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Women remember early years of nursing at 50-year reunion
Dr. Keeta Wilborn, chairwoman of the Brenau University Department of Nursing, talks with a group of the first graduating class of the Hall School of Nursing. As part of a reunion Friday, the group toured the school’s nursing department. - photo by Tom Reed

The date 9/11 sticks out for most Americans, but 50 years ago it was significant for a different reason.

On Sept. 11, 1960, the Hall School of Nursing opened its doors to its first students, a class of 10 women from local communities.

"For as long as I could remember, all I wanted to do was be a nurse," said Barbara Wood, a Hall County resident and retired registered nurse. "I started working at the hospital right after graduating from college in 1959 and when (Ocie Rich Pope) got the nursing school started in 1960, I started with the first class."

Pope helped establish the school with the support of the Hall County Hospital, now Northeast Georgia Medical Center, Auxiliary.

Since graduating in 1963, the 10 members of the first class try to get together annually to reminisce.

Friday, they kicked off their reunion with a tour of the Brenau University nursing department. The independent Hall School became the Brenau College School of Nursing in 1978.

"Back then, our training focused more on bedside nursing; now things are focused more on community nursing," said Sonya Hancock, a Gainesville RN who retired from Northeast Georgia Medical Center in 2008. "Nurse's training has also gotten a lot more technical."

Although they learned how to do things like administer shots, insert catheters and check vital signs, the nurses' training focused more on giving the women an overview of each department at the hospital. They spent three months learning about the various sections - including maternity, surgery and pediatrics.

"There weren't different wings then - everyone was in one long (room)," Hancock said.

When Hancock and her classmates were students, their day started with duty at 6:45 a.m. at the hospital, followed by classes and mandatory study hall. Their days usually ended about 9 p.m., unless something came up at the hospital and one of the doctors phoned their dorm to summon them. They kept that schedule five days a week for three years, without summer vacations.

During their reunion, the ladies also recalled some of their more light-hearted trials as student nurses.

Each of the students was required to wear the same uniform daily, a white pinafore over a blue and white gingham dress, exactly 13 inches above the floor. And don't forget the mandatory white cap with navy blue trim.

"Our pinafore didn't have pockets, but our dresses did," said Carolyn Grant-Walker, a Gillsville resident. "So we used to have to reach all the way behind us (to reach the split in the pinafore), to pull our scissors and things out of our dress pockets. I bet we were quite a sight."

At the time, launching the nursing school was considered risky by some, the graduates recalled.

"Some people questioned if it was the right decision to have a nursing school in Gainesville," said Barbara Garrett, an Athens resident who retired from the medical center in 2005. "It was absolutely the right decision. Just look at how nursing has grown."


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