If it hadn’t been for a chauvinist law school dean in Columbus, OH, Memphis may have never had the privilege of knowing Meri Armour. But after storming out of a degrading admissions interview, Meri decided to stick with her nursing training. She used her LSAT-conquering smarts to bring administrative efficiency and compassionate vision to hospitals in her hometown, and then found her calling as president of Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in 2007. This year she will step down from official leadership, but will clearly always have the best interests of Le Bonheur in her heart. Meet this week’s FACE of Memphis, Meri Armour!
Where were you born and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in a small town outside of Atlanta, so brought up in the South. My parents were Oglethorpe and Georgia Tech graduates before World War II, and I spent until I was nine living there. Then we moved up north to Detroit, and Detroit to Cleveland, OH. I actually have great Southern roots. I grew up eating grits and fried chicken on Sunday. None of it was new when I came down here in terms of food and culture.
How did you choose healthcare as your path?
I graduated from an all-girls Catholic high school in 1968, and in those days, the women’s movement was just coming alive. Every guidance counselor I ever had said, your choices were to be a nun, a teacher, a nurse or a secretary. I was always taking care of doll babies and fixing them up and making bandages and things, so that seemed to be the natural thing. I was a product of my generation — let’s just say that.
Is there another path you would have been interested in exploring if everything had been open to you?
I think I would have gone into law school and politics, frankly. Now, at this age I say that; I don’t know what I would have done at 18. But I did try at one time to go to law school. I took the LSAT, and I did well on it. I wanted to go to Capital University Law School. I had an interview with the dean and I remember walking in to this office in my little navy blue suit, and I sat down across from him and he said, “Now tell me, what does a sweet young thing like you want to go to law school for?” I told him all the reasons I wanted to go to law school and he said, “You’ll never make it. All of the deals are made in the locker room and on the golf course. It’s just not a place for women.” And this was a pretty progressive law school at the time. It was 1974. I was so ticked off, so I just dropped the whole thing and didn’t do it.
How did you make the decision to move into the administrative side of healthcare?
In those days, you moved up from being a nurse, and then you were charge nurse, and next thing you were the head nurse, and pretty soon you’re the assistant director. I would like to tell you that I had this really planned career, but I didn’t. It just sort of evolved, as they say.
I certainly have had a remarkable career in terms of leadership opportunities and the ability to do things, but I don’t kid myself or anybody else that it was a grand and glorious scheme that I had for my personal development. I think I was very fortunate and had a lot of good mentors who pointed me in the right direction.
How did spending your career in hospitals influence your overall perspective?
We are really about the future, so we’re always looking at children and what can we do both in the hospital physically for their illnesses or chronic conditions, but also all the kids that are in the communities and in the schools and in daycares — those are all of our kids, in a children’s hospital. You think about all of them.
What do you feel that Le Bonheur adds to the Memphis community specifically?
I really do think that Le Bonheur is the true north when it comes to how important children are for this city and the region and this nation. It’s so fortunate that we’re seeing again a youthful group of people who are stepping into the political world and fighting for the environment. It just makes me so proud to know that the legacy we maybe had a stake in is going to be someone who is going to do something great someday.
What are you proudest of at Le Bonheur?
The culture of Le Bonheur — it’s really a place where people get it in terms of what’s important. They care a great deal about the work they do, and they care a great deal about each other. It really is a family mentality in that sense.
What are you most looking forward to in your next chapter?
Not having to get up and go to 7 a.m. meetings. If I could avoid anything in my life, it would be that. I’m up every day between 4 and 5 anyhow, but it’s that whole thing of having to take a shower and get dressed and put on makeup and blow your hair dry. I will look very much forward to just being able to stay in my jammies for a couple of hours every morning.
When did you really start to feel that Memphis was your home?
Pretty much right away, to tell you the truth. For me, it wasn’t as hard, culturally, to come here. I’d been raised by a mother who was very Southern. We fit in as a family. We made a very easy transition to being here. Memphis is a great city. People don’t appreciate it sometimes for what value it really brings. It’s like a big small town. You can’t go anywhere that you don’t see someone you know.
Other than the hospital, what is the first place you take people visiting Memphis?
Central BBQ — that’s always been a favorite place. The one on Central is so fun, particularly in the summertime. You sit out there and it’s roasting hot, and it’s still fun.
What is your best advice?
There are these billboards that are up and they’re black and have white lettering on them and they’re supposedly messages from God, and the one I love the most says, “Just love them all, I’ll sort it out later. – God.”
What are three things you can’t live without?
Obviously makeup and my hairdryer. You can’t live a day without gratitude — you have to really be grateful for what you have and realize we have so much more than so many people do, not only in the world but in our city. And the comfort and solace of good people around you — that makes every day better.
Thank you, Meri! And thank you to Laura Armstrong of NLA Projects for these beautiful photos.
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