Memories Live on at Nursing School Reunion (2005)

by Elizabeth A. Pooley, Special to the News Sentinel

Traveling from Hendersonville, N.C., 80-something Vernelle Edney Dale arrived camera-ready for her annual Knoxville General Hospital Nursing School alumni meeting/reunion June 4 at St. James Episcopal Church on Broadway.  The Class of 1943 alumna said the three-hour trip wasn’t bad at all.

“It doesn’t take that long if you drive fast,” she said.

General Hospital opened its doors in 1899 as Knoxville’s only municipal hospital.  On Cleveland Place, west of Central Street, General established a nursing school in 1902, graduating its first class, totaling seven, on April 17, 1905.

“This year is the 100th anniversary of that first graduating class and the 50th of the last graduating class, in 1955,” said current alumni president Betty Wilkerson Hughes, Class of 1953, who lives in South Knoxville.

Mary McCall McNamara, Class of 1954, said the days of meeting at fancy establishments are over.  “Nurses just can’t afford country club prices. This is our third reunion at the church, and the Episcopal women do a fine job,” she said.

Originally from Fountain City, currently residing in Dandridge, McNamara recalled her three years of training and hands-on experience with a sense of purpose.  “We had a true desire to be there. It took intelligence, a lot of grit, little sleep, extreme compassion and the ability to get along in a dormitory environment,” she said. “You weren’t allowed to marry while in training it was reason for dismissal. You couldn’t serve two gods.”  General Hospital student nurses were expected/demanded to live by a code of ethics, high academic standards and professionalism.

“Our student class started out with 38.  We graduated with six,” said Jean Morgan Rhyne, Class of 1949, a West Knoxville resident.  “It was old-school.  We gathered each morning at 6 a.m. and lined up like ducks in a row with our bandage scissors, pen and starched uniforms.  Your hair had to be off your collar, not a spot on your uniform, shoes or shoelaces.  Scripture and reciting the Lord’s Prayer followed.  “It was hard work, but all of us who stuck it out were so sincere and interested in what we were doing that I guess at the time it didn’t seen that hard.  It was just par for the course.”

General Hospital closed in 1956 with the opening of University Memorial Hospital ­ now University of Tennessee Medical Center.

Rhyne added that following the last graduating class of student nurses in 1955, an alumni association was formed for yearly meeting/reunions to include staff physicians.  “It was a few years ago that I was seated between two of the old doctors at one of our reunions.  By the next year, they had died.  It was time to switch tables,” she said.

As their numbers dwindle, the alumni secretary stands and makes her yearly meeting report to include the number of memorial and funeral floral arrangements paid out since their last gathering.  The alumnae are remembered with a soft smile and meaningful stories prefixed by “Remember the time she…”

Alumni association president Hughes keeps her program remarks to a minimum, preferring to call upon graduates to come to the podium and share remembrances.    “We only see each other once a year, and the time we have is so precious.  We just want to be together and visit,” Hughes said.

Caption: (Color) Early arrivals greet each other with enthusiasm at the 50th annual reunion of nurses who graduated from Knoxville General’s nursing school.  From left, Vernelle Edney Dale, now of Hendersonville, N.C., Class of 1943; Sue Hood Bailey, Fountain City, Class of 1942; Imogene Brown Newton, Cedar Bluff area, Class of 1943; and Mary McCall McNamara, Dandridge, Class of 1954.

Caption: (Color) Mary McCall McNamara, Class of 1954, said nursing school at General Hospital was tough, and one really had to be dedicated, have a “real” desire to be there. McNamara, a former Fountain City resident, now lives in Dandridge.

Source: Knoxville News-Sentinel – Wednesday, June 22, 2005 – Page NS5

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