By Ashley Benkarski
The zeitgeist of women’s equality has been alive for decades, though the theme may change.
In recent years that theme has shifted to women in sports, with athletes Serena Williams, Simone Manuel and Megan Rapino not only excelling in their field but actively speaking out for justice.
Of course, Nashville has its own legends to boast (no, not just the Mannings of football fame). Cathy Bender is a local representation of LeBron James’s “More than an Athlete” motto–
The Nashville native dominated every sport she played and continues to demonstrate leadership through her work with Merrill Lynch and her commitment to sports overseeing partnerships with professional teams and their investments in the community.
She holds the distinction of being a 2015 inductee of the Vanderbilt University Hall of Fame and the 2021 class of the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.
She’s served on various boards that have translated to volunteer work, she said, including the Renewal House, Maddox Foundation, Sue Peters Foundation, NAACP, Urban League and the Baron Society, which she helped fundraise for the recently opened National Museum of African American Music in Nashville. Bender was the first Black female to be on Metro Nashville’s Sports Authority Board and now serves as its head. The last four mayors have appointed her to the position and she’s the board’s longest tenured member. “We function at a policy making level entering into and monitoring contracts on behalf of the city and citizens of Nashville,” she said.
Competitive by nature, Bender has been an athlete throughout life, running track, playing fast-pitch softball and after one year of playing volleyball for her high school team she was offered the opportunity to play at Middle Tennessee State University.
She said basketball was her favorite sport to play and after two years of “missing the mark” she made the ninth grade team and played with the varsity team during their tournaments that year.
The fifth of eight children, Bender graduated from Mt. Juliet High School and was the first of her family to go to college. She was the first African American female to receive a full scholarship to Vanderbilt University and the second female in its history.
Her dad was a Minister, Navy veteran, and voracious reader who understood the importance of education. He wasn’t able to go to college and although she wasn’t excited about it, she thought she’d break his heart if she didn’t go. “My dad was my greatest fan,” she said. “He was a class act.” Her father has been gone almost two decades now, but he did get to see her graduate college though he sadly didn’t get to see her induction into the Hall of Fame.
Coming out of public school and going on to Vanderbilt in 1978 was an eye-opening experience, she remarked. There wasn’t a lot of support at the time for minorities on campus and the transition was marred with the dual aggressions of racism and classism.
She credits her large family for being a great fan base and helping to keep her grounded during that time. “I recall telling my mother that I never knew we were poor and her response was that I was rich because I had a lot of love,” she said. Her mom’s love, strong will and focus helped her through tough times and still does. “My mom continues to be a constant source of support and she is my very best friend,” she said.
Bender is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and it was in that circle that she found solidarity with her sorority sisters. “We were a very close knit group,” she recalled. “Back then less than five percent of the student body was Black. If you didn’t have a support system you were likely to fail, and we relied heavily on each other. The Afro House located in the center of the campus was where we went for fellowship.”
Although Bender works with one of the most recognized investment management companies, she majored in early psychology with no intention of going into the financial sector, she said. With that major and a business minor she felt her career would be working with special needs children, but after completing her practicum work in the field she said it was apparent that she was not a good fit as she learned that the work requires a special calling.
Not sure where her education would lead her, after graduating college she spent six years working in manufacturing with E.I. DuPont and Textron Aerostructures, both in Nashville, Bender recalled.
In 1987 she began her career with Merrill Lynch and is now in her 34th year.
The psychology courses have paid off a great deal, she said, because her job is built on relationships.
Of course, the financial industry hasn’t been very welcoming of people of color or women over the years, she said. She attributes her ability to survive in a competitive and predominantly white male profession to her previous experiences at Vanderbilt and her athletic background.
As an investment in her alma mater, Bender said she’s utilizing her education to open doors for minority students at Vanderbilt, where she’s served on the Alumni Board, co-chaired the Black Alumni Association, co-chaired the school’s first black endowed scholarship and is currently serving as co-chair of the Black and Gold Club, an inaugural club for former athletes at the university. “The opportunity to build it has been amazing and I’ve crossed paths with all kinds of athletes at Vanderbilt,” she said. After 40 years, she still holds records at the university.
Bender is honored to be inducted into the Vanderbilt Hall of Fame and the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame as she never imagined this in her wildest dreams, she said. “As a pioneer, I have faced barriers both athletically and professionally but my goal is always to pave the way for those who come behind me. Over my career, I have worked hard to make a difference and I guess I am now reaping the rewards.”
With all the history she’s made, now she’s happy just giving back, and to students embarking on their own journeys into life, she extended comforting words. “If you’re feeling alone or unsure, don’t give up because it just feels like you’re not going to get through this, but when you do, and you will …. it’s simply amazing!”