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  • Writer's pictureDonald V. Watkins

Inspiring Educational Excellence

Updated: Sep 6, 2022

By Donald V. Watkins ©Copyrighted and Published on July 7, 2018

I am so proud of my oldest sister Marie. She is always donating money for college scholarships. A July 5, 2018 Commercial Appeal news article described Marie's recent $25,000 scholarship endowment gift to LeMoyne-Owen College in Memphis. My father was the founding president of Owen Junior College, which later merged into LeMoyne College.

Marie attended Owen for her freshman year. She transferred to Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where she graduated with a degree in mathematics. Marie earned a doctorate in mathematics from the University of California at Berkley and had a successful career in telecommunications. She was one of the "human computers" whose pioneering mathematical algorithms and inventions for Bell Laboratories and Lucent Technologies paved the way for the modern era of telecommunications and the electronic transmission of data around the world.

In May, Marie spearheaded a Watkins family gift of $500,000 to Tennessee State University to establish an endowed scholarship fund in honor of our deceased brother, Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr., a TSU alumnus and world-renowned heart surgeon. The Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr. Endowed Scholarship Fund will provide financial assistance to pre-med majors at TSU based on high scholastic achievement. In conjunction with the scholarship fund, TSU will establish the Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr. Memorial Institute. This initiative will be made up of three components: the Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr. Society, the Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr. Pre-Med Society and the Dr. Levi Watkins, Jr. Lecture Series.

Last year, Spelman College alumna and professor, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Ph.D., established the Dr. Levi Watkins Jr. Scholars Program as well as a companion lecture series at Spelman that will explore contemporary issues of race, gender and sexuality, beginning this year. The scholars program and lecture series were launched with a pledge of $100,000 in May 2017.

Beverly is my first cousin. Her mother was my mother's youngest sister. She was also Levi's best friend.

Beverly is also the founding director of Spelman's Women’s Research and Resource Center and the Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women’s Studies. A pioneering Black feminist scholar/activist, Beverly has published a number of texts within African-American and women’s studies, which have been noted as seminal works by other scholars, including the first anthology on Black women’s literature, “Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature” and  “Words of Fire: An Anthology of African American Feminist Thought.”  

Beverly is the oldest of three daughters born to Walter and Ernestine Varnado-Guy in Memphis. She graduated high school at the age of 16 and attended Spelman College, where she graduated in 1966. Beverly received a Masters degree from Atlanta University in English and a Ph.D. from Emory University in 1984 in American Studies. She founded the Spelman Women's Research and Resources Center in 1981, the first of its kind at a Historically Black College or University. The Center also hosts the first Women's Studies program at a historically black college or university. In 1983, she became one of the founding co-editors of Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women.

The Watkins family's tradition of educational excellence is continued today through the work of Marie's son, Dr. Levi “Alec” Garraway, who is Vice President of Global Oncology at Eli Lilly and Company. In May of 2015, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute selected Alec as one of the nation’s top biomedical scientists. He graduated from Harvard University with a Ph.D. degree in biomedical research and a M.D. degree in medicine, both of which were conferred simultaneously.

Marie's oldest daughter, Dr. Isla Garraway, is also a pioneering cancer researcher. A surgeon-scientist, Isla is the principal investigator of a basic and translational science laboratory at UCLA that is focused on characterizing human prostate stem and tumor-initiating cells, and examining the biological and environmental interactions that influence the growth of cancerous tumors. Isla is a member of the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center and of the Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA. She is an attending urologist in the Greater Los Angeles VA Healthcare System. Isla holds Ph.D. and M.D. degrees from the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine in the same fields.

Marie's other daughter, Dr. Doris Garraway, holds a Bachelor's degree in French Language and Literature from the University of California at Berkeley, a Masters degree in French Literature from Duke University, and a Ph.D. degree from Duke University in French Literature. She is the author of The Libertine Colony: Creolization in the Early French Caribbean (Duke UP, 2005; reprint 2008), and editor of Tree of Liberty: Cultural Legacies of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World (University of Virginia Press, 2008). She is presently an Associate Professor of French and the Director of Undergraduate Studies in French at Northwestern University.

Alec, Isla, and Doris have first cousins who have achieved award-winning accomplishments in electronic media content (accumulating 18 Emmy Awards), transcendental meditation, insurance, financial services, and entrepreneurship.

Today, my children, grandchildren and their cousins are competing in learning and work environments that know no cultural or language barriers. Their friendships know no color or borders. As a result, they are growing in knowledge and wisdom at an accelerated pace.

We were extremely blessed to have parents who stressed the importance of education excellence, hard work, civic involvement, and a willingness to judge people based upon the content of their character. These core values have served the Carmichael/Varnado/Watkins family very well for six generations.

PHOTO: Dr. Annie Marie Watkins Garraway, Ph.D.

PHOTO: Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Ph.D.


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Donald V. Watkins
Donald V. Watkins
Jul 09, 2018

Before he died, my brother Levi, Jr., awarded a host of college scholarships to deserving college-bound students. Following in his footsteps, I awarded 32 college scholarship over the years through an organization I founded named Voter News Network. Marie and Beverly have taken the Carmichael/Varnado/Watkins family scholarship programs to a whole new level.


Donald V. Watkins
Donald V. Watkins
Jul 08, 2018

Several years ago, my cousin Beverly Guy-Sheftall was featured in a thought-provoking PBS special on Women's Studies. This short video is educational and worth watching today.


Donald V. Watkins
Donald V. Watkins
Jul 08, 2018

I have a healthy respect for women because my family is filled with smart, strong, progressive, and caring women. The women in the Carmichael/Varnado/Watkins family have always blocked for me on the playing field of life. They are my heroes. This is the reason I will not tolerate any abuse of any woman by any person for any reason.

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