May-June 2012 | Hometown

Walking Tall

A young woman overcomes daunting setbacks through determination, fortitude-and the kindness of strangers

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“I’m a 6-foot-tall redhead,” Victoria Anthony says with a laugh when we arrange to meet at a café in Rockville. “You can’t miss me.”

No, you can’t. Nor would you want to.

At 23, Anthony is already an emergency room nurse and accomplished firefighter, and she has an extraordinary story to tell. It’s a story about crisis and courage, wit and will. It’s also a story about one public-spirited couple, Clifford and Camille Kendall of Bethesda, whose scholarship endowment enabled Anthony to get her degree at the Universities at Shady Grove (USG). “It turned my world around,” she says.

Anthony’s world had already taken several sharp turns. When she was growing up in Montgomery Village, her father worked for a food supply company while her mother stayed home with five kids. Not long after Anthony graduated from Watkins Mill High, her mother left.

“I guess our parents were having issues, but they kept it from us,” Anthony says. “One day we all came home to my mom’s stuff being gone and her not there. She also picked up my little sister from summer camp and took her to this new house, but none of us knew where it was.

“My dad took it really, really hard.”

One night she woke up and saw her father’s bedroom door shut tight. “I tried the handle and I was like banging on the door,” she says. “I got no response so I started freaking out.”

When she finally broke in, she found her father unconscious on the floor, surrounded by empty pill bottles.

He survived the suicide attempt but “he wasn’t the same,” Anthony recalls. One morning he told her sister he’d bought a gun and was going to kill his wife, her new boyfriend and himself. The sister notified the police and they arrested him before he could carry out his plan, leaving his four older children on their own.  

When I ask Victoria who took care of them, she answers: “No one. No one.”

“One night one of my sisters slept on a park bench,” she says. “She had nowhere else to go. They ended up selling our family house, and so we all kind of went our separate ways. Of course our mother wanted us—but we were so mad with her at that point for leaving that none of us wanted to deal with her.”

Fortunately, Anthony was already volunteering at the Rockville fire department  and was able to move into the station at the corner of Beall Avenue and Hungerford Drive. (Volunteers can live rent-free in exchange for 48 hours of work a month.)

“The firehouse was literally my home,” she says. “That’s all I had. That was my family.”

It was not exactly luxurious: a large bunk room on the top floor with no privacy, and no bathroom for women. “I used to live there with 13 guys and I was the only girl,” she says. “I just had to become one of the guys.” (She now lives with one of those guys, a police officer, in Germantown.)

The station had built a “tiny little locker room” in the basement for female volunteers, and that’s where she showered and dressed for almost four years. “I loved it,” she says. “I’d have been homeless without that place.”

But becoming “one of the guys” took time: “At first they’re like, ‘We’re not working with you, you’re a chick, you can’t do this,’ and I’m like, ‘Yes, I can.’ I’m very stubborn. I fought my way.”

How? I ask. “Working my butt off,” Anthony answers. “They saw I could pull my weight and I knew what I was doing.”

It helped that she was strong as well as tall, a competitive swimmer who could readily shoulder the 100 pounds of gear every firefighter carries. Anthony loves riding an engine in Rockville’s Memorial Day parade and watching kids point and yell, “Look, it’s a girl firefighter!”

She eagerly mentors female volunteers but does not tolerate weakness in colleagues of either gender. When you’re trapped in a burning building, she says, “you want someone who can pull you out. That’s where our strong bond comes from. I put my life in your hands. If we don’t work well together, someone’s going to get hurt.”

She yearned to be a nurse and sees a strong parallel between an emergency room and a fire station. “All of a sudden the bell goes off and you’re in action,” she says. “I’m an adrenaline junkie, I’m chasing that rush.”

While her fire career blossomed—she now commands an engine—her academic career didn’t. Weighed down by financial and family pressures, she bounced around—Towson University, Montgomery College, Towson again—before the University of Maryland’s nursing school took her in at USG. By then she was “drowning in debt” despite a full-time job running the desk at a local hotel. On a slow day at work she applied for the Kendall Scholarships—which help needy students at many state schools—largely on a whim.

The night before her interview she was answering alarms at the station and got little sleep. “The next morning I looked a mess,” she says, “so I put on this really bright colorful shirt” and decided on a risky strategy: “Make ’em laugh.”

A few weeks later she got a call saying she’d won, and she thought, “All right, cool, my books will be paid for. Sweet!” When she heard the grant was for full tuition, “I almost dropped the phone,” she says. “ ‘Are you kidding? Are you sure you have the right person? Like, Victoria Anthony?’ The woman started laughing and said, ‘Yep, that’s you.’ ”

Cliff Kendall, who made his fortune selling technology services to government and business clients, is one of Montgomery County’s most generous philanthropists. He figures that he and his wife, Camille, now support more than 50 local college students. But paying their bills isn’t the only goal. He wants those students to learn a lesson, as well, a lesson about community responsibility.

“My hope,” he says, “is that later on they will do something to help others.”

Victoria Anthony is already helping others. She’s already making her community a better place. If you visit an emergency room in Olney or a fire station in Rockville, look for the 6-foot redhead. You can’t miss her.

Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. Send him ideas for future columns at sroberts@gwu.edu.