Women's History Month: Education leads the way to 42-year career for Tinker icon

  • Published
  • By Brandice J. O'Brien
  • Tinker Public Affairs
"The only difference between a stumbling block and stepping stone is how you use it," said Dr. Lola King, 72nd Force Support Squadron Education officer.

Dr. King has faced plenty of stumbling blocks and stepping stones along her journey. But, she said they are what led her to where she is today -- the holder of bachelor's and master's degrees, a Ph.D., and a 42-year Tinker career.

Her story begins in the fall of 1965. Dr. King, then a 25-year-old divorced mother of three, received $109 a month from her ex-husband to support herself and the children. But, it wasn't enough. Each autumn, the Faver High School graduate from Guthrie picked cotton to buy her children their school supplies and winter coats.

One hot day, while standing in a field of 7-foot Johnson grass and dripping with sweat, she looked up to the sky and said, "God, there must be something better than this!"
There was and she found it.

At the start of Langston University's next school year, in 1966, Dr. King was among the incoming freshmen. She paid for her education by working as a relief dishwasher at the Masonic Home for the Aged on Saturdays.

"They served family style, which means there were a lot of dishes," Dr. King said. "They had coffee pots and tea pots, bowls and serving bowls on everybody's tables. I had a lot of dishes."

Though the job paid less than $20 a month, it was a start. Times were hard; and because Dr. King didn't have a vehicle, she often carpooled, hitchhiked or walked the 17 miles to school. She refused to give up hope and refused to accept stumbling blocks. Dr. King also remarried and had a fourth child.

Within her first semester, Dr. King learned if she earned a 4.0 grade point average, she would be granted free tuition the next semester. She quit her dishwashing job and went to work on improving her GPA, which she accomplished.

"Otherwise, I probably wouldn't have stayed at Langston," she said. "That $20 a month wasn't going to cover tuition."

Three years later, in 1969, just before her graduation, she met with a Tinker recruiter at Langston. He told her about the Quality Grad program. Within two weeks and armed with a bachelor's degree in social science, Dr. King ventured to Tinker to learn more about it. She was hired on the spot, and because she graduated with a 3.97 cumulative GPA, she was exempt from taking the federal service entrance exam, a mandatory step in the hiring process.

Dr. King was the first African-American and female production controller at a Tinker welding shop. Over the next six years, she scheduled the workload for the shop and ensured the welders had the necessary manufacturing and repair parts for their work. Eventually, it led to her organizing the workload for eight separate shops. Though worthwhile, Dr. King said she faced a lot of adversity; more so as a woman than as an African American.

"When they'd come to talk to me in the welding shop, they didn't want to talk to me because they didn't think I could relate to welding. Once they found out I could do that and I broke that barrier, it was hands-free," Dr. King said, "but I was still black.

"I've really felt fortunate at Tinker, that I haven't felt racism or discrimination from my supervision. It's only been from the external people," Dr. King said. "My supervisors always had faith and confidence in me and I just had to prove it to the public."

In 1973, Dr. King returned to school. This time she attended Central State University - now the University of Central Oklahoma - in Edmond, to pursue a master's degree. It was part of her "then some" theory, a concept introduced to her by one of her Langston professors.

He used the "then some" theory to award grades and said if a student turns in an assignment on time, but only puts forth mediocre effort, he earns a "C." If the student turns in a great effort and on time, he will earn a "B." If the student does a great job on an assignment, turns it in on time and does extra work, that equals an "A."

"It was the 'then some' that got the superior rating," Dr. King said. "I found that to also be true on the job. You have to demonstrate that you can perform on the next level."

Two years later in September 1975, she graduated with a master's in guidance and counseling and transferred to Tinker's Education Office. The wife of one of Dr. King's former maintenance supervisors asked if she'd return to maintenance and work for her husband again. Dr. King said she couldn't turn down the opportunity to try something new and stayed at the education office.

"The education office was more in line with my degree and I wanted the challenge of something different," Dr. King said. "Plus, education is life and the most reliable upward mobility tool that I know of. It's my passion."

She served as a counselor to the education specialist for two years. In 1977, Dr. King, who divorced again, was promoted to education officer and held that position for seven years. Within the two positions, she counseled students, did reports and trained incoming personnel.

In 1979, Dr. King began work on another degree. This time she pursued a doctorate in human resources development from Oklahoma State University at the Oklahoma City campus. She finished in 1983.

Once again, particularly in the workplace, she had to prove herself.

She often faced work-stoppage when customers didn't want to work with a woman and insisted on speaking with her male supervisor. But, time and patience proved to be her friend and they eventually came around.

"They wanted to deal with the 'real' education officer, not with a woman," Dr. King said. "They didn't understand the lessons of 'Rosie the Riveter.' Those lessons did not automatically kick in at any of these jobs. I had to prove myself and they had to be forced to work with me."

In 1984, Dr. King voluntarily stepped down from the education officer position. Having been met with a lot of resistance, she realized she preferred being an education specialist. There, she had more interaction with the students and counseling them.

She got her way for six years. In 1990, she was asked to return to the education officer position, where she has been ever since. Dr. King said she set several standards for the position; she is the first African-American, woman and only person to have held the job twice.

Dr. King is responsible for coordinating education endeavors between various colleges and universities, and Tinker. She ensures students' tuition needs are met, the right degree programs are offered, and students are able to meet their professional and educational goals.

"Dr. King has an impeccable work ethic," said David Ragsdale, 72nd FSS Force Development Flight chief and Dr. King's supervisor. "Her top concern is ensuring the voluntary education program is the best in the Air Force ... each day she comes to work, she gives 100 percent to ensure each Airman who comes through the education center's doors gets the utmost service and care to enable them to achieve their education goals."

Phyllis Atkins-Johnson, long-time friend and colleague, agreed.

"Dr. King is dedicated to accomplishing the mission and puts the mission first and herself second. That's what has kept her here at Tinker for as long as it has, I'm convinced of it," said Ms. Atkins-Johnson, 72nd Air Base Wing Transformation Office Management and Program analyst.

Looking back on her tenure and achievements, 71-year-old Dr. King said she hasn't forgotten where she came from.

"I still have a stalk of cotton set in a base, which says, 'motivation,'" she said. "This was the stumbling block that I turned into my stepping stone, which led me on my college career, my career at Tinker and the award of my Ph.D. in 1983."

Dr. King said her two of her four children have obtained college degrees. One daughter has a bachelor's degree and the other, a master's.