Tina Rolen, 1949-2009

The last time I saw her, in June, she took me to lunch to celebrate my fellowship. She was in stage four of the non-smoker kind of lung cancer that would soon steal her life. Her eyelashes were singed from the treatments. She walked slowly, stopping every few steps to catch her breath. She joked that finally she had lost that 15 pounds she’d been trying for years to shed, but dammit: Food no longer tasted good.

We knew it would probably be our last visit, but she didn’t make a fuss. A big hug at the end, some awkward words from me and that glorious eye-twinkling smile of hers, letting me knowing that, yes, this did seriously suck — but she had made peace with it. Now all she had to do was convince her loved ones they’d be OK too.

She worried about her daughter, Sarah, whom she’d raised on her own through the rough times and the good and who always — no matter how dicey things got — would make her beam, shake her head and say, “Yep, that’s my girl!” She had the closest sibling relationship with her sister, Susan, that I have ever seen. Her best friends were her ministers, Bob and Dusty. Her secretary Carolyn loved her so much she would have taken the cancer for her if she could.

As friends go, we could go months without e-mailing or visiting, and pick up right where we left off. We were lunch buddies — sometimes quarterly, sometimes twice a year. She liked that Italian place on Route 11 just north of Hollins that doubled as a gas station, especially on spaghetti day.

She was the kind of person you could cry in front of, and she wouldn’t turn it into some big dramatic deal. She was full of kid-rearing advice that wasn’t exactly out of the parenting books. It was the kind of stuff you could actually follow, like let your kid be who he’s meant to be and, if you can help it, try not to freak out. If he’s four years old and wants to wear ruby slippers to preschool, break out the glue gun and sequins. She accepted people with a full heart and reveled in their quirks. At the end of every lunch, I invited her to bill me for the free therapy.

She could do amazing things with a canister of crescent rolls and a block of cream cheese. Her white-bean chicken chili was simple and crockpot-ready, meaning she wasn’t above throwing in a can of cream-of-chicken soup and calling it a day. When Heironimus closed its doors a few years back, she stopped by to thank the hair-netted ladies at the cafe, all of whom she knew by name. She swore they made the best chicken salad in the world.

She had a gift for language that was Flannery O’Connor meets “Fried Green Tomatoes” meets Quentin Tarantino and by that I mean, she was a Southern lady through and through and she could cuss and talk about sex, though sometimes she whispered when she did. At Hollins University, where she ran the career center and led a course called “life planning,” she taught god-knows-how-many students of a “nontraditional” age that, yes, they could go to college and, yes, they could get better jobs and, hell yes, they could make it on their own because, if she could do it, they could too.

To my knowledge, she never left her condo without a careful application of lipstick and tissues in her purse. Not once did she fail to ask to see a picture of my kids.

Tina Rolen died Friday at the age of 60, leaving behind a lot of people who aren’t going to know what to do. Her friend Jan, the Hollins chaplain, told me she saw Tina the night before she died; that she was peaceful, awake and semi-alert but that she seemed to be looking somewhere else, at a different horizon.

Tina always did know where she was going, and she never minded the journey, not even the occasional detour or flat tire. She usually came back with a funny story and a tip about some great new food she’d tried and, before you knew it, you’d be laughing so hard you were crying and making plans to meet there for lunch.

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  1. Beth,
    This is such a wonderful tribute to Tina. Tina & I first met when our daughters attended Blue Ridge Montessori school together as pre-schoolers, then later in cojunction with programs at Hollins. A girlfriend & I took a “life planning” course with her and had a blast. She was a great encourager to everyone she met and an extraordinary lady.

  2. Kathy

     /  December 24, 2009

    I wish all our obits could read like this. Essence.
    I’m sorry I won’t be here next week for your brownbag … Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

  3. Debbie Welch

     /  December 18, 2009

    Although in recent years our paths didn’t cross frequently, Tina and I go way back – we met in birthing class for our daughters. Sarah and Hannah were born a month apart and we developed our friendship by spending birthdays and Christmas time. We then spent our divorces together, we spent single motherhood together, we spent time with the same babysitter, we spent time at the beach and Loch Haven together. Even though the girls went to different elementary schools, they reconnected at middle school. Beth,when you wrote that article in the Roanoke Times about Sarah climbing out the window to sit on the roof – my daughter finally told me she too had been on the roof of the townhouse! Then I remarried and I’m sorry to say that our circle of friends and time demands changed. Yet at their NHS graduation, I was taking as many pictures of Sarah in cap and gown as my own. It was a couple of years ago in a Christmas card she told me about her cancer – but things were good. Yes, she spoke of David and she made me laugh when I thought I should cry. I’ve learned a hard lesson…in my daily busy life of teaching in the public school, being absorbed in my own daughter’s college life and my son’s adapting to middle school, I couldn’t find the time for Tina. My greatest shame is that somehow I thought if I left our last conversation where it was, then I could deny anything worsening. I didn’t know how bad things had gotten and on Sat. morning, I was on my way to see her. I was a day too late. I wish I could have been there for Tina but life’s hastiness kept me from doing that. However, something amazing happened the Thurs. before she passed on Fri. I was at Hollins for a wellness spa for the Horizon students and met Celia McCormick and Joanna Schroeder. I believe this was God’s way of preparing me for what was to come because in spite of my sorrow, I have gained the companionship of Tina’s acquaintances at Hollins University. I still feel her spirit amongst them all and can go on with her beautiful memories. Thanks Beth for her article!

  4. Dixie Smith Huff

     /  December 18, 2009

    Thank you for your tribute to Tina. I had not been in touch with her for several years and was so saddened to hear of her passing. I attended her Life Planning at Hollins several years ago and it was a catalyst in changing my life. She was amazing.
    Dixie Huff

  5. Letitia Smith

     /  December 17, 2009

    Thank you for such an uplifting tribute to Tina. We worked together at DSS and continued our connection when she went to her position at Hollins. May God continue to bless you as you bless others with your talent.

    Letitia Smith

  6. pam kendall

     /  December 17, 2009

    Dear Beth
    I never met her but Gordon benefited from her kindness and wisdom. Her legacy will live on in in the lives of all she touched.

  7. Marsha Stevens

     /  December 17, 2009

    What a lovely tribute to a wonderful women who gave of her heart to those who knew her.

  8. Evelyn Bradshaw

     /  December 16, 2009


    Thank you for writing this lovely tribute to Tina. I had the pleasure of working with her for twelve years at Hollins. She absolutely did make a difference in the lives of those students she advised and counseled. The life she lived and all that she gave of herself serve as a wonderful testimony to a brave and courageous fighter. I feel blessed to have known her. My heart goes out to her family.

  9. Jules Sowder

     /  December 16, 2009

    This is so eloquently written. Thank you for posting this. Your description is beautiful — like Tina.

  10. This was truly a beautiful tribute to someone who was truly a beautiful woman & soul. I, like many Hollins women, were fortunate and lucky enough to count Tina as an advisor and I agree with Jenni in that there are so many things I can look back on relating to my young career and say, “If it wasn’t for Tina…” Thank you so much for putting into words what so many of us have been thinking. The world will truly be missing her.

  11. And dang, we can’t publish this. You can’t get back here soon enough, woman.

  12. Lisa Kennedy

     /  December 15, 2009

    Beth, thank you for this beautiful tribute to an incredible woman. It made me smile even as the tears were falling. I knew Tina in the mid-nineties while working as a student assistant in the career office. We assistants always said that the career center was THE best place to work on campus and Tina and Carolyn were very much a part of that reason. Tina had a wonderful gift for spotting potential in people and encouraging us to develop our gifts. I will miss her incredibly and never forget the impact she had on so many lives, mine included.

  13. This made me cry. What an amazing person Tina was. There are so many sentences that start with “If it wasn’t for Tina Rolen” in my life. She is one of those people that could brighten even the worst day with just a nod hello. My heart goes out to her family and friends and to the rest of the Hollins community that misses her like I do.

  14. bethmacy

     /  December 15, 2009

    Thank you all for the great comments. My dealings with her were infrequent and yet always so very very rich. I can only imagine all the funny, poignant, no-nonsense Tina tales you all are telling right now. I bet there isn’t one person among us who truly knows all the good she has done.
    My heart goes out to my Hollins pals. . . . Love, Beth

  15. Dotty Weaver

     /  December 15, 2009

    Beth –
    You captured Tina to the nth degree. What a special, special lady who will be sorely missed by so many people. She taught us all how to face adversity with such courage and grace. Thank you.

  16. Linda Arrington

     /  December 15, 2009

    Beth, thank you for the lovely tribute. She had this ability to make everyone she came in contact with feel good about theirselves! She was one special lady.

  17. Celia McCormick

     /  December 15, 2009

    This is a lovely tribute to Tina….full of hope, zest and wit…..just like Tina. Those who knew and loved her have such a buffet of funny stories and tender memories. I so enjoyed reading this. Thank you!

  18. Krt

     /  December 15, 2009

    Hey Beth- beautiful! Thank you for this. She was something! And your remembrance make me smile. We miss you.

  19. Amanda Baumann

     /  December 15, 2009

    Beth I had the opportunity to see Tina numerous times while she visited Sarah in Atlanta. She guided and directed me to the field of Hospice. She said that she didn’t want to be “one of the patients”. She meant that she didn’t want me to remember her during her last days. I begged Jan and anyone else I could to give me a bird’s eye view into her life. She was an amazing woman and I will always miss her. Part of me is afraid to go back to Hollins. One element of Hollins is gone and that’s fine. But the grief will pass, the sorrow will fade, but I will not delete her email address, her cell phone or her Facebook site. I truly loved her, as we all did and I swear I can hear her laughter in my head. I thank you for writing this beautiful blog. She was amazing. Thank you.

  20. Marsha Stevens

     /  December 15, 2009


    What a lovely tribute to Tina, an amazing woman who gave of herself from her heart.

  21. Rich Martin

     /  December 15, 2009

    Ah, Beth. That is beautiful. I didn’t know her, either. After reading your tribute, though, I feel like I do.

  22. Thanks, Beth, for expressing what a lot of us feel about Tina.

    Kalyca Schultz
    Hollins, Class of 2001

  23. Tonia Moxley

     /  December 15, 2009

    Beautiful, Beth. Just beautiful. I didn’t know her, but wish very much that I did.

  24. bethmacy

     /  December 15, 2009

    Thanks, Jane! Means a lot from you!

  25. Jane Hundley

     /  December 15, 2009

    Thank you for your story about Tina and sharing your memories or what I call ‘heart-jewels’ with all of us. You were clearly one of her ‘heart-jewels’ and will always be with her.
    You two share that twinkle of the eye!

  26. Carolyn Burnette

     /  December 15, 2009


    What a beautiful story you wrote about Tina. She always loved meeting you for lunch and catching up on your news. May you and your family have a blessed holiday.

  27. bethmacy

     /  December 15, 2009

    Thanks for the sweet note, Anita. Tina must have done a grand job mentoring you!!

  28. What a lovely tribute for a wonderful woman. I was one of those non-traditional students that Tina counseled and mentored. She was a brave soul and a great inspiration to me. She will be missed.

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