Living Legend Dr. Mary Holt Ashley

From Nursing Assistant to Chief Nursing Executive

Mary Holt Ashley’s path to top leadership in the Harris County Hospital District started from a Nursing Assistant, License Vocational nurse, professional staff nurse, Nurse manger, Patent educator, supervisor, assistant director, director, associate administrator and chief nursing officer to Chief nursing Executive. Her progression of diverse roles coupled with education and experience taught her how to respect people for their roles and motivate them to achieve.

Mary grew up in La Marque Texas in a large family with six siblings. Both parents had less than a third grade education but taught their children Christian values. An asthmatic she had repeated emergency room visits where she saw nurses who wore white caps, white shoes, white uniforms and hose helping patients. She too wanted to help sick people. By the time she was in the tenth grade she knew she wanted to be a nurse. Knowing that her parents could not afford to send her to college she began praying that money would be sent from God.

Upon graduating from Lincoln Colored High School she began working as a dispatcher for a taxicab company to save money for college. She went to Texas Southern University for a year but had to drop out because themoney ran out. Her desire to become a nurse remained a dream deferred. It would be accomplished one step at a time. She iterates that “Rome was not built in a day” and “ the race is not given to swiftest but to the one that endures until the end.”

She applied for nurse aide school at John Sealy Hospital in Galveston, Texas and was accepted into the program. After completing the three- week classes she received a certificate and began work as a proud Nursing assistant at the hospital.

Undaunted by circumstances she kept her hope alive to become a Registered Nurse. Within one year, she applied for the Licensed Vocational Nursing program and completed it in one year. Upon graduation she had the honor to wear her first nursing cap, white shoes, uniform and hose. This was the beginning of her nursing journey.

Alvin Junior College began and integrated its first associate degree nursing program. Her long awaited dream of becoming a Registered Nurse was now a possibility. The two years at Alvin were marked by harsh treatments and adversities of the Civil rights Movement. Many days were spent wondering if each day would be the last because of continuous threats to being put out of the nursing program.

Moving to Houston, she went to work as a staff nurse in the Emergency Room at Ben Taub where she experienced the epitome of what nursing is all about. The opportunity to care for the sick, injured and less fortunate bought her immeasurable joy. Nursing became her passion and Ben Taub was the place of choice to work and to achieve her career goals.

As the nursing profession stressed the need for nurses to have a Bachelor Degree in Nursing she soon set out to Texas Woman’s University to pursue the curriculum. Working full time as an ICU Nurse at Ben Taub she attended classes and received her degree. Shortly afterwards she was promoted to Nurse Manager of the Critical unit and then Patient educator.

Her entry into leadership and management changed the course of her career from clinical to a management focus. Her thirst for knowledge led to the attainment of a master’s degree in Nursing administration while working full time. She was promoted to Nursing supervisor of critical care where she amassed a variety of knowledge and experience.

As she grew in nursing she began to publish articles in professional journals, lead professional organizations, speak at conferences and conduct nursing research. Her resume is replete with numerous awards for excellence in leadership.

Working in an academic hospital provides many challenges for those who are willing to stay the course and produce positive outcomes. Undoubtedly, Mary demonstrated the ability to be a motivator, mentor and an effective transformational leader, she was promoted to Director of medical Nursing.

As a director she made many contributions at Ben Taub and in the local and national community of nursing. She has served as president and board member of major nursing organizations and has received numerous awards throughout her career. Mary said her most   important career decision was to make Ben Taub her place of employment and to enroll in the doctoral Nursing Program at Texas Woman’s University.

A seeker of new challenges she was accepted into the program and completed it in three years while working full time as a nursing director. Her husband, Ellis, and son, Chucky, were her arms, legs and backbones in her drive towards her goals. On many occasions at a moment’s notice, when she was writing her dissertation Ellis would make two to three trips in one day to the typist in Pearland, Texas. Chucky would often tell her “Momma I don’t want to have to study this hard” because he had to accompany her the library so often.

Studying, working and caring for a family can place undue stress on persons who aim for the stars My tenacity, perseverance and faith kept her steadfast and focused. As she moved closer to finishing it became apparent that she would be the sole graduate of Texas Woman’s University‘s first PhD Nursing program at the Houston Campus.

Being a first is nothing new to Mary as she was one of the first Blacks to graduate from Alvin Junior College and the first in her family to attain a degree. These milestones set the pace for a “Can Do” attitude.

As she continued to work at Ben Taub she was promoted to Vice president of Nursing and that title was changed to Associate administrator and Chief Nursing Officer where she was responsible for over 1400 employees.

Because Ben Taub is part of multi-system Hospital District with three hospitals, 11 community health centers and school based clinic, it was determined that there was a need to have all nursing under the direction of a chief Nurse Executive. Mary was selected for that role.  

Mary was at the Harris County hospital district for 37 years prior to retiring 2006. She is full of energy and ready to seize new challenges with a humble spirit, fortitude and a zest for excellence. She is serving on community boards, speaking to nurses on how to go from good to great leaders.

No matter how many nursing boards there is always one that leaves an indelible imprint in your heart and mind. In 2001, Dr. Ashley was a founding board member of the Fort Bend County Black Nurses Association (FBCBNA). FBCBNA is the largest chapter in the National Black Nurses Association. The most significant fact is that at every meeting more that 50 vibrant and career minded nurses attend meetings. Dr. Ashley has lectured on Leadership at every National Black Nurses Day for the FBCBNA.

Lastly she published her first book “Leaders get up of the Canvas” and has led many workshop about the theory of getting up off the canvas.

She spends all her extra time playing scrabble and bridge and learning how to be a grandmother.


Mary Holt Ashley

Dr. Mary Holt Ashley




Mary and Roberta. A book signing in Fort Worth, Texas.