The mayor is a mom, but also a daughter

Publication: 
The Baltimore Sun

Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake might be Baltimore's highest-ranking mother, balancing her role as mom to 6-year-old Sophia with her duties as mayor.

But there is another mother who plays an important role in City Hall — the mayor's mom. Whether she is caring for her lively young granddaughter or embracing old friends or former patients at official events, Dr. Nina Rawlings stands by her daughter, offering quiet wisdom and a helping hand.

"I could not do what I do as mayor without my mom," said Rawlings-Blake, explaining that her mother hustles Sophia off to school in the morning and helps her with homework in the afternoon. "She taught me by example how to be a strong person without apologizing for living your own life."

Rawlings, 74, has a remarkable history. Born to hardworking parents who stressed the value of education, she was among the first black women to graduate from the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

She raised three children while caring for patients in an office in her home and working around the packed political schedule of her husband, the late Del. Howard P. Rawlings. She ferried her children to ballet and karate lessons in taxicabs — she didn't learn to drive until her 40s — sewed her daughters' matching pink-and-gold dresses and, in rare moments of free time, honed a mean game of pinochle.

In four decades as a pediatrician, Rawlings cared for countless children. And she savored watching her own — who include a Princeton-educated program director, the founder of a consulting firm and, of course, the city's second female mayor — grow into themselves. Now she delights in guiding her granddaughter's progress.

"I have a little plaque that I used to have in my office, and it says, 'A baby is a beautiful way to start a person,' " said Rawlings. "Sophia found it the other day and wanted to know what it meant. As I was explaining it to her, it really brought it home to me. We talked about planting a seed, watching the little sprouts and then it turns into a beautiful flower. It's like that with a kid. It's beautiful watching a child develop."

The second of nine children born to Marjorie Brown Cole, a stay-at-home mother, and Walter Franklin Cole, a laborer, Nina Cole started caring for children as a "little mother" to her young siblings. She decided that she wanted to be a doctor before she was old enough to read, when her elder sister grew ill with rheumatic fever.

"I kept an interest in medicine from then on. Whenever my mother had to take someone to the hospital or the doctor, I had to come along," she said. "I just loved hospitals and the way they smelled. I wanted to be a doctor to help children like my sister get well."

The Coles exposed the children to literature, music and art from an early age. They walked from their home in the Barclay neighborhood to art lessons at the Baltimore Museum of Art and, as soon as the children could print their names, they got library cards at the old Enoch Pratt Free Library branch in the 2600 block of St. Paul St.

Both parents pushed their children to excel in school. If her father missed parent-teacher conferences because he had to work a night shift, he would come to school the next day and sit down with each child's teacher, Rawlings recalled.

After graduating from Douglass High School, Rawlings entered the pre-med program at what was then Morgan State College. She met her husband, a math major, at Morgan, and they were married in 1960.

Rawlings enrolled in the University of Maryland School of Medicine in the early 1960s — a time when it was rare for women, let alone a black woman, to pursue a medical degree. While Rawlings is modest about her role as a trailblazer, she acknowledges that she faced hostility from some students and staff members.

To complicate matters, Rawlings became pregnant with her eldest daughter, Lisa, while still in medical school. Her mother-in-law stepped in to care for the baby while Rawlings was in class or working at the hospital, but she made sure the young mother discovered the child's milestones on her own.

"She didn't want me to miss any part of motherhood, even though I was so busy," Rawlings said. "Sometimes I would be so tired I would be sitting at the table half-asleep feeding Lisa. One night, I heard this little tinkle on the spoon, and I looked in her mouth and saw that tooth. But my mother-in-law never said, 'Did you see Lisa's tooth?' She wanted me to discover it on my own."

Stephanie was born five years after Lisa, and Wendell came a year and a half later. In 1979, when the younger children were still in elementary school, Pete Rawlings was elected to Maryland's House of Delegates. He remained in office until his death from cancer in 2003.

During the General Assembly session, the influential delegate would often be forced to stay in Annapolis and not see his family for days at a time. His wife worked doubly hard to keep the household running smoothly — making meals in bulk on Sundays and giving the children a healthy breakfast on their way out the door.

"When we had school projects, she would stay up after she had already worked Lord knows how many hours to help us out," said Wendell Rawlings, 38, who founded an energy-efficiency consulting company.

But Rawlings did not hesitate to show her children who was boss. Once when young Wendell and Stephanie grew rowdy while their mom was playing pinochle with friends, she threatened to spank them, Wendell Rawlings said. The two children locked themselves in the bathroom, then, an hour later, cautiously opened the door. Their mother was still waiting outside.

The children always knew that they were held to a high standard, Wendell Rawlings said.

"They would sit you down and say, 'You're a Rawlings. You act accordingly when you're at home with family or outside,' " he said.

All three children helped in their mother's office when they grew older, answering the telephone, measuring the height and weight of patients, and serving as role models to younger children.

In 40 years in practice — she retired in 2006 — Rawlings cared for three generations of patients.

"I don't care where I go in the city, people ask me about my mom," said Lisa Rawlings, 45, who heads an entrepreneurship program at the University of Maryland and at Prince George's Community College. "They know my dad from the media, seeing him on TV and in the newspaper. But they know my mom because she took care of them or she took care of their children."

Being a pediatrician is as much about caring for the emotional development of children and parents as treating sore throats and bandaging cuts, Rawlings said.

"Once in a while, a mother brings in a child for a cold, and you ask the child what's wrong and they say, 'Nothing,' " she said. "Then you know the mother needs to come in and talk about something. Each case is different. You need to find a solution everyone can live with."

Having a mother who was a pediatrician made it impossible to fake a malady to play hooky from school, said Rawlings-Blake, recalling that she once briefly considered toppling down the steps to break a leg to avoid a test.

But seeing her mother balance the demands of seeing patients and caring for her family shaped Rawlings-Blake's perspective — both as a mother and a mayor.

"People say, 'How can you be so calm?' I get a lot of that from my mom. As a doctor, you have to be calm. You want a doctor to think about what has to be done and do it," said Rawlings-Blake. "I never think of any challenge as being insurmountable because of my mom."

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