Six of the seven remaining members of Shenandoah’s 1967 graduating class of nurses gathered for a toast in early June in the Halpin Rotunda of the Health & Life Sciences Building (HLSB), a structure which wasn’t even yet a dream for Shenandoah 50 years ago.
“We have seen it, touched it, felt it, stepped in it, and had it on our uniforms, and we have survived and thrived,” Ann Hatfield Lawson said, as she and her classmates arranged themselves in a circle and prepared to clink glasses in recognition of their graduation 50 years prior and their subsequent nursing careers.
As part of their reunion, the class members – Lawson, Arlene Baggerly Hill, Sandy Appleton Thompson Johnson, Peggy Miller McWhinney, Linda Jacobs Nealis and Cathy Rimes Ridenour – toured campus, visited their old dorm (Racey Hall), and saw how Shenandoah has grown. The alumnae also received corsages, 50th reunion medallions, special photos and recognition, and heard brief remarks from Eleanor Wade Custer School of Nursing Dean Kathleen LaSala, Ph.D., who greeted them warmly, saying, “I’m so glad you’re here.” They had traveled from as far away as Washington (state), Michigan and Florida for their reunion.
One of the members of class of ’67 said delightedly, “You guys are treating us like royalty here.”
Johnson, from the HLSB rotunda, noted that while the building that now houses the nursing school on main campus was beautiful and impressive, it, and the university itself, has retained something special from the past: “that same hometown feel.”
That hometown feel and supportive relationships with one another helped the nine graduating members (two have passed away – candles were lit in their honor at the June reunion – and one couldn’t make it to the event) of the nursing class of ’67 complete a tough, two-year course of study. Their degree program included not only classwork, but also time at Winchester Memorial Hospital (then located on Cork and Stewart streets, now Winchester Medical Center on Amherst Street), studies in Delaware (for psychiatric nursing), and some educational work in Fishersville, Virginia, as well.
As students, they rarely had time off. “We were together all the time for two years,” Johnson said. “We were joined at the hip.” They worked hard, but they also exhibited a lighthearted spirit, with one switching places in a class with a mannequin on a gurney to give the instructor a good-natured surprise with a raised hand and a mischievous wink. Lawson recalled the instructor’s reaction: she looked like she was going to pass out.
Several members of the nursing class attended Shenandoah courtesy of a scholarship from Winchester Memorial Hospital, which paid for full tuition, room and board, and supplies, and required the nurses to work at the hospital for two years after graduation, Johnson said. The scholarship provided a lifeline. “My family could not afford college,” Johnson said. “Mine couldn’t either,” Nealis added. While most of the nurses only started their careers in Winchester, Hill conducted her entire career in Winchester, from early days at Winchester Memorial Hospital, through the hospital’s transformation into Winchester Medical Center. She spent the majority of her 40-year career in pediatrics, retiring in 2011.
For each woman, nursing proved to be a valuable career that allowed them to focus on a variety of fields – Johnson, for example, found her niche in psychiatric nursing, while Nealis became a health information coordinator for General Motors – with schedules that allowed for flexibility as they raised their children.
Now, all are retired, and when they look back on their careers, which began with a Shenandoah education, they know they’ve engaged in truly worthwhile endeavors – “to know that you have the ability to help someone is so gratifying,” Nealis said.
Lawson said their impact becomes clear in moments when they’re out of their scrubs, doing something ordinary like grocery shopping, and a former patient, who was once in critical condition, spots them, and stops them to say, “I remember you. You were my nurse. Thank you.”