GREENWOOD, S.C. – It started more than 100 years ago with a chance happening – and eventually led to a time-honored custom that has no end in sight.
On Dec. 16, 2017, Barbara Ellis Bradford of Charleston, S.C., became the seventh member of her family to graduate from Lander University – carrying a tradition that now spans four generations.
Bradford joined her father, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, an aunt, and a great-great aunt to claim Lander – in all of its forms and changes through the last century – as the family’s university.
“It was a dream of mine to continue this Lander family tradition,” said Barbara Ellis, who not only earned a degree in nursing, but also achieved the 2017 RN-BSN Academic Award for highest grade. “And to graduate in this way has meant so much to me and my entire family.”
Her father, Sam Bradford, added that his daughter’s continuing of the family heritage was “more accidental than something planned.”
“Lander’s online Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing was exactly what Barbara was looking for in a nursing program,” said Bradford, who graduated Lander in 1977. “That she is a fourth generation legacy was just icing on the cake.”
Yet, ironically, Barbara Ellis was almost the one to break the family tradition – in a way that reflected the original near-miss of her great-grandmother Pearl Napier Ellis.
On Sept. 27, 1904, when 18-year-old Pearl Napier first entered college to study art, she did so only because college unexpectedly came to her first. She had passed on the idea of going to an institute of higher learning because there wasn’t one close by and she had no desire to be away from her family in Greenwood.
That previous spring, however, the Williamston Female College about 40 miles away had completed the relocation of its campus to Greenwood – less than two miles from Napier’s home. It had even been renamed as Lander College, and the founder, Samuel Lander, had laid the cornerstone of a new building in May, just months before his death.
The presence of Lander College made Pearl Napier change her mind about pursuing a higher education, and on that autumn day in 1904, she became one of about 140 young women who began studies that included music, English, history, math, science, geography, and foreign languages.
Four terms later, on June 6, 1906, Pearl Napier was in Lander’s first graduating class after its move to the new location.
At the time, her graduation was simply a personal happy moment. She later married and moved to Charleston — and that would have likely been the end of the family connection to Lander.
“Except that her time at Lander was so good that it influenced her sister Dorothy, Barbara’s great-great aunt, to enroll in 1907,” Sam Bradford said.
Pearl also decided to come back in 1908 for two more years as a special student in Arts and Music.
“And I think the two of them being here together kind of started the family tradition,” Sam Bradford said.
But it would be more than 30 years before that tradition returned, when Barbara Ellis’s grandmother, Elizabeth Ellis Bradford, graduated Lander in 1941.
Her second aunt, Lebby Bradford Lamb, followed with a degree in 1963, which she used to pursue her Masters in library science at UNC-Chapel Hill before becoming a long-time reference librarian with the city of Greensboro, N.C.
While he did not attend Lander, Barbara Ellis’s great uncle, James W. (Bill) Bradford, a lifelong Greenwood resident and attorney, was on the Lander Board of Trustees in the 1970s and played a key role on Lander’s transition to a state-supported university.
Barbara Ellis’ mother, Deronda Davidson Bradford, graduated in 1975 and followed her Lander degree with a Masters in social work 1978 from USC in Columbia.
And after dad Sam Bradford spent two years in the army before returning to Lander to graduate in 1977 with a Bachelors in Psychology, it was an all-but-unspoken expectation that “at least one member of the family would keep up the tradition.”
But despite numerous family hints and nudges while growing up, Barbara Ellis wasn’t so keen to enter Lander.
She had no desire to move from Charleston – just like great-grandmother Pearl hadn’t wanted to leave Greenwood – and she didn’t want to go far from home to achieve her goal of becoming a nurse.
So after attaining an associate degree in nursing from Trident Technical College in Charleston, Barbara Ellis started her professional nursing career at nearby Roper Hospital in 2008, working first in the Cardio-Thoracic Surgical step-down unit, and later as an Occupational Health nurse.
Now married with one child, and soon followed by another, thoughts of attending Lander practically vanished – until she decided to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. Then the hints and nudges started to return.
“I didn't take them seriously until my 30s, when I began searching for a RN-BSN program,” Barbara Ellis said. “But as I matured as a nurse, I realized the importance of continuing my education, and Lander’s online nursing program would allow me to balance my time among schooling, work and family.”
Entering into Lander’s online nursing program in 2015, Barbara Ellis spent two years earning her degree, again reflecting the original outcome of great-grandmother Pearl.
“Returning to school to complete a degree while working full-time requires commitment and perseverance,” said Robbie South, professor emeritus of Nursing and former director of the William Preston Turner School of Nursing at Lander. “Barbara has been an outstanding student and a role model for others nurses who are considering returning to school.”
Now looking to obtain a Masters in Nursing, Barbara Ellis is considering coming back to Lander a second time – practically in step with great-grandmother Pearl. But without anyone in her family saying it – even though they have already said it – she knows what the next important step is.
“I need to figure out how to get my children to become the fifth generation to graduate from Lander,” she said, laughing. “It was incredibly special for me to continue this tradition in my family. Knowing that I walked the same campus as my mother, father, aunts, grandmother, and especially my great-grandmother has moved me to my core.”