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Olden Urges Fourth and Fifth Graders to Dream

By Eddy Ball
March 2007

Ken Olden
"It happened because I paid attention to my teachers when they told me to read and sit down and behave," Olden told the students at Club Boulevard. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Ken Olden speaking to an audience of 4th graders
The 10- and 11-year-old students listened closely to Olden and stayed on their best behavior as he described his journey from a sharecropper's farm near Newport, Tenn. to the director's office on the NIEHS campus in RTP. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Ken Olden, Micah Copeland and John Peterson
Olden talked with Club Boulevard Principal Micah Copeland, left, and John Peterson of NIEHS prior to the talk. Peterson's wife, Jo Anne, sponsored Olden's talk at the school. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Club Boulevard Humanities Magnet School
Club Boulevard Humanities Magnet Elementary School sits in a quiet, older neighborhood in north Durham. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

On February 5, NIEHS Director Emeritus Kenneth Olden, Ph.D., spoke to approximately 120 fourth- and fifth-grade students at Club Boulevard Humanities Magnet Elementary School. Olden's 90-minute talk and question-and-answer session were part of the Durham school's celebration of Black History Month.

Gathered in the school's media center, the students listened attentively as Olden described his childhood on his family's small farm in rural East Tennessee. Olden's family had few resources, but they had a deep respect for education and believed that it would help the five children get ahead in life.

Olden and his brothers and sisters walked six miles each day to a small segregated rural school. It was there that one of his teachers convinced him that determination and hard work were the keys to success. "'By golly!' my teacher always said, 'you boys and girls can become anything you want,'" Olden recalled. "And I believe that. If you want something badly enough, you can eventually make it happen."

When he was old enough to work in town, he became "a shoe shine boy with a dream," saving enough money to pay for his first year at Knoxville College. Every summer after that, he worked to pay for the next year's room, board and tuition - as a dishwasher, cook, farm worker and construction laborer.

All of the five children in the Olden family finished high school, which was quite unusual at the time in that community. Olden was the only one in his family and, for many years, the only one in his community to finish college.

After graduating in a high school class of 11 students, Olden began college determined to go to medical school, even when that meant swallowing his pride and taking remedial courses to make up for deficiencies in his rural education. "I made the decision early," he recalled. "No matter how hard I had to work, no matter how much time I had to spend reading and re-reading my assignments, I was not going to be denied an education."

In 1959 an opportunity to be one of the first two African-Americans to attend the undergraduate school of the University of Tennessee exposed him to laboratory research and changed the course of his life. Instead of settling for a rural medical practice, Olden decided to pursue a career where "I could [potentially] affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people."

After graduation, his pursuit took him to the University of Michigan for a master's degree, Temple University for a doctorate in cell physiology and biochemistry, and Harvard University for postdoctoral work. With his advanced degrees, Olden went to work in cancer research at the National Cancer Institute and Howard University Cancer Center before being appointed as director of NIEHS in 1991.

When he began his talk, Olden showed the students a photo and story from the Newport, Tenn. newspaper about his great-grandmother, Augusta Foster, who was born into slavery in 1855. Foster lived with the family when Olden was a child, and the contrast between her experiences and his taught him an important lesson about making the most of new opportunities in a changing world. As he reached the end of his talk, Olden reflected on the much different prospects Foster faced four generations ago. "How could my great-grandmother ever have imagined what would happen in my lifetime?" he asked.

After the talk, Olden took questions from the audience. Many of the students were interested in the scientist's own children, and several wanted to know more about the famous people he has known - presidents, senators, performers and, especially, Hillary Clinton.

Others were intrigued by Olden's cancer research and asked questions about chemotherapy and its side effects. One boy's question about how to get ahead brought a telling response from Olden: "If you can dream it, you can do it."

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