A Tradition of Excellence

BY Meghan Barnes

On May 22 1900 the first bricks were laid for the James Walker Memorial Hospital. The state-of-the-art facility named for the Scottish expat who made Wilmington his home opened two years later.

The hospital closed in 1966 but its legacy lives on particularly through the ongoing impact of a renowned nursing school that produced generations of quality caring professionals.

Walker left his homeland and moved to the United States at the age of 12. He became a builder and moved to Wilmington in 1857 to work on the U.S. Marine Hospital.

He loved the area and the people. He stayed becoming a developer — he worked on the original First Presbyterian Church and the Temple of Israel downtown — and philanthropist. He donated a large sum of money to construct the hospital that bore his name although he died a few months prior to completion.

The hospital brought new medical techniques and skilled doctors to the area. Local residents were awed by the new building that offered horse-drawn ambulances and a separate women’s unit.

One of the most important features of the new facility was the James Walker Memorial Hospital Nursing School which quickly became a premier destination for women interested in studying nursing.

“The building itself wasn’t that large but your first time seeing it well it looked like a great big building. It was thrilling and exciting and terrifying to walk up there for the first time ” says Carole Stevens Dusenbury who attended from 1957-60. “It was a great big adventure — but one of the most serious ones we would have in our time.”

Opening just four years after the racial riot in Wilmington that ushered in an era of segregation the facilities weren’t equal. There was a “colored annex” for patients but black physicians were not allowed to practice. They opened Community Hospital and their own nursing school in 1921. The two hospitals operated separately for the next 46 years.

But just as segregation was a tragic consequence of the times the nurses who attended the James Walker school have their own memories of a different period in American history.

“It was restricted back in those days ” says Lillian “Lil” Newton who graduated in 1946.”Ladies did not go out without stockings on and we were not allowed to wear pants slacks or anything like that. And we had a housemother. We had to be in by 7 pm on weekdays and we were allowed out until 9 pm on weekends.”

The curfew didn’t really matter because there wasn’t much free time anyway.

“We met every morning at 6 am in the basement of the dorm ” Newton says.”You were meant to take care of the patients and you had very little time off.But it was an accredited school so once you passed the state board you were allowed to work at other institutions.”

Women traveled from all over North Carolina to attend. They stayed with families as boarders or in the nursing school quarters — now the New Hanover County Department of Social Services Building in downtown Wilmington and the only building from the facility still standing.

“I am from Tabor City in Columbus County. It was always a personal goal of mine to be a nurse ” Helen Flowers recalls. “I won a scholarship when I left high school. It was from the Ladies Medical Auxiliary and I was very surprised and honored. No one in my family had ever gone to college and I really wanted that.”

Flowers who was born in the hospital and went on to become a member of the last graduating class in 1966 wasn’t alone. Women from around the region flocked to Wilmington eager to study nursing. The 50-bed hospital was ideal to learn hands-on techniques and recently perfected procedures. As it continued to produce competent RNs more and more women came to attain their education.

Over the years the students and graduates formed a tight-knit community a band of sisters that shared common bonds and experiences.

“It was a small hospital and everyone knew everybody ” Flowers recalls. “Geneva Watts who was one of the nurses helping in the hospital when I was born mentored me once I went into rotation. I was able to find the old logs in the records room that even showed she was in the room when I was born.”

The increase in numbers of nursing students as well as the demand for additional space caused the hospital to continuously grow and change. But eventually the once-modern facility became outmoded. The city constructed a replacement and on the same day in 1966 New Hanover Memorial Hospital opened and the now-obsolete James Walker Memorial Hospital closed.

Even after the closing of the school and the hospital the community created through its nurses and nursing staff continued to have an impact. James Walker graduates were some of the most sought-after nurses of their time and populated facilities throughout the state and region.

“The girls I worked with — it was like blowing a dandelion ” Flowers says. “We were very close but then after graduation it was as if someone blew on it and we all went our separate ways. But we made it. It wasn’t easy but it was a goal and we accomplished it.”

In 1923 active graduates organized the James Walker Memorial Hospital School of Nursing Alumni Association. Louis Toomer from the class of 1908 was elected as the first president. From that point forward the association acted as a resource for current and previous nurses.

“Many times after we graduated we would go back and talk to the student nurses about the opportunities available to them and the importance of finishing their training ” Newton says.

Upon the closure of the hospital a scholarship was created.

“We have a scholarship committee that gives financial help to Cape Fear Community College and University of North Carolina Wilmington nursing students ” Dusenbury says. “We also donate time and money to different charities we think would help make the community stronger.”

More than 1 400 students have received financial assistance to aid them in their training.

The legacy of the school also lives on through a collection at the William Madison Randall Library. In 2004 the association populated the collection with records photographs brochures and additional memorabilia.

Even though it has been nearly 50 years since the nursing school closed its doors the members of this society still remain active holding monthly meetings and reunions every five years.

“When we first started at the hospital we were so scared so we would hide in the linen closet folding laundry ” Dusenbury says. “We never imagined all the good we would end up doing.”