte Boatwright’s forte. Widow to Dr. Robert Boatwright, Charlotte was not one to live in her husband’s shadow. She followed her dreams from the beginning and has been a beacon for many women searching a direction of their own. As head of the Coalition against Domestic and Community Violence of Greater Chattanooga, Charlotte’s strong sense of identity has made her a great role model for women in trouble.

Raised by parents Clifton and Veltina Blevins, Charlotte grew up in Rossville and always wanted to be a nurse. She had two brothers who died at birth and a brother who died tragically when she was 15 years old.

Tragedy emanates strength and so began Charlotte’s determination to step in for others. After her senior prom, Charlotte went immediately to nursing school at Georgia Baptist Hospital in Atlanta. After a year and a half, she quit school and married her first husband.

“I had no idea of the impact that would be on my future. After having my daughter Melody, I wanted to go back to school so badly,” Charlotte insists.

Charlotte decided to finish her schooling at Erlanger because nursing was not offered in the universities at that time.

“The director was Mary Barrows and Mary patted me on the head and said, ‘Honey go home and be a good little wife,’ because they didn’t allow married students. You had to be single and live in the dormitory and you couldn’t live off campus,” Charlotte explains.

Waiting five and a half years, Charlotte had gotten to know Harold Peterson, the administrator of Erlanger. “He was a man way above his time. He let me go back to nursing school as the first and only married student. I had to go to Knoxville for three months and leave my family here for my psychiatric rotation which was required,” she says.

Charlotte’s parents helped out by keeping her daughter during that time and, after becoming certified in nursing, it set her path of education for the next 25 years. She attended UC (currently UTC) and after many years of schooling, Charlotte obtained five post graduate degrees or certifications in different fields including a masters and PhD.

Charlotte began teaching professional nursing at Erlanger and was there through the time that it was taken out of the hospitals and brought to state and community colleges.

“It was an interesting transition and I still teach today. I teach family violence to nursing students, to criminal justice students, social services and psyche students. I teach at the University of the South to clergy who are going to seminary programs,” Charlotte says.

She spent her first 35 years in healthcare and then went to work for HCA as director of special projects. She also worked in marketing and opened the first free-standing birth center in Chattanooga at Northpark Hospital.

“To tell you the truth …I get bored quickly. And, after about two or three years of doing the same thing, it gets old and I start scratching around looking for something to do,” Charlotte jokes.

In her late twenties she was teaching at Erlanger and met Robert Boatwright.

“He was divorced and so was I. We had been friends for years. He was the sponsor and I was the class advisor for the class he sponsored,” Charlotte says. “We had been colleagues working together for years and we became really good friends. In the meantime, I had my second daughter and he was my doctor. I just really admired and respected him,” Charlotte says.

In his 35-year career as an obstetrician, Dr. Boatwright delivered somewhere between 12,000 to 15,000 babies in Chattanooga.

Though married to a successful physician, Charlotte still found it important to ‘do her own thing’. She continued following her dreams and goals in which her husband gave her moral support. After obtaining her master’s in education she received another master’s in counseling and psychology.

“I was licensed as a professional counselor and started counseling students then I got my doctorate in hospital administration because that is what I gravitated towards,” Charlotte says.

Charlotte had spent her last years in nursing as a nursing administrator and a hospital administrator at Memorial and she opened Parkridge’s first Intensive Care Unit. Working at Erlanger, Memorial, Parkridge and Hutcheson, Charlotte is well-known in the local hospital circuit.

A blended family presents a challenge all its own, but as Charlotte continued her career and personal goals, the couple faced many moments as ‘ships passing in the night’. If Robert wasn’t out of town for a conference, Charlotte was packing her bags to attend a workshop.

“I had my own objectives and goals in life and he had his own. We were very complimentary to each other. Robert was the wind under my wings. We both brought the best out in each other. We never made it to where we had to stay together all the time or do whatever pleased the other - he was very happy for me to do whatever I wanted to do and I was happy for him to do what he wanted,” Charlotte says.

Robert practiced medicine until 1989 and had a desire to be an Episcopal priest.

“He decided he wanted to quit medicine and I said, ‘Go for it.’ I stayed here and he went to seminary. He was ordained as an Episcopal priest and served the whole diosese of Alabama and down into the Delta. I tried to go with him when I could, but I still had a daughter in school and my oldest daughter was living with us after she was divorced. We were taking care of Joshua because Melody was in nursing school.  I’d take Joshua with me on the weekends when I would go with Robert wherever he was preaching. He served as an interim priest for 15 years. He had been a healer all of his life and he still was a healer,” Charlotte says fondly.

Charlotte credits both living as a physician’s wife and a minister’s wife as ‘living in a fishbowl’ but she says, “I have never been a very good doctor’s wife or a minister’s wife because I have always done my own thing. It really didn’t matter much what people expected.”

As much love as they shared, Charlotte and Robert Boatwright had their own identities which was a driving force in what made their marriage work.

“It never seemed to create a stir. Our lives were busy, but it was how we both were. We did travel together. We went all over the world,” Charlotte says.

“We would set time together every September and October and we would usually go to France renting a little house and stay six weeks to two months taking day trips out into the villages. We lived like French people and we loved that. I have always been a Francophile and he was too. Whenever I hit French soil I feel like I am home. I just remember feeling like I had been there before.  It was …like Déjà vu,” Charlotte chuckles.

For the last 20 years Charlotte has been head of the Coalition against Domestic and Community Violence of Greater Chattanooga.

“My daughter and my grandson were victims of abuse. When Jentry was two years old he was held hostage while he watched my daughter get shot in the back by her abuser. She was trying to leave. He did not go to jail and this is why I became involved. We went through the justice system in two states,” Charlotte explains. 

Charlotte’s ignited passion for the fight against domestic abuse stemmed not only from watching her own daughter go through such torment, but in how the family was treated during the judicial process. Upstanding citizens of the community, who stood behind their daughter, Charlotte felt they were treated as criminals instead of the accused.

“Her husband was treated as if he couldn’t have possibly done this. He was very charming, very charismatic - the way most abusers are. That was before the O.J. Simpson case and, at that point and time, the whole attitude toward abuse was ‘if that was going on then she wouldn’t stay…’ but that’s not true. People didn’t understand how a woman could get caught in that and get reeled back in over and over. Now we understand that the average victim leaves seven times, because she has been brainwashed like a prisoner of war and the same tactics have been used,” Charlotte says.

“After we went through the court in Walker and Hamilton County and were treated the way we were treated, I said, ‘Something has to be done here …this is wrong,’ and I went to work within the system,” Charlotte says.

One of her first allies became Criminal Court Judge Rebecca Stern who was an assistant district attorney. “She and I became good friends. She worked with me on forming the first domestic violence task force in Chattanooga. I became fast friends with Bill Cox, who has been the DA for over 20 years, and he has been a strong advocate of our organization,” Charlotte says.

Currently having seven task forces in place, Charlotte has put irrepressible effort in this cause. After reviewing many cases, Charlotte advises that many of those involved are from wealthy or prominent families.

“The truth of the matter is, the higher up you go in power and control vocations such as the doctors, lawyers, clergy, military and police officers; the higher your rates of abusers become. This had been one of the reasons it has been very hard to get changes made because a lot of the decision makers are abusers themselves,” Charlotte asserts.

“So… the fox has been in charge of the hen house. What we have had to do is find ways to get around that. We have made some progress, but it has been very slow and it still is. There are those who don’t believe that abuse is a crime. There is still very limited insight to the fact that abuse occurs throughout every part of life’s cycle. Almost every violent crime can be traced back to the violence that started in the family of origin. And that is where we have to start working,” Charlotte insists.

Many of the abuse cases deal with emotional and mental abuse in which Charlotte attests can be the hardest type of abuse to heal from.

“The brainwashing, the belittling, the intimidation, the destruction of your identity at the very core… victims will tell me ‘he was taking pieces of me away every day and I didn’t know this.’ It isn’t just about being hit – it is a lot of other things. Having someone monitor your time, knowing where you are every minute, who you talk to on the phone and giving you instruction about how to breathe,” Charlotte articulates.

“Abusers don’t believe that they really have a problem. They believe the victim is the cause of the problems and they tell them that. There is only one reason for men to behave this way – they learned it. It is learned behavior,” Charlotte says. “It’s a cycle. I have worked with hundreds and hundreds of families where kids have never seen a normal relationship. How can you create one if you have never seen it?”  

Charlotte is currently working on a project to develop a family justice center in Chattanooga.

“It all works together.  It is not a private issue in someone’s home. It is a community issue and we want it to be a community-owned facility where everybody has ownership of the problem of family violence and everybody has a hand in changing that. It is like a laboratory of life change,” Charlotte says.

There are over 50 partners who are working on creating the center hoping to work as a team for these families.

It has been 13 years since her beloved husband’s passing and Charlotte is still very involved in the community and ‘doing her own thing’.

“Life is very hard without him and I miss him very much - like I said, he was wind under my wings. I do miss the companionship, but I don’t have any desire to have another spouse. I have lots of friends and I am content to be alone and my family keeps me occupied,” Charlotte says thoughtfully.

 “No, I would never find anyone else for me and …Robert would be a hard act to follow.”

If you feel you are in an abusive situation, don’t wait to get help. Contact the coalition at: http://www.dvcchatt.8m.com/

jen@jenjeffrey.com


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