The year Irma Cleveland was born, Henry Ford created the 40-hour work week. The famed magician and escape artist Harry Houdini died at 52, and road workers carved out Route 66 through America’s heartland, giving motorists a smooth travel route from Chicago to Los Angeles.
Several decades, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren later, and Cleveland, 92, is sitting on the main floor of Deaconess Hospital – the same hospital she graduated from in 1947 with a degree in nursing, before starting a long career that ended with her retirement in 1988.
“Deaconess was always good to me,” she said, one hand grasped around her walker, the other motioning wildly as she cracked joke after joke. “It’s my hospital.”
Surrounded by about 140 other graduates for a reunion Saturday morning, the 92-year-old from Montana was the oldest member of an increasingly exclusive club: Nurses who attended and graduated from MultiCare Deaconess Hospital’s own nursing school, which shuttered in 1980 after opening at the beginning of the 20th century.
With a building’s worth of memories surrounding her, Cleveland reminisced – about the night shifts, the husband lost to illness and time. The teary eyes and wet cheeks when President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in 1945.
She remembered, because next year there won’t be another chance. At least not like this, at the hospital and with classmates at her side. After decades of reunions, the group decided this year would be the final gathering.
“We’re just getting too old,” said Donna Olson, who has helped organize the event each year. “Nobody wants to do it anymore.”
But just because people weren’t up for the task doesn’t mean they were glad to see it go.
Laurie Herndon-Lordan came to the reunion dressed in the same outfit she wore at school from 1976 to 1979 – a white nurse’s hat, not unlike the kind found at any costume store, minus the red cross, and a blue pinstriped dress with a collar and metal pins on the left shoulder. It had to be clean, especially the shoes, and their hair couldn’t touch their shoulders, she said.
Though she didn’t end up working at Deaconess after graduation, opting instead to care for patients a few blocks away at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center where she’s still chiseling away at retirement, she looked back fondly at her formative years.
“Very sad,” she said. “The school of nursing, we were the best bedside nurses. Ever.”
Minutes before a noon lunch was set to begin, the meeting room on the first floor of Deaconess’ Health and Education Center was bustling with conversation and reintroductions. Each person was given a name tag showing the year they graduated, which proved helpful for people searching for fellow classmates.
As the clock struck noon, a woman led the group in prayer, a fitting reminder that Deaconess was founded by female missionaries, or deaconesses, of the Methodist Episcopal Church. She ended the prayer with the group’s long-running motto that began along with the nursing school in 1899: “For Jesus’ Sake.”
Back then, just six students were enrolled, four of whom graduated in 1901. They lived in the hospital, which at that time was called the Maria Beard Deaconess Home of Spokane, and worked 12-hour days, six days a week, with four hours off on Sundays.
As the hospital grew, it attracted students from all across the Inland Northwest, who would still sleep in dormitories inside the hospital. Or if you were a man – and there were few – in a student apartment somewhere nearby.
After three years, with summers spent at Spokane Falls Community College or an area university, the degree was theirs. Where they went after was up to them, though many opted to stay in the same hospital that trained them. In the 81-year run of the program, about 2,000 nurses graduated.
Lynn Hall was one of them. The 67-year-old spent 42 years as a nurse at Deaconess, with time spent pretty much everywhere in the hospital, including the intensive care unit and in surgery.
Why he ended up becoming a nurse, he couldn’t say. But it did get him out of hard manual labor.
“I ask myself that question all the time,” he said, adding that when he enrolled in 1970 he was one of three men in the program. “I do not know. Though, it was a good way to meet girls.”
Joking aside, he supposed he wanted to help people – an inkling that didn’t subside after retirement. He now helps deliver Meals on Wheels in Spokane Valley.
That same call to service led him to the reunion, a full plate of food and a glass of soda with ice.
It was the first gathering he’d been to since he put in his last day of work at the hospital in 2013. He said he felt bad for missing the other get-togethers, and wanted to see everyone’s face one last time before it was too late.
“It is sad,” he said. “I look around and see the number of people here. My goodness, there were a lot of people who went to nursing school.”
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