Her mama made several things clear early on. First, that she had to get a college degree. Second, that she learn to be self-sufficient so she would never have to depend on a man.
Hardly radical directives these days, but back in the 1920s, in the midst of economic depression and a segregated America, they could have seemed daunting challenges for a poor black girl from Wichita.
Not, however, for Adele B. McQueen. And with rare exception for the next 80 years, she did as her mother instructed.
One degree? McQueen earned three, including a PhD when she was 64.
Stand on her own? During a lengthy career in education, which began with George Washington Carver at what was then the Tuskegee Institute, diverted to Africa for seven years, and concluded with Howard University naming its preschool for her when she retired as director at 79, McQueen's mantra was " 'Can't' died years ago."
"So what you need to do is get up and do it," she still preaches today at 87, having little interest in the more traditional retirement activities of her neighbors at Leisure World in Silver Spring.
She spends much of her time working with Housing Unlimited Inc., a housing organization she helped to start more than a decade ago for Montgomery County adults with psychiatric disabilities.
The sweep of her life, particularly her unwavering dedication to education, is why McQueen recently found herself in the company of such prominent black leaders as civil rights activist Benjamin Hooks and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
The National Visionary Leadership Project, a nonprofit organization founded by Camille Cosby, producer, educator and philanthropist, and veteran journalist Renee Poussaint, selected McQueen as one of its 30 "visionaries" for 2003.
"She's a great lady," says project director Douglas Spiro. "A lot of the visionaries we pick may be more well-known at the national level, but Adele McQueen deserves to be recognized at that level."
Last month, a video crew arrived at her two-bedroom apartment to interview her for the project's living-history archive. She treated the crew to homemade cookies.
"You know, you move on year to year. I never really thought about what I'd done," says McQueen, who admits she was shocked when she first learned of her inclusion -- shocked and then "really worried," she laughs. If everyone was suddenly summing up her life, maybe they knew something she didn't about its end.
Technically, it began in Pilot Point, Tex., but her mother moved from the tiny town north of Dallas with her two children when McQueen was 2. She left behind a jealous, controlling husband.
"Mama," her daughter says, "was a brave lady." She had only an eighth-grade education, yet in Wichita she found employment as a governess, got herself a car and a house. "She reared me so I wouldn't have to tolerate a man who wanted me to do things for him," McQueen says.
McQueen started college in Wichita, but her academic options were limited to a few fields such as home economics and nursing, and her job prospects in the city even fewer. She transferred to the historic Tuskegee Institute in Alabama for her junior year to major in education. She was especially interested in early childhood education.
Because of nutrition courses she had taken back in Kansas, though, the college assigned her a work-study job to supervise the diet of an ornery, diabetic old man: Carver, the famous agriculture scientist, who still taught and lived on campus, attending to his laboratory and garden.
"When I started talking about what he shouldn't eat, he'd start making little jokes," she recalls. He liked his coffee boiling, and if it wasn't, he'd have her take it back. He managed to sneak in salt pork despite all her protestations.
Those trying moments were counterbalanced by his introductions of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and Henry Ford. "It was a beautiful experience," she says.
She graduated in 1938 with a bachelor's degree and taught one year at a boarding school a few miles from Selma, Ala., a place so country that the man who would become her husband, a teacher, would say that "down here, you have to take a stick and push the sun up."
The McQueens, Adele and Finley, then returned to Tuskegee as professors for the next two decades. She directed the institute's nursery school until the early 1960s.
"Why did Tuskegee have a preschool?" she offers. "Because Tuskegee was a family place. It hired not only the man but the man and his wife, so they needed a place for them to bring" their young children.
If that was ahead of the times, as she progressed in her career, so was McQueen's philosophy. Early on, she advocated parent education programs -- a strict parent herself, she has no use for Dr. Spock's laissez-faire approach. For her dissertation at Catholic University, she worked with low-income teen mothers in the District who spoke "black English" to their children. Standard English should be how they talked if they wanted to be effective parents -- and their youngsters to have a future, she believed.
But there were still other chapters of her life, including the seven years in the 1960s that she, her husband and their three children spent in Liberia under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development. (At the height of the civil rights tumult, she notes wryly, she was in Africa of all places.)
The couple established a teacher training institute there, though in their final year she worked on a cookbook of West African recipes, which was published in 1982 after her return to the United States. She went from home to home to test native dishes as the women made them.
"They were dumping," she says, meaning putting in a little of this, some of that, as their mothers and mothers' mothers had taught them. With measuring spoons and cups in hand, McQueen converted dumping into mathematical precision.
Her penultimate chapter was her tenure at Howard, where she worked as an associate professor and directed the university preschool. She also assisted with programs for elderly adults in the District.
"She was always there, for the students, the faculty, anyone who needed her," Howard professor Jean Oyemade Bailey says.
Upon being named to head the preschool, McQueen picked up a paintbrush and started fixing the place up herself, Oyemade Bailey remembers.
In McQueen's living room, photos of children she taught over the years crowd an end table. Children from the Tuskegee nursery school, among them singer Lionel Richie. Children from Howard, now adults and posing with their children, whom she sometimes had, too.
She wasn't really ready to retire her final time in 1994, but by then some students and colleagues regarded her child-rearing ways as old-fashioned. She looks back and says, "I'm proud I stuck to what was right."
Her regrets are few. The one time she didn't listen to her mother, she allowed her husband to push her into giving up driving. Their three babies were coming, and he didn't want her out on the road alone. He also said that "women only herded cars." He'd drive her anywhere she needed to go, he promised. Today, with Finley deceased since 1995, McQueen hops a bus anywhere and everywhere. But she wishes she'd never given up the steering wheel.
The other regret is much more bittersweet. As much a statement as preference, McQueen refused decades ago to go to white doctors when she was pregnant because of the way they treated their black patients. The Caribbean-born physician who delivered her second child was ill-equipped for the complications of the birth, and her son has paid the price all his life.
Even that she turned into a positive of sorts, however, through the organization Housing Unlimited Inc., which assists disabled adults.
From her vantage at Leisure World, she collects lamps, chairs, sofas and tables as new residents downsize for the retirement community. So far, McQueen has outfitted 17 properties where clients live independently.
"She has done so much," says Nikole Satelmajer, associate director of the group, who works with McQueen on the furniture committee. "It's her energy and creativity."
Chalk that all up to vision -- quiet vision that often is not widely recognized, acknowledges Roscoe Nix, former president of the Montgomery County NAACP. Too often, the people who are celebrated during Black History Month, or at other times of the year, are distant figures.
But someone like McQueen, he says, "these are persons who are in our midst. We should lift them up. . . . She is someone who should be honored by the local people in Montgomery County."