Congressman John Lewis to speak at GSU’s Barbara Pittard Payne Lecture on March 12

Civil rights icon will focus on “Politics and Issues of Aging” for annual gerontology event

Helping empower older people was Barbara Pittard Payne-Stancil’s driving force, and when she needed help in government, she often turned to John Lewis.

On March 12, Lewis – a U.S. Representative who also served in the Georgia House of Representatives – will continue her legacy at GSU by speaking on the current issues facing older adults. His speech is scheduled for 6 p.m. in the Student Center Ballroom followed by a reception.

“At a time when our economy is struggling to recover, we must not trade our fundamental beliefs for the sake of a dollar, especially when there are other viable options that would not require our elders to fall into poverty,” Lewis said. “That is why policymakers must protect Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and strengthen the prospects of long-term care and other supports to extend the offerings of elders to our society.”

Payne-Stancil’s passion for the elderly led to the creation of GSU’s Gerontology Institute, where she served as founding director. Her generosity funded the annual Barbara Pittard Payne Lectureship in Gerontology, which began prior to her death in 2001 at age 81.

Her connections in politics on behalf of Georgia’s elderly led to her marriage later in her life to Frank Stancil, a Georgia legislator.

From his leadership in the civil rights movement 50 years ago to his political work today, Lewis “shows that age doesn’t mean you don’t have a lot of battles left to fight,” Gerontology Institute Director Elisabeth Burgess said. “As the generation of adults involved in social activism age themselves, we’re seeing more of these issues framed in a social justice perspective.”

Payne-Stancil’s daughter, Rev. Betsy Styles, said her mother “would be very happy that Congressman Lewis is speaking here. She wanted speakers from the leading edge of these issues, and she knew almost all of them personally, including him.”

Payne-Stancil’s work took her to the Georgia legislature, where she made connections to Lewis and others on behalf of the Georgia Council on Aging. She met him again at the White House Conference on Aging, which influenced the rewriting of the Older Americans Act to give more political power to those 65 and older.

“They kept crossing paths when he was in politics in Georgia and then nationally,” Styles said. “If she needed to know the status of a bill or issue, she didn’t hesitate to call him. They were political comrades.”

Payne-Stancil’s passion for gerontology, her daughter said, grew out of challenges in her personal and professional life. In the late 1950s, Payne-Stancil she  was pursuing a Ph.D. in sociology at Emory University when her father’s health began to fail.

“There was no home health care at the time, so she had to hire a male student in nursing to come in and help,” Styles said. “That’s how she got interested in health care and other issues of the aging.”

GSU hired her as one of its first full-time sociology professors. She began to specialize in urban gerontology and attract other GSU scholars whose work involved the aging, leading to the establishment of the GSU Gerontology Institute.

Until 1990, when she reached the then-mandatory retirement age of 70, Payne-Stancil passed down her knowledge of the elderly to younger generations of students. Her class rosters included her own daughter and granddaughter.

Styles (M.S., 1989) received a certificate in gerontology after taking classes with her mother. She became an ordained Methodist minister with a specialty in gerontology. Styles’ daughter, Rachel Anne Brown (B.S.N., 1985) took the class, “Death and Dying.”

Payne-Stancil’s career epitomizes the value of lifelong knowledge to improve life for future generations.

“There are many cultures older than ours who honor the wisdom of seniors and the accomplishment of longevity,” Lewis said. “They know that elders teach in ways a classroom was not meant to contain. They pass on meaning, tradition, knowledge and understanding. These valuable members of our society have paid their dues and deserve to spend their declining years in dignity and peace.”

Lewis’ long-term work to improve life for metro Atlanta senior citizens is a goal as well for the Gerontology Institute’s academic community outreach.

“We don’t want to just do research in an ivory tower, in a city with a large constituency of aging adults – those who are often invisible because we think of Atlanta as a young city,” said Burgess, who encourages those interested to join the GSU gerontology community on Facebook.  “Our students need to know what aging population needs by volunteering, activism, internships and real-life experiences.”

—By Michelle Hiskey; Contact Kim Cretors, (404) 413-3424