Fierce and faithful: the righteous life of Cathy Stokes

The righteous life of Cathy Stokes

Published: Saturday, May 19 2012 10:00 p.m. MDT

Deseret News editorial board member Catherine M. Stokes, Tuesday, March 13, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

Cathy Stokes is describing her first brush with death.

She leans forward in her chair in a sunny corner office, closing and opening her hands. Her white hair is pulled back in a neat bun on the crown of her head. The skin around her eyes is soft and creased. Her voice commands attention on this quiet afternoon. She pauses often. Each word is chosen carefully.

"I knew I was going to die, because the most important thing in my life was going to school and getting an education."

She was 10 years old, slowly making her way through inner-city Chicago, back home to break the news to her parents that she had been expelled from school.

"I just thought I was going to die — evaporate. Poof!"

She made the most of the walk, buying a bag of candy for her last meal. She had questioned her teacher's pronouncement about who went to hell. Her curiosity was not well received.

When she got home and told her papa, to her own amazement and joy, she did not die. He said he thought it was about time for her to move on from Catholic school anyway.

"At that moment I knew, there is a God," Stokes recalled. "And he loves me."

The experience set a pattern for her life. "I always got in trouble for asking questions. Still do."

Stokes' willingness to speak her mind has shaped her career, her relationships and her faith. In Chicago or Salt Lake City, as a public health professional or a volunteer, within her LDS congregation or right here, in this sunlit office, Cathy Stokes knows exactly who she is.

"That's where the rubber meets the road," she says, sitting back contentedly. "The belief that … you volunteered to come (to earth) and be black and female. It's a hard job, but somebody's gotta do it, right?"

Stokes stays busy volunteering and keeping tabs on the many families she's adopted over the years. She is 75 and can't always make it up the hill to get to the Huntsman Cancer Hospital, where she mans the front desk. She is a black Mormon woman in a state where blacks make up 1 percent of the population, in a church whose history of racial attitudes has provoked a media firestorm.

But "it's a wonderful life here in Salt Lake City," she said. "Honey, if it were any better I'd have to pay somebody. Life is good."

Failure 'not an option'

Stokes is still relatively new to the Wasatch Front. She arrived in 2006 from Chicago, where she'd lived and worked most of her life. Her earliest years were spent in Mississippi, growing up the youngest daughter of sharecroppers during a time when much of the black community in the South moved north for greater opportunity. When Stokes was just a toddler, she went with her great-aunt and her husband as their daughter.

"I was the lucky one. I got to go to school," Stokes said.

"Failure was not an option when I was growing up," Stokes continued. Apart from her face-off in religion class, she loved school and excelled at it. She went on to earn her bachelor's of science in nursing at DePaul University.

She worked her way up Chicago's public health ladder, eventually overseeing the inspection of hospitals throughout the state of Illinois.

The job, she explained, involved telling hospital staff, "'These are things you will want to do better so that you will be in compliance with a certain standard.' " The work suited her: Stokes is not afraid to, when necessary, tell it like it is.

"She has no problem telling anybody what she thinks they need to know," said Christel Green, Stokes' longtime friend. "She is very authoritative, too. I can imagine her going into a hospital and seeing procedures that are incorrect … and changing it on the spot."

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