Posted by Mary Wimberley on 2008-02-14

The call to service depends largely on circumstances, and can be quite different from what a person has planned, circuit judge Helen Shores Lee told Samford University students Thursday, Feb. 14.

Using her life story as compelling example, Judge Lee noted that as long as there is a desire to serve, "God will lead us to decisions concerning our work, home, family and community that will benefit us in the long run."

Lee, who grew up in segregated Birmingham in the 1950s, left the state for graduate school and ultimately became a prominent Birmingham lawyer and judge, spoke as this year's Marie NeSmith Fowler lecturer.

The annual series is sponsored by Samford's Christian Women's Leadership Center.

"God brought me through many experiences and relationships that had a direct impact on my call to service," said Lee.

Lee described her childhood in Birmingham, where she faced two challenges: one as a black child in a segregated city, and one as a daughter of Arthur Shores, a prominent practicing attorney and highly visible figure in the civil rights movement.

The young Helen often resented the frequent threats to the Shores family and necessary security measures that intruded on her childhood.

"I didn't appreciate that I had a front row seat to history in the making," said Lee, recalling that her family housed visiting personalities such as Thurgood Marshall, who would later be named to the U.S. Supreme Court. "I liked him because he had time for my sister and me. He would let us ride on his back," said Lee.

A childhood filled with nights of sleeping with a gun under her pillow, seeing her home bombed and mother injured, and enduring spiteful name calling from white youth caused her to vow to leave her native Birmingham forever.

She also vowed to never pursue a career in law because of the treatment she had seen her father receive in courtrooms, especially when he represented Autherine Lucy, who in 1955 became the first black student to enroll at the University of Alabama.

After graduating from Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., she earned a master's in clinical psychology at Pepperdine University in California, where she and her husband began raising a family.

The love for Birmingham was not severed entirely, however, and eventually the family moved back home. After 13 years practicing clinical psychology in Birmingham, and treating one too many sadly abusive situations, she sought a career change.

Acknowledging a readiness to follow in her father's professional footsteps, she enrolled at Samford's Cumberland School of Law, graduating in 1987.

"I share these stories with you to illustrate that, although we set goals for ourselves, know that God may change these goals as he sees fit.

"You can't run from what God has chosen for you," said Lee, who became a law partner in the firm of Shores and Lee, served as chair of the Alabama State Ethic Commission, and in 2003 became the first African-American woman judge in the civil division of the circuit court of Jefferson County.

"Instead of running away like I did when I left Birmingham, I have learned that if I am to promote the welfare of my community and make my city a better place to live, then I must give of my time, service and self for the benefit of others," she said. "Giving of your time and service can be one of the most rewarding experiences in life."

Out of service is born leadership, she said. "In so doing, we demonstrate the highest form of Christian leadership, a life modeled after the life of Jesus Christ, who lived for the purpose of serving others."

The Fowler lecture series honors Samford pharmacy alumna Marie NeSmith Fowler of Hartselle, a Samford graduate who was one of the first female pharmacists and pharmacy owners in Alabama.

Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Samford enrolls 5,791 students from 49 states, Puerto Rico and 16 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.