Editor’s Note: This profile is the second in a series of stories on Huntsville’s hidden figures during Black History Month.
Benjamin Franklin once wrote, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”
When I read this quote, it reminds me of an extraordinary Huntsville teacher, Mrs. Ollye Ballard Conley.
Her fingerprints are on the lives of many productive adults both in this community and around the world.
This is her story.
Driven for success
Mrs. Conley grew up on a small Limestone County farm, the 11th of 12 children born to William and Clara Moore Ballard. At age 8, her aunt discovered she could read. Thus, she was given the responsibility of reading and responding to the family’s mail. Mrs. Conley accepted the task with a great sense of pride and continued so through her senior year in high school.
“I entered first grade at 4 years old,” she said. “And college at 16.”
When asked what drove her to be successful, she replied, “I wanted to make my parents proud. I watched them work so very hard for the family. They always encouraged us to do our best, believe in God and internalize the golden rule – ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”
Mrs. Conley went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Alabama A&M University. Looking back, she said, “Graduating from high school was not the completion of my education. You were expected to go to college and be successful.”
As an adult, Mrs. Conley’s professional work experience was broad and varied.
In Stuttgart, Germany, she supervised a nursery school and taught second grade. Upon her return to Huntsville, Mrs. Conley became principal of University Place Elementary School. She was the first African American female principal hired since desegregation.
After The Huntsville Times published an announcement about her new role, Mrs. Conley said, “My father cut out the article and showed it to friends regardless of whether or not they wanted to see it.”
He carried the clipping in his wallet until it was no longer legible. Recalling her father’s pride and excitement, she said, “I had to succeed.”
After several years at University Place, Mrs. Conley was appointed principal at Rolling Hills Elementary School. Always willing to take on additional responsibilities, she then became principal of the Academy for Science & Foreign Language (ASFL), a magnet school for grades K-8.
The school’s ethnic makeup was 35% Black and 65% other at that time. The doubts of some parents and teachers were the impetus she needed to demonstrate to all who doubted her appointment.
“Her successes were unparalleled in leading a new program … that continues to be a part of the Huntsville City Schools (HCS) educational offering three-plus decades later,” said Dr. Mary Jane Caylor, former superintendent at HCS.
During her tenure at ASFL, she started expansive service-learning projects, including the Alabama African American history project at ASFL. As a result, the school was one of 34 outstanding educational institutions honored by then-President Bill Clinton and one of seven portrait schools in America.
Heart for service
This lured other projects to Huntsville, including Community Day at Glenwood Cemetery, National Youth Service Day, Make a Difference Day and a citywide educational summit.
Speaking of her trials and challenges, Mrs. Conley said, “Mother taught me as a child that when things are hard and difficult to bear, just say, ‘Lord have mercy.’ Many times, at ASFL, I had to say, ‘Lord have mercy,’ and he did.”
Following her retirement from ASFL in 2001, she established and directed the Bo Matthews Center for Excellence, an after-school tutoring program designed to meet the needs of students who scored below the 50th percentile as measured by the Stanford Achievement Test.
As president of the Delta Omega Zeta chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc., she spearheaded sponsorship of the first Black heritage stamp presentation at the Huntsville Museum of Art, which honored the famous author Zora Neale Hurston.
A valued resource
Mrs. Conley has been involved in numerous organizations throughout her career and received countless awards, citations and honors for her service to the Huntsville-area community.
“Ollye continues to provide her insights, experiences and valued knowledge to programs she participates in today, which benefits our community,” Caylor said.
An active member of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America, Mrs. Conley was married to the late Dr. Ben Conley and has two adult daughters, Yvonne Delores Doyle and Tracy Ursala Doyle.
As we celebrate Black History Month, the City of Huntsville honors and appreciates the invaluable service Mrs. Ollye B. Conley has given to our community.