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Retired nurse recounts her life of service
Joan Praet served in the Army, volunteered for hospitals and church
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Joan Praet, 90, holds up a photo of herself in her military uniform at her Gainesville home. The Army nurse veteran has worked at Lanier Park Hospital and many other medical centers throughout the state. She now volunteers at Hopewell Baptist Church. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Senior spotlight: Joan Praet

This Gainesville woman is the focus of this month’s senior spotlight. This is the first in a series of stories about area senior citizens who have unique and interesting stories to tell.

Born as one of 13 children, Joan Praet was no stranger to discipline growing up. Her experiences as a child fueled her dream of being a nurse, her desire to join the military and her ability to adapt to changing situations and raising four children of her own.

Even now at 90 years old, nothing keeps Praet down. Since retiring, she volunteered with the Humane Society of Northeast Georgia and worked at now-closed Sam’s Club in Gainesville. And the Gainesville woman currently works at Hopewell Baptist Church.

In her lifetime, Praet has seen her shares of highs and lows.

One of her highs came when she completed her training as a nurse with the U.S. Army. She knew at age 8 she wanted to help people, and as a nurse she was able to do just that. In fact, the woman cared for paratroopers who served in World War II at a hospital in Mississippi.

This tour of duty led her to another life-changing moment. She meet her first husband, Loyd Pate. Their joyous union led to years of happiness along with four more transformative moments. She gave birth to three boys and one girl — Gary, David, Kenny and Elaine — making her a happy mother.

But being a mother had its painful moments. She lost her son, Gary, while he was serving the U.S. Air Force in 1968.

But this wasn’t Praet’s first loss of a family member. Her own mother died when she was only 5 years old. And as time passed, she has suffered the loss of her siblings one by one. Now Praet is the only sibling left of 13 children.

Through it all, Praet remains a hopeful, excited, energetic, talkative and happy woman who loves her family and work as well as telling stories.

“I have no reason to expect to be 90,” she said. “Except my motto is (God’s) eye is on the sparrow and I know he’s watching over me. I am content.”

Called to serve

Born in 1924, Praet grew up in the “patriotic” town of Hyde Park, N.Y., during the Great Depression. She was 9 years old when Franklin D. Roosevelt became president, but she recalls the spirit surrounding her town throughout those years.

“They had what were called caucuses, where all the politicians in New York would meet somewhere and have speeches,” Praet said. “We didn’t much care what was being said, but we were in the parades as children.”

Praet and her sisters participated in parades with a little red wagon covered in red, white and blue bunting. It showed off their American spirit.

“It was an era of love your country, America right or wrong,” she said.

The pride Praet felt for her country continued through her youth and into her teenage years. And while she knew she was destined to be a nurse, she felt called to serve her country.

“Had I stayed in nurses training, we would have graduated and automatically become second lieutenants. It was a given,” Praet said. “But I couldn’t wait to graduate. So I left.”

And a friendly challenge ultimately pushed the young woman to enlist in the Army in 1945.

During a jesting argument with a male friend of hers, Praet retorted “Well, I’ll just go ahead and join the Army!”

He didn’t believe her. He wanted to see if she would keep her word and enlist.

“You had to go to the post office to sign up,” Praet said. “To show me that he knew what he was talking about and I didn’t, he took me to the post office.”

Praet decided to call his bluff. She proudly marched up the post office steps and decided to finish the task once inside.

“So I joined, got on the train and ended up in Fort Oglethorpe,” she said.

Her new home was less than ideal.

“What we had for barracks were what used to be the horses’ houses,” she said. “I went for six weeks with nothing but women, and I loved it.”

Because of her partial nurse’s training, Praet did not have to undergo specialized training. Instead she learned to march in formation and exercise regularly, which led to bonding with her fellow female soldiers. The women stayed up past lights out, talking and thinking of home. Praet even learned she had a talent for writing letters.

“We would get letters ... and the girls wouldn’t know how to answer these love letters,” she said. “We would sit up on the stairs and I would tell them what to write.”

After her training, Praet worked at a Jackson, Miss., hospital that specialized in treating rheumatic fever.

From then on, Praet never left the South.

Loving a Southern gentleman

During her service, Praet met Loyd Pate in Newnan. The pair were immediately taken with each other. And his Southern manners surprised the woman who was raised in New York. It was especially evident on the couple’s first date at a cafe.

“There were some workmen in there,” she said. “They were having a conversation, cussing, carrying on normally. (Pate) got up and went to them, several booths down, and said ‘I’m sorry to interrupt you, but I would like you to watch what you’re saying. I’ve got my lady friend here with me.’”

This brand of treatment flattered Praet. From that moment, she knew she found a true Southern gentleman. The odd thing is, Praet rarely called him by his first name.

“His name was Loyd Pate, but before I was ever introduced to him, I heard him being called Pate,” she said. “I thought it was a nickname.”

Therefore, Praet called her husband Pate, making it an intimate connection between the two. Their intimacy led to marriage in 1945 and their four children followed. Pate died in 1970.

Culture shock

During their marriage, Praet picked up the strange Southern vocabulary, such as “mash” the button. She also learned to appreciate foods such as grits.

But the transition into the slow and segregated Southern lifestyle took time.

The young woman was particularly vexed by the differences in talking to or being around African-Americans. In New York, African-Americans were uncommon, but Praet did not think they should be treated differently.

“As (my husband and I) we were walking down the sidewalk, the black people would step off the sidewalk into the street, and they would nod and take their hats off,” she said, recalling the moment easily. “Pate ... would call them Uncle Joe or Aunt Susie or whatever. But they were not given the titles Mr. and Mrs.”

The practices confused her. Even her husband couldn’t explain why they were identified in different manners or expected to observe different customs.

Praet still didn’t comprehend the differences when she tried to include their maid in family activities.

“She would have dinner fixed, and she would stand in the kitchen,” Praet said. “I would say ‘Come sit down.’ She would say, ‘No, no.’ I didn’t have sense enough to know that there was no way she would ever sit at our table.”

Unwilling participant

Despite her Northern accent and manners, Praet made friends quickly. But some of her friendships led to uncomfortable situations for the young wife and mother.

One evening, she was invited to a meeting by one of her married female friends. Afterward, the friend mentioned they were going for a drive.

She agreed, and the pair set off. Soon, Praet realized they were among a line of cars headed in the same direction in an unusual part of town.

“We were driving through the colored — well, that’s not what they called it — part of town, and all of the black people were poking their heads out of their doors,” Praet said.

As the cars passed by, she felt uneasy and inquired as to what was happening. She received no answer.

“It wasn’t until later that I learned that the car leading all of us had a light up KKK on the car,” Praet said. “I didn’t even know that the cars just three cars ahead of us were full of men in their hoods and robes.”

Although she was not pleased about being part of the drive, Praet learned from the experience and realized Georgia was very different from her hometown of Hyde Park. However, she loves the state anyway.

“Georgia’s been good to me,” Praet said. “I never went back home except to visit.”

Raising a family

Having grown up in a no-nonsense household, Praet was a strict but loving mother. Her experiences in nursing school and the Army made her value discipline and obedience. Yet, the lively spirited woman adored her children.

However, when it came to behavior, Praet only ever had to ask once.

“I remember her being tough,” Praet’s only daughter Elaine Griffin said.

In the mornings, Praet didn’t waste time getting the family moving.

“I said get up, and they got up!” Praet said. “I know now that’s not the norm, but I expected them to get up. I didn’t have time to mess around.”

Praet also looked out for her children’s best interest at all times. When hepatitis broke out in school, Praet asked a doctor for his advice. Instead of a medication or shot, the doctor prescribed what her son, David Pate, remembers as much worse.

“She had heard that asparagus would help not catch hepatitis,” he said. “That was my first and last foray into eating asparagus. All of us kids were literally sitting at the supper table gagging trying to eat that stuff.

“I was crying my eyes out after the first bite because it smelled horrendous to start with. We had to eat it. I never got hepatitis. So call it what you want.”

Handling a tragedy

Her influence on her children is apparent. It became more evident when her oldest son, Gary, joined the Air Force and became a pilot.

In 1968, Praet and her family received the tragic news Gary went missing while on a night mission. It was a blow to the close-knit family.

“I was in total denial. I told them they had the wrong house,” Praet said during an interview with The Times in 2009.

The family never knew what happened to Gary until 2009. The Air Force found her son’s dog tags. Old wounds were reopened.

“I was glad I was here by myself when I got the call,” she said at the time. “... I just sort of went to pieces. I got it together, and then David came home from work, and I told him.”

After Gary’s disappearance, the family experienced another fatal blow. In 1970, Loyd Pate died.

Praet continued to work in the medical field before moving to North Georgia with her children in 1980. Her son, David, and his wife, Dianne, owned a house in Gainesville. And her son, Kenny Pate, made the move north with them.

“The kids’ dad had died, and I met a person from Helen that took a liking to me and wanted to marry,” she said. “I said I wasn’t going to marry anybody unless I had a job. We went by Lanier Park Hospital, and I got the job, and I got married.”

Praet married John Praet in 1981 and lived in Helen. Seven years later, he died.

“I’m a high risk for marriage; a black widow — I wouldn’t try it again,” Praet said.

She retired from hospital work that same year. About a decade later, Praet moved into the finished basement David and his wife, Dianne, built for her.

Serving animals and helping others

Since her retirement, Praet has continued serving people and animals.

For several years, she volunteered at the Humane Society of Northeast Georgia. The work also led Praet to adopting a cat.

“The people there thought I needed a pet,” she said. “I fostered her. Big mistake — if you ever foster an animal, you’re going to get it.”

She now has a cat named Mys Kitti that accompanies her throughout her days.

Praet currently works at Hopewell Baptist Church where her daughter-in-law is the office manager and son is the head of maintenance. She teaches Sunday school and is one of the primary teachers of the citizenship classes. She helps people from Mexico, Ecuador and other places.

“I love the people,” she said. “They are grateful. They’re humble. They’re polite. They’re interesting. I love everything about them.”

But Praet doesn’t want the praise.

“I want to give God all the glory,” she said.

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