Dr. Wilsie Bishop, who has been at East Tennessee State University since 1978, was recently honored by the Tenneessee Women’s Hall of Fame.(Photo contributed by ETSU)
Dr. Wilsie Bishop has never been one to shy away from a challenge. Perhaps that’s due to her upbringing on a 400-acre farm in central Virginia — a farm managed by her mother. Perhaps its because she graduated from high school in 1966, a time when women were encouraged to pursue more traditional career roles.
“It was never a realistic goal for me to be a doctor,” she said “This was the 1960s and this was pre-Title IV.”
She didn’t grow up to be a medical doctor or a veterinarian for that matter. But Bishop did grow up to be the first woman to hold the position of chief operating officer and vice president at East Tennessee State University.
“I think I’ve always been willing to say ‘Yes’ when people have said ‘Are you willing to try?’” Bishop said in an interview recorded prior to her induction into the Tennessee Women’s Hall of Fame. “From that very first job interview, when they said ‘Do you think you can teach maternity nursing?’ and I said ‘Yes,’ then ‘Do you think you could be the chair?’ and I said “Yes.’ ‘Would you like to be dean?’ And I said ‘Yes.’”
Along the way, it has helped that Bishop has had the gumption to “grab the brass ring.” That meant walking into Western Kentucky University to ask for her first teaching job. It was a job she kept for three years despite passing out on her first day while watching a breast biopsy. That meant walking into the 97th Army General Hospital in Frankfurt, Germany, and asking if help was needed. And, that meant walking into the Department of Nursing at ETSU in 1978 and asking if they needed any faculty.
Though neither of Bishop’s parents graduated from high school, they understood the value of a good education. While her dad worked on the railroad, her mom took care of the animals and her maternal grandmother did the cooking, Bishop studied. She graduated as class valedictorian and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing from Virginia Commonwealth University.
While in nursing school, a faculty member encouraged her to think about teaching, and that planted the seed, she said.
She began her nursing career at the Medical College of Virginia, first in general patient care then in the cardiac surgery unit. After that, her career depended on where husband Paul’s military service took them. The couple moved to Kentucky, and she was given her first teaching job — operating room nursing at Western Kentucky University. Three years later, in 1974, the Army sent them to Germany. She walked into the 97th Army General Hospital and ended up with a job in the neonatal intensive care unit.
“That was a wonderful experience. .. I’ve always been willing to grab the brass ring. Part of this goes back to being a woman, pre-Title IV. And I had to take advantage of things as I got them,” she said.
While in Germany, she earned a master’s degree in education through the University School of Education at the University of Southern California. Son Joe was born in Germany in May 1976 and, two weeks later, the family left Germany for Richmond, Va. While living in Richmond, Paul earned a master’s degree in administration, and she got her master’s in nursing in 1978.
The family moved to Kingsport after Paul accepted a job as an assistant administrator at Holston Valley Medical Center, a position he held from 1978 to 1992. That’s when Bishop set her sights on teaching at ETSU. She admits that she really didn’t know much about the university and its relatively new medical school when she found her way to the chair’s office in the Department of Nursing.
“I just asked Mickey Badgett, who was chair, ‘Do you need any faculty?’’ Badgett’s reply: “Can you teach maternity nursing?”
With that, Bishop’s career at ETSU began. That teaching job came about because a College of Nursing faculty member was on maternity leave.
Bishop decided she needed a doctorate to help make her rise in administration possible and she found a Southern Cal program in Washington, D.C.
“I flew to Washington, D.C. every month for about six years, which was not bad for doing it part-time. It was an absolutely perfect program for me. I had a wonderful educational experience. Again, that was looking for an opportunity,” she said.
Paul, who retired from health care and is now a professional photographer, and Joe traveled with her. Today, Joe is a civilian contractor in Army aviation, based at the Pentagon. Their support propelled her career forward, but not at the expense of family. Bishop and Paul had long before established a family doctrine that said “Family first. Career second.”
At ETSU, Bishop’s career was picking up speed and permanence. She became interim chair of the department just two years after arriving on campus, associate vice president for Health Affairs in 1989 and dean of the College of Public and Allied Health in 1994. In 2005, Dr. Paul E. Stanton Jr. appointed her vice president of administration and university chief operating officer, making her the first woman vice president at ETSU. In 2007, she was appointed vice president for Health Affairs while maintaining her role as COO.
“I love what I’m doing right now, working with the five deans of the colleges. I really have found a job that allows me to use my strengths and build organizations, work with people in organizations,” she said.
Under Bishop’s watch, ETSU increased the visibility of its Academic Health Sciences Center (AHSC), and today Bishop is one of only two nurses in the nation who leads an AHSC. The AHSC is comprised of five colleges — the Bill Gatton College of Pharmacy, the College of Clinical and Rehabilitative Health Sciences, the James H. Quillen College of Medicine, the College of Nursing and the College of Public Health. ETSU is the flagship health sciences institution for the Tennessee Board of Regents, and the university has the only AHSC between Roanoke, Va., and Memphis.
Last year, Dr. Phyllis Thompson, director of Women’s Studies at ETSU, nominated Bishop for the Tennessee Women’s Hall of Fame. The TWHOF was established in 2010 as a registered program of the Tennessee Economic Council on Women. The purpose of the hall of fame is to recognize and honor women who are exceptionally accomplished and have made outstanding, unique and lasting contributions to the economic, political, cultural and political well-being of Tennessee.
Last October, Bishop was one of six women inducted into the TWHOF, joining previous inductees Martha Craig Daughtrey, Jane Eskind and Pat Head Summitt.
“I was blown away,” Bishop said of the recognition. “I was really surprised. It was one of the nicest honors I’ve ever received.”
At 65, Bishop isn’t even considering retirement. Instead, she plans to stick around and watch her university grow even more.