When Cecelia "Cee Cee" Tucker was asked to be Old Dominion University's assistant to the president for community relations in 1991, some friends and colleagues advised her not to take the job. "They told me, 'They're going to use you,'" Tucker remembered.
She didn't listen to them and accepted then-President James V. Koch's offer.
"ODU had the reputation of being racist - I knew that - but he wanted to change all of that," she said. "And I thought, 'This is something I could help do.' I bought into his vision to bring the community together."
And she helped see it to fruition.
In the past 30 years, the percentage of undergraduates who are students of color has jumped from 21% to 54%. "I didn't do that," Tucker said. "The school's reputation did that."
But she'll take "some of the credit."
Tucker, 83, will retire in June after 31 years in community relations. She seemed to be at every event and have the ear of every personage in Hampton Roads, from politicians to pastors. "It's good when you know people in high places," she said in an understatement.
Dr. Barry Einhorn, a community activist, said: "If you ever want to make a contact with somebody in the African American or white community, she knows them or they know her. She's a powerful woman."
The Rev. Anthony C. Paige, pastor emeritus of First Baptist Church Lamberts Point and former secretary of ODU's Board of Visitors, said Tucker "has always been involved in the community, her family and her church, and she's been a blessing. She's an expert at bringing people together for good."
Tucker was honored at a retirement party at the Ted Constant Convocation Center on May 25. President Brian O. Hemphill, Ph.D., announced the creation of a scholarship fund in her name, drawing a standing ovation. He also designated her the first recipient of the Presidential Medallion for Distinguished Service.
He recalled Tucker holding his hand as she introduced him to community leaders at events last year. "I quickly learned that Cee Cee knows everybody, and I mean everybody," President Hemphill said.
She also received the new title of assistant to the president emerita and a proclamation in her honor from Norfolk Mayor Kenneth Cooper Alexander, an ODU alumnus. It was a fitting tribute for a woman recognized as "royalty in Norfolk" by Angela Reddix, founder, president and CEO of ARDX, a health care management and IT consulting firm, and founder of Envision Lead Grow, which supports and encourages entrepreneurs.
After a career as a high school biology teacher, Tucker began volunteering and working for nonprofits in the early '80s. She raised money for Norfolk Community Hospital. She helped establish the Urban League of Hampton Roads - "I fell hard for that organization" - and served as acting director.
Tucker moved from board member to acting director of the Hunton YMCA, the nation's second-oldest Black Y. That's when she got the call from Koch.
At Old Dominion, she ensured that audiences for lectures and other events were diverse. On recruiting trips, she approached Black parents to encourage them to consider ODU. And she launched a program for youths, particularly in nearby Lambert's Point, offering education, recreation and jobs, which helped Old Dominion restore its relationship with the surrounding community.
"People started calling me: 'Can my grandson get in?' The president and the General Assembly continued to increase my budget, so that increased opportunities for young people," she said.
Her contributions stretch beyond Lambert's Point.
For years she arranged campus tours for African American leaders. She organized breakfasts to introduce business, faith and organizational leaders to President Hemphill. She helped land speakers and honorary degree recipients, including "Hidden Figures" mathematician Katherine Johnson and professor and PBS host Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Now, she said, "we don't have to sell African American parents and students. They have so many good experiences here."
Tucker, who grew up using colored bathrooms and water fountains, has spoken to students about her past. "I've been telling people for ages that to say I am less than a human - it's just ignorance," she said.
Her honors include the Community Leaders' Award from the Urban League of Hampton Roads and the SunTrust Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Award.
Koch called her "one of the most important individuals in Old Dominion's history. Cee Cee was transformational - an engine behind moving the institution from an almost entirely white student body into the diverse, integrated University we see today."
Read more about Cecelia Tucker in the summer issue of Monarch magazine.