Sharon Tolbert-Glover was still a teenager when she decided to spend her life in service to her faith and her community.
After a decade in a convent, she took her vows and headed to her first assignment — where she encountered a challenge that would shape the rest of her life. Sent to a Catholic parish in suburban Chicago, Tolbert-Glover faced immediate rejection; the all-white community didn't want a black nun. It was enough to make the young nun rethink her plans — she left the order — but not to deter her from a lifetime of work in education.
Tolbert-Glover, 78, who died Sept. 21 at North Memorial Health Hospital in Robbinsdale after suffering a heart attack, went on to earn a doctorate in education and spend decades working in schools and universities across the country. Whether she was helping to reopen the St. Peter Claver Catholic School in St. Paul's Rondo neighborhood, serving on nonprofit boards or helping Twin Cities universities secure funding, she was a strong advocate for young people of color.
"She saw education as that great equalizer," said her stepson, Gleason Glover.
Born in Chicago, Tolbert-Glover left home at 15 to join a convent in Blue Island, Ill. A decade later, after she'd decided to change her vocation, she enrolled at Canisius College, in Buffalo, N.Y. There, she earned a bachelor's degree — and a short brush with fame.
In 1968, she verbally tangled with boxer Muhammad Ali when he visited the campus on a speaking tour. Ali was advocating for separation of the races. Sitting in the audience, Tolbert-Glover found herself getting angry about what Ali was saying. She stood up, looked up at the stage, and told Ali he was wrong. The impromptu debate made the news — and even the pages of Sports Illustrated.
Recounting the event to a USA Today reporter earlier this year, Tolbert-Glover said she felt strongly that people of different races needed to live and work together to gain an understanding of each other.
"I felt a sense of responsibility that I needed to say: 'No, I don't think that is true or right,' " she said.
Tolbert-Glover later earned master's degrees from the State University of New York at Buffalo and Stanford University, where she also completed a doctoral degree in higher education. After working at other universities, she took a job at St. Catherine University in St. Paul and settled in the Twin Cities. She married Gleason Glover, the executive director of the Minneapolis Urban League, and became a well-known community advocate in her own right.
In 2001, she was recruited to serve as principal for the newly reopened St. Peter Claver School — an institution that had once been a central part of the Rondo community.
Civil rights leader Josie Johnson, a longtime friend, said Tolbert-Glover's deep Catholic faith and experience as a nun, along with her longstanding passion for education, made her the right leader for the school.
"Sharon shared the concern of the history of St. Peter Claver in the Rondo community, and she wanted the school to emulate that history and excellence," Johnson said.
In her later years, Tolbert-Glover, who lived in Golden Valley, was officially retired but still offering her expertise and guidance to a variety of community organizations. Nephew Jonathan Palmer said his aunt encouraged others to give back, but never sought attention for her work.
"She cared more about the work than she cared about the credit," he said.
Tolbert-Glover is preceded in death by her husband, who died in 1994. In addition to her stepson Gleason, of Minnetonka, she is survived by another stepson, Maury Glover, of Minneapolis; a stepdaughter, Stephanie Glover, of San Francisco; and two stepgrandchildren. Services have been held.