The Ottumwa Courier

July 21, 2013

St. Joe nurses reunite, look back on days at school

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — One hundred St. Joseph Hospital nurses were reunited once again.

From the time St. Joe's opened in 1917 until it closed in 1971, 702 nurses graduated from the hospital. Saturday night, those who were able returned to Hotel Ottumwa to see old friends and classmates.

"We looked back and 1946 was the earliest [class] we invited because the rest were deceased, too far away or they couldn't get here," said Vera Vandello, planning committee member and a graduate of the class of 1967.

Five graduates from the class of 1946 made it to the reunion Saturday night: Darlene Glassner, Dorothy Green, Mary Jane Patrick, Regina Harness and Catherine Millane.

Glassner said "it's almost unbelievable" that her class was the earliest at Saturday's reunion.

"I was very disturbed when I found out they were going to tear the hospital down," she said. "There are a lot of memories there."

Vandello said this year's reunion takes on a special meaning since St. Joe's is slated for demolition.

"It's of interest to see what state it's in," said Sister Marie Vittetoe. "It's all fenced off. It looks like it's in a state of degradation."

But spirits were high as the 100 nursing graduates shuffled into the ballroom for dinner.

Glassner hopes the reunions will continue, even though the youngest graduates are now in their 60s.

"As long as some of us are left, I think we should keep having them," she said.

Sister Vittetoe -- nurses may recall her as Sister Mary Bernard back in the day -- taught chemistry and microbiology from 1950 up until the school closed. After leaving the school, she went on to graduate school and "never came back" to Ottumwa to work, though she enjoys coming back to the reunions.

"It keeps everyone in touch, but this might be close to the last one," she said. "You figure, the last class finished in 1972 and they were probably 22 when they finished. That's around 40 years ago, so they're all in their early 60s now."

Looking back on her time at the school, Glassner said she was a bit of a troublemaker.

"Sister Christine always had it in for me," she said with a chuckle. "One time she caught me putting spirits of ammonia in a coat."

But Patrick said the nurses were very fortunate to have studied at the school.

"I knew so many exceptional nurses there who went on to have very responsible jobs," she said.

The theme of the night was "The Way We Were," evidenced by the buttons each person received when they signed in. Vandello, with the help of The Photo Shop owner Keith Caviness, took digital photos of the graduation pictures, now in the hands of the Wapello County Historical Society. They then placed those photos and the graduation year on buttons, which each graduate pinned to her blouse or dress.

Every three years a reunion is held, said Jackie Moll. All the graduating classes are invited back and anywhere from one to several graduates from a class makes the trip to Hotel Ottumwa.

"This is just a way to get the classes together, to visit, to see who's not with us anymore," Vandello said.

But this year's reunion was also somewhat bittersweet since Sister Suzanne Wickenkamp died in 2011, one year after the nurses' last reunion.

"She was a pillar of this school of nursing," Vittetoe said.

Wickenkamp was the director or nursing at St. Joe's for years, then taking on the role of hospital administrator and supervisor of chaplain services after the school closed.

"She may not be here with us tonight, but you know ... I feel like she is here," Moll said.

Members of the class of 1967 were responsible for starting the first intensive care unit in Ottumwa.

"Before 1968, there were no ICUs in hospitals," said Susan Bay, who launched Ottumwa's ICU alongside Jeanie Morrison.

The pair was sent to Denver to learn how to take care of patients who had had heart attacks or been severely injured.

"We were there two weeks and worked at Colorado General Hospital," Morrison said. "We defibrillated a dog to learn how to do it."

They returned to Ottumwa, where they worked with the doctors to set up the ICU and a coronary care unit.