Born: Feb. 20, 1952. Resident of Oxon Hill. Died: April 3, 1999.
Gloria K. Rankin never faded easily into the background.
Not as an opinionated teenager back home in Statesville, N.C., where during the 1960s she helped integrate her high school and marched against the whites-only stores and restaurants (getting arrested, even locked up in the process).
Not as a union leader at Greater Southeast Community Hospital in Washington, where two years ago she began organizing her nursing colleagues to push for their first contract (proving herself, with her direct, no-nonsense approach, a natural negotiator).
And not as a labor and delivery nurse at Greater Southeast, where she developed a special affinity for teenage mothers and founded an adolescent pregnancy program (donating both time and money and connecting with the girls in a way that turned numerous lives around).
"I don't want to see you back here next year," she'd say bluntly during prenatal classes. Yes, the teenagers had made a mistake, but now, "Miss Gloria" would tell them, they needed to move on, finish high school, aim for college even. She wanted them to dream larger, and she had a dream, too: that one day she'd buy a row house in Southeast D.C., a place to give her girls the chance to succeed.
"She lived by this little creed that one person can make a difference," said Christina Carver, a close friend, fellow nurse and union officer.
Rankin was 47 when a heart attack killed her April 3 at her home in Oxon Hill. She died as she had lived: The Friday before, she'd left work well after midnight but still volunteered a ride to a patient's daughter who had no way home. That Saturday morning, she was due in again for her labor of love--to lead her adolescent pregnancy course.
"She was a very good nurse, an excellent nurse," her clinical manager, Desiree Godette, said. "Full of energy, full of life."
The recognition for that passion and commitment continued even after her death; In October, her brother John accepted an award on her behalf from the D.C. Nurses Association. Yet her many honors didn't reflect her life in full--not her love of family, including her eight brothers and sisters; nor her talent for cooking, especially her succulent baby-back ribs; nor her adoration of the Dallas Cowboys, whose schedule every fall determined her own.
If any aspect of her life illustrated how outspoken she could be, it was that blind devotion--in Redskin country, no less--to the team from Texas. She would not work Sunday afternoons when her boys were playing, and everyone knew exactly where her football sentiments lay. How could they not, given her Cowboys sweat shirts, T-shirts, pennants, blanket and helmet? The latter held a desk set with pens and tape and such; Rankin, true to form, would place it prominently on the table during labor negotiations with the hospital.
"She was just right out there," said Thelbert Summers, laughing and remembering the many ways her younger sister made her mark.
Although Rankin left Statesville not long after graduating magna cum laude from North Carolina A&T State University, she never really left. The Army drew her to the Washington area, and she served four years at Fort Belvoir, reaching the rank of captain before joining Greater Southeast in 1982. But distance didn't keep her from being the glue holding her family together, the one who organized the annual reunions, who was on the phone daily to chat, who'd be back on a moment's notice if someone were seriously ailing.
This spring, with union contract talks at a critical point, relatives and co-workers began worrying that Rankin was pushing too hard. Her best friend from childhood, "Vanky" Keaton, tried to reach her to urge her to slow down. She had to leave the message on Rankin's answering machine.
"We always said we'd sit on the porch together, in rocking chairs, when we got old," Keaton recalled. Still, she knows Rankin would have no regrets. "I can hear her saying, 'Don't mourn for me. I made a difference in this world.' "