Called to serve

The story of Fred and Bessie Mae Chestnut is a classic tale of America’s greatest generation. Born in 1918 in Orrville, Alabama, as the son of a sawmill worker, Fred Chestnut grew up wherever the work took his father during the Great Depression. After graduating from high school in 1938, he found work building state parks and other public projects around Alabama with the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program for unemployed, unmarried men.

When World War II broke out, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, serving as a wireless radio operator in India and China for three years. When he returned home, he attended Howard College (now Samford University) on the GI Bill.

At Howard, Fred met Bessie Mae McElroy of Cuba, Alabama, who shared his love of learning and deep faith. She completed a year at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth. The couple married in 1951 after Fred completed training at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary with the goal of returning to China as a missionary.

But by then, China had closed its border to foreign missionaries, so the Chestnuts served rural churches until 1957 when Fred accepted an appointment to teach Biblical studies to students preparing for ministry at Selma University, a historically black Baptist college.

For the next 33 years, the Chestnuts made Selma their home. They raised two children—David, a highly regarded obstetric anesthesiologist, and Martha, now retired from Accenture, a global professional services company—who would make them grandparents six times over.

Their life of hard work and service, of faith and family, is why their son, David Hill Chestnut, M.D., chose to honor them with an endowed scholarship at the UAB School of Medicine.

The scholarship gives preference to African-American medical students, a reflection of the Chestnuts’ positive influence on countless African-American students in Selma.

“I wanted to honor their example,” says David Chestnut, former chair of the UAB Department of Anesthesiology and now on the faculty of Vanderbilt University. He graduated from the UAB School of Medicine in 1978. “They were part of the Greatest Generation — humble backgrounds, a lot of hardship, and called to their work.”

Fred Chestnut’s work — teaching black students in Selma during the turbulent years of the Civil Rights Movement — was “a challenging assignment,” his son says. “Dad was quiet and uncomplaining, and although he never brought it home to us, I know it was difficult to be a white man teaching in the African - American community. But for him, his work was a calling.”

When her children were in junior high school, Bessie Mae Chestnut began teaching homebound students in Selma, and when David left for Samford University in 1970, she drove 100 miles round trip each day to the University of Montevallo to earn her teaching certificate. She then taught in the Selma public schools for another 17 years, retiring in 1988.

Two years later, Fred Chestnut was diagnosed with a terminal illness. “I was on the faculty at the University of Iowa, and I came home to see him as often as possible,” David Chestnut says. To pass the time, he read aloud to his father, including passages from Auburn University historian Wayne Flynt’s Poor But Proud: Alabama’s Poor Whites (1989: University of Alabama Press).

“My father and I both knew Wayne Flynt, another Samford graduate, and that book, and the time we spent together, brought out stories I had not heard before,” David Chestnut recalls. “I knew he had to repeat the fourth grade, and I assumed he had failed, though that had never made sense to me because he was a college graduate.

“But I learned that in those days, public schools could charge tuition. My father owed $4, and he had to repeat the year because the family could not afford to pay.”

Living her Dream

As the inaugural recipient of the Fred and Bessie Mae Chestnut Endowed Medical Scholarship, Farrah-Amoy Fullerton is “truly honored to have the opportunity to live out my childhood dreams,” she says. “The scholarship has allowed me to attend the School of Medicine, which has a great reputation, without the fear of having to spend half my career paying back loans.” A native of Kingston, Jamaica, who grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, the first - year student is considering a career in obstetrics and gynecology. Already, Fullerton has helped with a C-section while she shadowed labor and delivery physicians. “I was elated to experience that so early in my medical education,” she says.

Fred Chestnut passed away in 1990, and Bessie Mae Chestnut died in 2012. In 2007, David Chestnut and his wife, Janet, established the Fred and Bessie Mae Chestnut Endowed Medical Scholarship. They have made additional gifts to the fund through the Campaign for UAB, and have also included the fund in their estate plan.

“My parents taught me to give back, starting with the first 10 percent to the church,” David Chestnut says. “We feel strongly about that, and have passed it on to our five children—John Mark, a UAB School of Medicine graduate who practices emergency medicine in Athens, Alabama; Michael, an anesthesiology resident at UAB; Mary Beth, who works for a Birmingham accounting firm; Annie, who works on Capitol Hill for a U.S. senator from Wisconsin; and Stephen, who graduated in May from Auburn in industrial engineering.

“My parents taught us to have servant hearts, and they lived that every day.”

Learn more about supporting School of Medicine scholarships: Jessica Brooks Lane, director of development, (205) 975-4452, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..