Maj. Gen. Lorraine K. Potter '68, retired Chief of Chaplains for the U.S. Air Force, told Keuka College students to reach for the stars during her Wolf Pause lecture Thursday.
“The most significant thing that prepared me for two male-dominated professions – religion and the military – was Keuka College,” Chaplain Potter told the crowd of several hundred inside the College's Norton Chapel.
“I got to experience women being leaders,” she said of attending what was then a female-only college. “Obviously we were leaders – we were the only ones here.”
Chaplain Potter would be a leader throughout much of her career. She is not only the first woman ordained by the American Baptist Churches in Rhode Island but, on Sept. 27, 1973, became the first woman chaplain commissioned in the Air Force.
More firsts followed: first woman chaplain to serve as senior pastor for an Air Force wing, the historic Flying Tigers; first woman chaplain to serve at the Department of Defense level; first woman chaplain to serve as command chaplain for the U.S. Air Forces in Europe and later for the Air Education and Training Command; and first woman chaplain in all military services to be promoted to colonel in 1992, to brigadier general in 1999, and to major general as chief of Air Force chaplains in 2001.
Still, Chaplain Potter was a reluctant trailblazer. As a young girl, first was the last thing she wanted to be.
“I never liked being first,” she told Thursday’s audience. “I like to follow.”
She described growing up a blue-collar Baptist in rural Rhode Island whose horizons were expanded first by Keuka College, then by the military.
“Getting accepted at Keuka College was the best thing that ever happened,” she recalled. “I got early acceptance and I carried that letter around with me everywhere!”
Her military career has taken Chaplain Potter – who said, growing up, she assumed she’d never live more than 200 miles from home – to all 50 states and more than 30 countries. Still, she admits to having reservations when being sent to Montgomery, Ala., for pastoral training.
“I didn’t like new things,” she recalled. “The farthest west I’d ever been was Pittsburgh. The farthest north was Buffalo. The farthest south was … Pittsburgh.”
She has covered plenty of ground since then, eventually being promoted to Chief of Chaplains of the U.S Air Force in 2001 with the rank of major general. Her duties included serving as senior pastor for a combined active-duty, Guard, Reserve, and civilian force of more than 850,000 who served at approximately 1,300 locations in the United States and overseas. She led an Air Force Chaplain Service of approximately 2,200 chaplains and enlisted support members from the active and Air Reserve components.
She retired in 2004.
But she is far from retiring in person. Animated and optimistic, Chaplain Potter impressed on students Thursday that they should strive to realize their personal and professional potential.
“Reach for the stars and be the best you that God intended you to be,” she said. “And Keuka College is the best place to start to be the best you.”