Editor’s note: Because of the time frame covered by this article, the hospital currently known as University Hospitals Elyria Medical Center is generally referred to by its former name, Elyria Memorial Hospital, or its acronym, EMH.
If you were born in Elyria, there’s an excellent chance that you entered the world at Elyria Memorial Hospital. That’s where I made my debut, at 8 o’clock in the morning on Tuesday, May 15, 1956, weighing 7 pounds and 2 ounces. My mother’s room number was 358, and Dr. Overs was her physician. I know this level of detail because my mother saved everything; in an attic trunk I found my birth card and the information folder given to her upon admittance to the hospital. How she knew that I would one day write about Elyria’s past is a mystery.
Chances are also excellent that if you were born before 1988, the nurses taking care of you and your mother were educated at the M.B. Johnson School of Nursing, a three-year diploma program affiliated with the hospital. Some of the buildings are gone, and several additions have changed the streetscape, but the memories of those I interviewed are as strong as the classical columns that once graced M.B. Johnson Hall.
In 1907, on Memorial Day, a devastating streetcar accident on Middle Avenue killed nine people, injuring about 100 more. Compounding the tragedy was Elyria’s lack of a hospital. Just two days earlier, a committee convened to address the city’s need for a hospital. Heartbreakingly, two men on the committee lost sons in the accident. Wealthy utility industrialist Edgar F. “Daddy” Allen and Reverend John P. Sala became the driving forces leading to the hospital’s founding. Just 18 months after the disaster, in a stately brick building with four white columns, EMH opened its doors on the corner of East Broad Street and East River Road.
A hospital cannot function without nurses. When EMH opened in 1908, so did the School of Nursing of Elyria Memorial Hospital. In 1935, a gift from the sons of Melvin B. Johnson, a prominent attorney, was made in his memory, and the school was renamed for him.
Today, if you continue walking past the gift shop of what is now University Hospitals Elyria Medical Center, you can catch a glimpse of that bygone era. A corridor called “M.B. Johnson Hall,” dedicated in 2008 to coincide with the hospital’s 100th anniversary, contains a permanent exhibit of photographs and artifacts dating from the school’s founding. In this passageway of time-travel are photographs of the first two graduates of the nursing school, Martina Minnich and Ruth Celia Cowen. They became etched in Elyria history when, on Aug. 25, 1911, they earned their nursing diplomas.
To Be a Nurse
“I have always wanted to be a nurse and I should like very much to go into training in the new hospital,” Martina said to Dr. C.H. Cushing the day the hospital opened. A Chronicle article from Oct. 13, 1933, marking the hospital’s 25th anniversary, recounted the conversation. “Convinced of her seriousness, Dr. Cushing made arrangements for Miss Minnich … to enter Memorial Hospital as a student nurse” that very day.
Minnich was placed in charge of the operating room, and later made supervisor. She said, though, that she would never again become a nurse in her hometown. “One never knows whether accident victims who are brought in are going to be friends or relatives, and that puts in an element of anxiety with every case which is anything but pleasant.”
The Chronicle interviewed Minnich again 20 years later. The Oct. 8, 1953, article noted that the entire nursing staff at the time the hospital opened consisted of the student nurses, the superintendent and her assistant, two day supervisors and one night supervisor. They all worked a 12-hour shift.
Rose Standifer Lucas ’62 knew that she wanted to be a nurse when she was a little girl living in Cleveland, before her family moved to Grafton.
“The public health nurse would come to our community and it fascinated me,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Detroit. “If we had to go to a hospital or something, I always wanted to wander around and just explore.”
Lucas graduated from Elyria Catholic High School in 1959 and ranked in the upper third of her class of 118. In 1962, she became the first African American graduate in MBJ’s history.
In that class’s yearbook, the student roster listed the hometowns of young women who “wanted to be a nurse.” They traveled to Elyria from as far as Ashtabula, Berea, Cleveland, Euclid, Homerville, Mayfield Village and Seven Hills. What drew them was the school’s reputation.
M.B. Johnson’s requirements were famously exacting. Applicants had to take a pre-admission test and supply three letters of reference — and not everyone who matriculated finished the program. Instructors addressed students by their last name. There was no such thing as summer vacation — just two short weeks in August between the end of one class year and the start of another. “That’s how we managed to do four years’ work in three,” wrote Lorain’s Joyce Pope Zickefoose ’69 in an email.
A 1998 column by The Chronicle’s Connie Davis noted that for their first three months, students were on probation. Then, focusing on the 1920s, she wrote:
Nurses were on duty from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. with two hours off for study and recreation and one-half day off a week. There was a yearly vacation of two weeks but otherwise no absence except in ‘extreme circumstances.’ … The Junior Nurse received $10 monthly the first year, $12.50 the second and $15 monthly the third, which was ‘in no way being considered remuneration’ but was for uniforms, textbooks, etc. Lectures and exams were given by doctors who were specialists in subjects they taught. Theoretical work was supplemented by practical bedside demonstrations under supervision. An 80-percent grade average was required for graduation. Curriculum for the first two years emphasized basic courses such as anatomy, chemistry, physics, bacteriology and hygiene, dietetics, etc. as well as hours of practical nursing. In the third year instruction in various fields of nursing was added, including industrial, social services, school, board of health, Red Cross, Army and Navy.”
Karen Donovan Cohagan ’62 graduated from Elyria Catholic with Lucas in 1959. Had it not been for a scholarship Cohagan won from a fund started by Harry Zahars, owner of the Paradise Restaurant, she could not have afforded to attend MBJ. The cost during her tenure, from 1959 to 1962, was $750. This included tuition, room and board, books, uniform, and transportation on the M.B Johnson bus to and from Oberlin College for her first year of science courses.
Cohagan explained the off-campus classes. “The administration was trying to get the best education for us.” At various points in the school’s history, first-year students took their science courses at such institutions as Oberlin, Ashland University, Lorain County Community College or — as with Zickefoose’s class of 1969, the Kent State University extension at Elyria High School.
“At the time, you think (going to school at MBJ) is the hardest thing you’ll ever do, and it probably was at that young time of our life,” said Sharon Clark Pierce ’69 of Elyria. “But I didn’t realize until after I got out of school how well prepared I was.”
“At MBJ,” she continued, “if you got a ‘C’ they were counseling you: ‘You’ve got to get the grades up. You’ve got people’s lives in your hands.” But students never felt isolated; each was assigned a mentor in the form of a “big sister,” an older girl from the preceding class. “When we first arrived at the dorm,” wrote Zickefoose, the big sisters “were on the front steps to greet us and show us … around.”
Standards of Excellence
Lucas said that students “didn’t even think about missing class, or having someone take notes” for them. She passed her State Board exams in Columbus on the first try.
“When that piece of paper came, it said ‘Rose Marie Standifer, R.N.,’ ” she said.
“MBJ was always in the top five in Ohio for State Board results,” Zickefoose said.
Kathy Boylan of Elyria taught at MBJ from 1961-1962, left to start a family, then returned in the late 1960s. She was a member of the faculty until 1985, when Mayor Michael Keys asked her to lead the city’s health department. The school was, she said in a phone interview, “accredited by the National League for Nursing. We had accrediting visits, and were equal to any nursing school. One year we were top in State Board scores in Ohio.”
Harry Berg ’87, of Chatham Township in Medina County, was one of the last men to earn a diploma from MB. He graduated with the final class when the school closed in 1987.
“It was a tough school,” he wrote in an email. “(You) had to maintain a 3.0 GPA or you were cut from the program.”
Susan Guastella Jordan ’79, of Elyria, said that MBJ inspired a student “to be a person of excellence. They really had such high standards.” To illustrate her point, she said that she “almost flunked bed-making.” She recalled her supervisor’s admonishment: “I advise you to go back and work on your bed corners because they just aren’t up to par.”
Following rigorous instruction and coursework, student nurses learned, by observing and by doing, in the best lab imaginable: Elyria Memorial Hospital. They also gained valuable experience at the Gates Hospital for Crippled Children, built in 1915 and part of the campus at the time.
“Gates is where we taught,” Boylan said.
Jordan said the school’s clinical program was “excellent. Our experience was incredible. It was very hands-on. They were so thorough. When we got to our third year of nursing, they had us looking at every disease at the cellular level.”
“By our senior year we were working on the wards four days a week for eight hours a day,” Berg wrote. “At night you would do care plans, disease and patient treatment evaluations, drug cards for the medications that the patient was on. If you were not able to answer your instructor’s questions about your patient’s treatment, you would be sent to the library to find the answer to their satisfaction.”
Boylan noted that communication skills were critical to an MBJ education.
“You walk into a room and you say, ‘Hi. I’m a student nurse. How are you today? Tell me what’s going on with you?’ That’s the biggest thing. Techniques will always change through the years, but communication is basic. You’ve got to be able to talk to people and listen with your eyes and ears.”
- Have empathy for your patient and for everyone in your patient’s family.
- If you don’t use your brain you’re going to use your feet; think ahead of time of everything you’ll need. Be organized.
- And, from teacher Janet Schroeder, “Stand tall, be proud of yourself, and hold your head up high.”
Dressing the Part
“Standing tall” came naturally while wearing those early uniforms.
“(They) were blue with a white starched pinafore apron which closed in the back. We were not allowed to sit on the apron, so we had to fold the back-flaps on our laps to sit,” Zickefoose said in an email.
Each student was also issued a gray wool cape with her name stitched into the scarlet lining and “MBJ” embroidered on the collar.
The capping ceremony, an important rite of passage where students received their iconic white caps, took place at the end of the first year; one black stripe signified their first-year status. With their second year of study they received their second stripe, and the third upon beginning their final year of school. Once graduated, the stripes were removed. During the capping ceremony, students were given porcelain “Nightingale” lamps, invoking the legendary 19th-century British nurse Florence Nightingale. While the lamps’ small candles were lit, the class recited, in unison, the nurses’ national code of ethics—the “Nightingale Pledge.” (See sidebar.)
Boylan isn’t exactly sure when the students stopped wearing caps during their daily rounds—most likely in the 1980s, she said.
“Equipment got so complicated and caps got in the way,” she said.
Doctors missed seeing the nurses wearing them; particularly, she said, Dr. Harold McDonald.
“He kept saying, ‘I miss the caps.’ He didn’t understand why we weren’t wearing them.”
Eventually the white dresses went the way of the caps.
“We got into pantsuits while I was teaching,” Boylan said. “Bulky clothes just got in the way.”
By 1967, however, one student wasn’t wearing a cap or a cape. That was the year MBJ admitted the first male student, Linton Sharpnack ’70, to the school. Understandably, a few adjustments to the capping ceremony were necessary. According to a Chronicle article from the era, Margaret Krapp, director of nursing, said that Sharpnack would not have to wear the iconic grey wool cape. And the matter of the cap was resolved by having the black stripes appear on the upper sleeve of his uniform.
If the student nurses lived at M.B. Johnson Hall, what, pray tell, did the administration do with Mr. Sharpnack? According to the Chronicle article, he was allowed to remain at home with his parents on Princeton Avenue. Attempts to reach him for an interview were unsuccessful but, according to the website for Village Home Care and Hospice in Cincinnati, he is now its executive director.
The young women who lived at M.B. Johnson Hall in the 1950s and 1960s did so under the watchful eye of housemother Monica Durkin. A yearbook photograph of her includes this inscription: “The welfare and happiness of her ‘girls’ have always been her first concern, and her wise and sincere counseling has been of great assistance to each of us. … She is a friend to all students. We … shall always be grateful to her.”
“Miss Durkin,” Lucas said, “was a gem.”
Cohagan said the house rules were strict.
“There was a curfew; we had to check in by a certain time. As a freshman it was lights out at 11 p.m.; after that, Miss Durkin would check all the rooms,” Cohagan said.
It almost goes without saying that male visitors were not allowed upstairs — only in the parlor or “dating rooms,” said Cohagan, small areas on the main floor where a girl could host her beau. “We all knew that (Miss Durkin) really loved all of us girls. But she was strict. Looking back, I can see where she had to be.”
Despite the rules and Miss Durkin’s eagle-eye, there were fun and games to be had, and, according to Lucas, “a lot of camaraderie. We had volleyball, basketball … we went to Cleveland to do volleyball competitively against other schools of nursing.”
Yearbooks from the era provide a sense of some of the extracurriculars: a social committee was responsible for planning the Christmas formal and Halloween parties on campus. Opportunities to learn the nuances of governance included elections for student officers and other committees responsible for such aspects of school life as its constitution, infractions, sports, the house and the yearbook.
The Nightingale Pledge
I solemnly pledge myself before God and in the presence of this assembly, to pass my life in purity and to practice my profession faithfully. I will abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous, and will not take or knowingly administer any harmful drug. I will do all in my power to maintain and elevate the standards of my profession and will hold in confidence all matters committed to my keeping and all family affairs coming to my knowledge in the practice of my profession. With loyalty will I endeavor to aid the physician in his work and devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care.
— from the 1962 M.B. Johnson yearbook
And then there was the choir. According to the yearbook, “the M.B. Johnson School of Nursing Choir consists of members of all three classes. Membership is optional. The choir meets weekly to rehearse for both hospital and public functions.” The Student Nurse Organization of Greater Cleveland sponsored an annual Choir Festival. One press clipping from the Chronicle featured a picture of the ensemble, which, in the early 1950s, included Marie Wagner Russert ’53 of Elyria.
Zickefoose recalled just one phone on each floor of the dorm, for incoming calls only. A pay phone on the main floor, across from the housemother’s office near the mailboxes, was used for outgoing calls. She remembers “girls waiting for mail from boyfriends in Vietnam and the excitement for all of us when they got a letter.”
By 1969, when Zickefoose and Sharon Clark Pierce graduated, tuition for three years was $2,100. Again, this was all-inclusive, covering room, board, books and uniforms.
The End of an Era
By the 1980s, the winds of change were in the air. Hospital-affiliated nursing schools, including those at St. Alexis, Lutheran, St. John and Akron General hospitals, were shuttering. On Dec. 6, 1985, Donald R. Taylor, administrator of EMH, sent a letter to alumni stating that the hospital’s Board of Trustees had decided to permanently close the M.B. Johnson School of Nursing in 1987, following the graduation of the junior and senior classes.
The commencement ceremony for the Class of 1987 would be the last in the school’s remarkable 79-year history.
Taylor wrote that first-year students would have the opportunity to transfer into the Associate Degree Nursing Program at LCCC. From there, upon licensure as registered nurses, LCCC graduates could complete a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing through two additional years of full-time studies at Bowling Green State University’s Firelands Campus. The hospital, he wrote, would continue its tradition as a teaching institution by partnering with LCCC, serving as “home-base” for the school’s health career programs.
Taylor acknowledged the school’s reputation as one of the finest in Ohio, but explained that several factors led to the decision to close: “Escalating costs, changing reimbursement patterns, increasing hospital subsidies, and new trends in nursing education,” specifically, the BSN degree.
Several days later in a Chronicle article, Taylor called the board’s decision to close the school “probably one of the most difficult they’ve ever had to make.”
Berg remembers that “there were rumors that we would not be able to finish, so there was a huge sense of relief that we would be able to … but it was sad that we would be the last class of such a great school. When they tore the Gates Building down, I (took) a piece of the column that flanked the front doors and cleaned it up and had all the students sign it.” Harry wrote that he and his classmates presented the keepsake to a school administrator “as a thank you for her leadership.”
Today, Berg is an instructor and developer in patient care and monitoring solutions for Philips Healthcare in Highland Heights, Ohio.
“I train both nurses and biomedical engineers on the use of our patient monitoring systems … all over the world,” he wrote. He regrets the demise of hospital-based diploma programs. “I know that economics and hospitals consolidating played a role as well as wanting to increase the ‘image’ of nursing by requiring a BSN, but I think that the nurses now are not as prepared to face the real world as we were. I have spoken with more than one “old” nurse who is of the same opinion.”
Pierce ’69 has served as president of the MBJ Alumni Association for some 40 years.
“The nursing school was such a boon to the whole county and so well-respected for so many years,” she said. “People would say to me, ‘You went through a hospital program, didn’t you? I could tell, because you fluffed my pillow.’”
Marie Wagner Russert ’53 was not surprised when she heard that the school would close.
“I knew it was going to happen because the American Nurses Association was redirecting the type of education nurses should receive,” she said. “We should be in some type of route to get either a bachelor’s or associate’s degree.”
Nonetheless, the news disappointed her.
“Three-year nursing diploma programs are the best,” she said. “All of our work was hands-on; that’s where our experience came from.”
“After working in different settings,” said Lucas, who entered the Air Force after graduation, “I realized how comprehensive and flexible the program at MBJ was. It’s just a shame that the three-year school of nursing phased out.”
The Legacy Today
M.B. Johnson Hall, the dormitory where more than a thousand young women lived, was demolished in the spring of 1983. The Gates Hospital for Crippled Children was gone by April 1987. Pictures of each can be seen in “Elyria in Vintage Postcards,” a book by Benjamin J. and Anne Fischer Mancine, which also includes photographs of the sun in this constellation — Elyria Memorial Hospital, borne of tragedy in 1908, with distinctive white columns similar to those of its satellites, MBJ and Gates. “If one looks closely at the hospital today,” wrote the authors, “it is possible to discern the shape of this old building among the many additions.”
A commemorative calendar printed for the hospital’s 100th anniversary noted that the nursing school once stood on its grounds. When the school was demolished, the 2008 text reads, “the hospital was able to expand its services—Gates Medical Building, Radiology and the Intensive Care Unit now sit where the school and dormitory used to be.”
And where does the legacy of the M.B. Johnson School of Nursing sit? Among its 1,304 graduates, some of whom went into teaching. Pierce, for example, taught in the nursing program at LCCC for 30 years. So did Marie Wagner Russert ’53. Countless patients at Elyria Memorial Hospital — and hospitals and clinics across the country — were the beneficiaries of the school’s high standards and academic rigor, and the dedication of its practitioners toward, in the words of the Nightingale Pledge, “the welfare of those committed to (our) care.”
Oldest Living MBJ Graduate Tells All
Had Alice Klinect been born several decades after her birth year of 1918, she would have no doubt fulfilled her dream of becoming an engineer.
“I wanted to build bridges,” she said.
But the times being what they were, aside from homemaker, only three occupations were considered suitable for young women: teacher, secretary or nurse. Fortunately for Elyria and the Elyria Memorial Hospital, Alice became a nurse. It was the only post-secondary education that her father, who didn’t go to school beyond the eighth grade, could afford. Alice graduated from Elyria High School in 1937; when she was admitted to the M.B. Johnson School of Nursing (MBJ), tuition for the three-year diploma program was $300. This included room and board in M.B. Johnson Hall, books, and uniforms.
Alice is the oldest living graduate of MBJ; I interviewed her the week before her 99th birthday, in the Elyria house that her father built in 1929, and where she grew up and lived most of her life. When asked the secret to such a long life, she didn’t miss a beat: “I lived so long because I didn’t have a husband or kids.”
What she lacked by not having a family she made up for with a rich and rewarding career. After earning her nursing diploma in 1940, she did post-graduate work in surgical technique at the University of Pennsylvania. She then joined the staff of EMH, where she worked as a supervisor and an instructor in surgery.
Included with other artifacts behind a glass case in the hospital’s M.B. Johnson Memorial Hall is a letter, dated Sept. 4, 1940, that Alice received from the hospital’s director of nursing, Hazel West. It explains the salary structure for the nursing job she would be offered:
The salary is $55 a month until after you have taken your State Board Examination. Then the salary is $60 a month with full maintenance. If you pass the examination, the salary is increased to $65 a month with maintenance.
“Maintenance” referred not to health insurance or a pension plan, but to expenses associated with living in the Nurses’ Home, including uniforms and laundry. A few months later, Miss West wrote to Miss Klinect again, informing her that starting Dec. 1, 1940, “the salary for registered general duty nurses is $70.00 and will be increased to $75.00 after one year of service. Nurses living outside the Nurses Home will receive $10.00 extra.”
It helps to remember that in 1940, the median home value in the United States was just $2,938. When Alice got her first apartment (she lived in Akron while working for a year at Peoples’ General Hospital), her rent was $7 per week.
Part of Alice’s duties at EMH included supervising students at the nursing school and teaching them surgical techniques; she also served as a class adviser. Next to her picture in the 1961 yearbook is printed this inscription: “She has many profitable ideas. Her helping hand and friendly smile supply encouragement to everyone.”
One of her many protégées over the years became a lifelong friend. Marie Wagner Russert ’53, grew up in Lorain and graduated from the former Central High School in Amherst, now Marion L. Steele. After graduating from MBJ, Marie did post-graduate work in surgery at New York Polyclinic Medical School and Hospital. She worked at EMH for 11 years, and was head surgical nurse, reporting to Alice. She was also a clinical instructor at the hospital. After being a stay-at-home mom for about four years, Marie received a call from Lorain County Community College; they wanted her assistance in developing a surgical technology program that would be part of an associate degree curriculum. She ended up teaching there for 42 years, retiring “seven or eight years ago.”
In a joint interview at Alice’s home, Marie spoke about her former mentor’s generosity: “She was never reluctant to share her skills and knowledge. She was always available. She was one of the fairest people I’ve ever worked with, a complete professional.”
By the time Alice retired from EMH in 1984, after 44 years of service, she was assistant director of special services — a broad range of responsibilities that included the operating and recovery rooms (she was director of the O.R. for 25 years); the intensive care and cardiac care units; out-patient services; hemodialysis (at the request of Director of Nursing Margaret Krapp, Alice set up the hospital’s first kidney dialysis unit); central supply (command central for all equipment preparation) and staff development. She published articles in professional journals and was an active member of several associations and boards, including the Ohio Nurses and the American Nurses associations, the Cleveland Area League for Nursing and the Greater Cleveland Hospital Association. Her various awards include one from the Cleveland Area League of Nursing for outstanding contributions to In-Service Education.
These are stellar accomplishments for a young student to whom a supervisor once said: “You will never amount to anything.”
By her own account, Alice was a lively, high-spirited and slightly mischievous student who was, she said, often in “the doghouse.” Some of the infractions that put her there: body-sledding on the hill of the school grounds, coming in after the 10 p.m. curfew, and roller skating in front of the hospital.
“Nurses,” she was told, “don’t roller skate.”