2015-05 Mary Holt Ashley, Nurse Leader & Potential Perceiver

Mary Holt Ashley

The Mary Holt Ashley I Know
Immaculately dressed from head to toe, my first impression from afar was one of sophistication and savvy. I knew little about the executive who frequented my campus at the Administration Building of Harris County Hospital District, but I was convinced that she embodied the confidence of a Chief Executive. From the time I met her in the late 1990s until her indelible departure after her 37 year nursing career, the Mary Holt Ashley I Know was – and is – sublime.

When I found out Dr. Ashley had an administrative position open at our Ben Taub General Hospital Level I Trauma Center, I leapt at the chance to pursue it. With portfolio in hand and a wealth of ideas, I did my best to blow her away with my tightest presentation. It worked!  Although she later told me she was advised not to hire me because of my youth (then early 20s), she saw more potential than I perceived on my own. Unbeknownst to me, the inception of my career under her tutelage would lead to a life-long adventure.

While I thought working in the hospital would yield opportunities to broaden my career, I didn’t anticipate the priceless training that came with mentoring, inspiration, and professional prestige. In between long (but exciting) hours of creativity that oozed throughout the office, Dr. Ashley taught me life lessons, compelled me to publish my first articles internationally and abroad (though I told her I didn’t think I wrote well enough), and pushed me to pursue the Masters Degree that I’d convinced myself was unattainable.

She also gave me a free course in the art of leadership. Studying her at the helm of Nursing, which represented the majority of the workforce at an organization that boasted 7,000 employees, I witnessed her majestic ability to move the masses, catalyze amidst conflict, rally the rivals, and trump the tragedies throughout patient care.

Having a level of enthusiasm that was tantamount to, if not exceeded my own, early morning and late night projects were more tantalizing than tiring. I remember many days being giddy about what we could come up with from scratch, then reveling at watching it materialize like magic. The rapport we established not only taught me how to exemplify professionalism by following her model, it also segued into unforeseen prospects.

Beyond the scope of my job description, Dr. Ashley was the first supervisor who allowed me to bring my own ideas to the table and then offered me a platform upon which to execute them. Years later, individuals who had seen and experienced my best work became friends and clients with whom I still do business today. With her mentorship, I learned how to most effectively choose, change, and champion.

What You May Not Have Known
Dr. Ashley’s incessant passion for nursing was born in her childhood, a result of the excessive amount of time she spent in the hospital due to severe bouts with asthma. Mesmerized by the care of devoted nurses, she vowed to pursue the same career. While she started at an entry level position of a Certified Nursing Assistant, she soared to and retired at the highest nursing position available – Chief Nurse Executive.

Refusing to “end” her career, she went on to pursue her next goal – cementing her legacy with a book penning her journey, “Leaders Get up off the Canvas.” Her success was certified as sales are still climbing and paralleled numerous speaking engagements.

The”Grinding” Moment
Unable to access the wealth of many of her peers at the inception of her career, Dr. Ashley couldn’t start school right away. She saved $18 of her $20 per week, living on $2 at a time. Then she earned an associate, bachelors, masters, and doctorate in Nursing, becoming one of the first African American success stories at Texas Woman’s University.

Her road was not an easy one. With health exacerbated by lung disease, she chose to work a 5 a.m. – 1 p.m. shift to allow her to attend school in afternoons and evenings. Battling racism at its thickest, she constantly exceeded others expectations and paved the road for many to follow in her success.

7 Lessons I Learned and Love from My Relationship with:  Mary Holt Ashley

  • Obstacles overcome are stepping stones to stopping the naysayers.
  • Gains attained through unethical efforts will one day cost unaffordable prices.
  • While there’s no such thing as a perfect team, you can achieve a perfect effort.
  • It is far better to ensure your team knows they’re appreciated than to assume they think you believe they did a great job.
  • Irrespective of your industry, your product or service bears the brand of “you”. As such, produce with the consistency of what you purchase most loyally.
  • Be not beleaguered by wondering what you could have achieved. Pursue your passion to transcend the realm of possibilities.
  • Never judge an employee’s ability to contribute by the constraints of their position. Many CEOs were once entry level staff members. Greatness knows no boundaries. Just ask.

The #catchphrase I Remember Most from Dr. Ashley:  “Thanks for being on my team.”  Translation:  I’m glad you’ve shared your talent for the benefit of everyone you’ve touched.

My Best One Word Description:  “tenacious”

#catchthis:  What could you achieve if you overcame your obstacles?  What assets do you possess that could propel you into success?  What keeps you from doing what you love most?  How long will that last? What could you be missing? #catchyourdreams

Picture:  Mary Holt Ashley’s throwback from October 2005, evidencing even 10 years ago that she was a #dreamcatcher. After I sent in a 1,000 word essay nomination for her, she received the well deserved Best Nurse Leader Award and this photograph graced the cover of Advance for Nurses Magazine complete with a copy of the original nomination in the magazine, a feature length article, and several other prizes – it was the perfect retirement gift.

Photo Credit:  Advance for Nurses Online

This is how I catch my dreams, by emulating the excellence of people like Dr. Mary Holt Ashley.



  1. I am a true fan of Dr. Mary Holt-Ashley. She and I share a church! =) I absolutely agree with this entire write up. Thank you for honoring her. She so deserves it!


  2. What an exceptional article! I too was one of the mentees and I can say the time spent in the teaching box was life-changing. I find myself now, twenty years later, seeking every opportunity I can to pass on those same life-changing, professional and personal lessions taught to me by Dr. Ashley. What an honor and well deserved!


    1. Thanks, Sharon! I remain convinced that Dr. Ashley has touched more lives than she can ever know. I know her excellence in care ultimately benefited the patients, but she certainly inspired and shaped many professionals along the way. Glad you were able to be in the “teaching box”, too! -Carla


    2. Renee, you are absolutely right! One thing I must say – she is the same everywhere she goes. I remember being invited to speak at the church, and seeing her in that setting was like watching her operate in her gift both at home and in the workplace. Her spirit and passion are evident wherever she goes. Thanks for your feedback. I appreciate you reading! Stay tuned for more :o) -Carla


  3. What a beautifully-written piece…you certainly have a gift for writing. It is like an artist drawing a masterpiece; but then again, look at the “model” who provided the inspiration for that masterwork. you are so right…Dr. Ashley has influenced the lives and careers of many…I am confident that I would have NEVER learned to love writing had it not been for her. It was thrilling to have a peer-reviewed publication with her 30 years ago, but little did I know then what was coming. With each of our shared publication successes, I learned new lessons.

    I think there are about 75 peer-reviewed papers listed on my CV now, but the ones written with her are still my favorites. While the topics were pretty good…the experiences of working with her were priceless. I thank Dr. Ashley for her profound influence on my career and life…she taught me many life lessons that have served me well over the past 32 years. I also thank her for making me feel like a part of her team for so many years.

    With love to my dear friend…Kenn


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