Elmer Lucille Allen has lived several different lives in her 80-plus years. She was the first African-American chemist at Brown-Forman, and then in her 70s, switched the sides of her brain and received a graduate arts degree from the University of Louisville. She curates the Wayside Expressions Gallery, and her work in fiber and ceramic art has been exhibited at the Jackson Art Gallery at Kentucky State University, Bernheim Arboretum & Research Forest, Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Owensboro Museum of Fine Art, the State Capitol in Frankfort and elsewhere. She's also a grandmother, a breast cancer survivor and the subject of the 2003 play, “She Moves Like the Wind,” by Nancy Gall-Clayton. Here's what she has learned from those varied experiences.
• You have to stay involved. That's my secret to longevity.
• I attend lectures that pertain to art and community-related subjects. A few Saturdays ago I attended the unveiling of renovation plans for the Speed Museum. I went to Simpsonville to witness the unveiling of the marker for the Skirmish at Simpsonville. I often attend lectures at the Saturday Academy and the University of Louisville.
• I became the first African-American chemist at Brown-Forman in April 1966. When I graduated Nazareth College (now Spalding) in 1953, I could not find a job as a chemist in this area. Of the hundred-plus graduates, there were only two African Americans. My first job was as a clerk/typist at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana.
• I was working as a research chemist at the U of L School of Medicine for Dr. Felix Bronner when a co-worker told me there was a junior chemist position open at Brown-Forman. I applied and got the job.
• At the time I was not thinking about racial equality — but how I could fit into the fabric of the laboratory. I let my co-workers know that I was hired to do a specific job for which I was qualified, and I became friends with all of them.
• It showed me you can change the attitudes of people by being yourself and treating others like you want to be treated.
• I was 71 years old when I received my master's in creative arts from the University of Louisville. I have always been a student in some capacity, and had been taking classes of some sort since the '60s — woodworking, upholstering, tailoring, ceramics, jewelry, pottery.
• I love being in the student environment because when they see me work, they know they can do it.
• In 2000, I learned that I had breast cancer. It was discovered on a mammogram. Cancer runs in my family; my mother and sister both died of breast cancer, my father died of prostate cancer, and my brother is a prostate cancer survivor.
• At first I was told that I would have to have my right breast removed, but thank God, I had a family friend who became a spokesperson for me. She decided I needed a second and third opinion, and I ended up having a lumpectomy with radiation treatment.
• Two things this ordeal taught me: Family and friends are most important, and tomorrow is not promised.
— Larry Muhammad, The Courier-Journal