Our Rich History: Nursing program comes to Thomas More, becomes part of Diocesan Healthcare World

By Dr. Raymond Hebert
Thomas More University

Part 57 of our series, “Retrospect and Vista II” Thomas More College/University 1971-2021 

The Nursing Program at Thomas More University is one of the strongest majors at the institution and in the Greater Cincinnati area, with stellar pass rates in the nursing certification exams and high percentages of job acceptance rates immediately upon graduation. Indeed, this has been the case for several decades. It is therefore ironic that on November 19th, 1959, after attending a conference on college programs in nursing, Villa Madonna College President Fr. John Murphy wrote:

St. Elizabeth nursing students (1950s) at the St. Elizabeth Hospital in Covington. (TMU Archives)

“Periodically requests come for us to establish a program at Villa Madonna for nursing education. I had never been sure whether we should or not. My conclusions now are by no means should we give consideration to the establishment of a nursing education program . . . all who were asked for advice spoke of the problems in administering such a program, its expense, the frequent conflicts between the academic and clinical aspects of the program and the accrediting difficulties with the Association of Nursing Schools… all in all I feel that Villa Madonna should give no consideration to this program” (Memorandum, RE Nursing Education, Nov. 19, 1959, Rev. John F. Murphy, TMU Archives).

Again, some years later on February 10, 1967, after the “Bishop broached the topic of a nursing program,” Fr. Murphy asked his Academic Dean, Fr. Charles Rooks to investigate the matter further, particularly as to costs. The memo pointed out that “the student cost at St. Elizabeth for their program in 1964 had been $2400 per student.”

Dr. Ron Mann, Dean of Faculty and member of the board of trustees. (TMU Archives)

Information was shared about experimental programs around the country with the observation that: “the program if pursued would also place an immediate strain upon our classrooms and faculty offices, particularly the latter if it were adopted now” (Nursing Program Memo from Fr. Charles Rooks to Fr. Murphy, February 10, 1967, TMU Archives). It should be noted that nationally by the 1960s the trend was moving away from Diploma programs in hospitals to Associate Degree programs (2 years) at colleges and universities. It was also noted that the pilots were in larger states, like California, Texas, and New York.

Meanwhile, a partnership developed between the diocesan hospital, St. Elizabeth, and the diocesan college, Villa Madonna, for the nursing students to take certain classes on campus at VMC in Biology, Psychology, Philosophy and Theology (Fr. Charles Rooks memo to department chairs in affected departments, February 16, 1965, TMU Archives).

Related to St. Elizabeth Hospital, a close look at a self-study report in February 1969 speaks of student nurses “attending classes on Saturday mornings at Villa Madonna College as far back as 1932-1934 (Psychology, Ethics, Theology), and in Psychology and Chemistry from September 1940 to June 1951—with a closer affiliation agreed to in 1959 for the 1960s. Then, it added that “this program worked out very satisfactory, but was discontinued in September 1966 only because St. Elizabeth School of Nursing was closed during the summer of 1966” (Sr. Irmina Saelinger, O.S.B. addendum about the St. Elizabeth-Villa Madonna College relationship for the 1969 self-study report requested by Dean of Faculty, Dr. Ron Mann, February 17, 1969, TMU Archives).

Virginia Harwood, the first Nursing Administrator (TMU Archives)

Not surprisingly, the closing of the St. Elizabeth Hospital Diploma Nursing Program was clearly a primary incentive for the newly named Thomas More College, out in the suburbs in an area near the proposed site for a future St. Elizabeth facility, to reconsider the possibility of a 2-year or 4-year nursing program. One obvious concern over the years prior to that had been the hesitation of some to support a program that would have competed with a fellow diocesan institution.

An important letter from Mrs. Doris McDowell, R.N. the Executive Director of the Kentucky Board of Nursing Education and Nurse Registration, reiterates the Thomas More timetable back to 1972 information gathering and culminating with a series of letters in October/November 1975 from Dean Ronald Mann, who had become the institutional champion for a BSN nursing program. The letters from Dr. Mann reflect complying with all requirements and even the beginning of a nurse administrator search, by the latter part of January 1976, all before the submission of the program proposal by February 9, 1976. The proposal, once completed, included an April 9, 1976, letter “expressing Thomas More’s intent on initiating a Department of Nursing which will enroll its first class in the Fall of 1977.” A renewal letter of intent was then noted as having been received in Frankfort on December 14, 1976. One of the requirements was that the nurse administrator had to be the first faculty member hired “at least six months before the first class is enrolled” and another that the first-year faculty be appointed “at least three months before the first class is enrolled.” The plan for the “use of clinical facilities” also had to be approved months in advance (Doris McDowell letter to Ron Mann, January 29, 1977, TMU Archives).

It was in a letter signed by Virginia Harwood, who would become the first Nursing Administrator, and Dean Ronald Mann to the Thomas More board of trustees (December 19, 1977), that they announced how they “were extremely pleased to receive approval for our nursing program.” There was disappointment at the 30-student limitation in Year 1 when it was noted “we could have handled seventy” but the tone was one of excitement at this new direction for the institution (Harwood/Mann letter to TMC Board of Trustees December 19, 1977, TMU Archives).

One important consideration in the process, considering that the nursing content courses and lab are concentrated in the junior and senior years, was the decision to delay some of the hires and to spread them over a two-year period in 1977–78 and 1978–79. One major intangible was the footnote that “since both the Hospital and Thomas More are projects of the Diocese of Covington, it seems that a zero-cost cooperative agreement is possible and that a final agreement is, in fact, all but assured” (p. 110). The preparation document (Spring 1977) specified an expectation to “graduate a minimum of 18 nurses per year,” but with a rejoinder that “the program would be judged successful if more than 16 students graduate per year after the 5th year” (Dean Ronald Mann, Nursing Program Preparation Document, spring 1977, pp. 109-113, TMU Archives).

Nursing faculty (1977-1978), Patricia Callico (left), Virginia Harwood (center), and Mary Ellen Kelley (right). (TMU Archives)

By August 1977, the “Progress Report on the Nursing Program,” from Nursing Program Administrator Virginia Harwood was extremely telling.

It spoke of a “curriculum that has been revised, discussions with faculty who would be teaching the initial courses, interviews with many potential students (since) it will begin with students at all levels of the program,” and a reiteration of the need to hire the first two teaching faculty members.” Clearly, there was a frustration at the difficulty in finding qualified applicants in a competitive environment and the lack of authority to at least hire consultants. In Ms. Harwood’s words, “I have twice asked for help, but have not been sufficiently convincing in my request.” Conversations with other hospitals for clinical partnerships (besides St. Elizabeth’s) was also emphasized plus the need to visit other institutions of Thomas More’s size for input and to attend conferences to gather information. Even practical items such as the purchase of uniforms for students to wear during clinicals and the equipment for nursing labs and faculty offices were mentioned as needs since a program could not begin without them (Virginia Harwood “Progress Report on Nursing Program” to TMC administration and Board of Trustees Chair Charles Deters, August 18, 1977, TMU Archives).

One year later, in a follow up “Progress Report” to a new President (Dr. Robert Giroux) and Dean Ron Mann, Virginia Harwood proudly proclaimed that “our first class of thirty has been selected from approximately one hundred and fifty applicants.” Declaring that these students were a “good group,” they were ready to go for the fall semester of 1978. Director Harwood proclaimed that the nursing laboratory construction was “progressing well and should be completed soon.” The curriculum was set with a number of liberal arts faculty as strong supporters, including Dr. Ray Hebert of the History Department who agreed to design a “History of Nursing” course to fulfill one of the core curriculum History requirements for the nursing students. He also agreed to prepare a one-day History of Nursing workshop for the RN’s who could not take his class in the spring of 1979 (Harwood “Progress Report on the Nursing Program”, May 18, 1978, TMU Archives). It is noteworthy that the only negative concern in that “report” was a concern about restrictions from the Kentucky Board of Nursing related to the admission requirements for diploma graduate RNs into the BSN Program.

In an important next step, on the same day (May 18, 1978), a separate letter announced the hiring of Ms. Patricia Callico, who “has a Masters degree in Medical-Surgical Nursing and a Masters in Counselor Education” plus excellent teaching experience “in several areas of nursing at the baccalaureate level” (Harwood letter to Ron Mann and Charles Deters recommending the hiring of Patricia Callico, May 18, 1978, TMU Archives). Pat Callico would become a mainstay in the program for many years. The only other question left unfinished from the spring semester was Ms. Harwood’s recommendation that from the beginning, the program should be granted the designation of “School of Nursing” not just Department. This was not approved, without an explanation and no other mention of the topic could be found in the archival material in the later 1970s/1980s.

The next faculty member hired would be Mary Ellen Kelley who, with Virginia Harwood’s departure in 1980, would become the second Program Director/Chair for the 1980s and 1990s. As an example of the program’s success from the beginning, in one of the department/program/major’s “curriculum studies” (March 15, 1985), under “graduate achievements,” it was pointed out that:

Core of the full-time nursing faculty in 1996: Mary Ellen Kelley; Pat Gieske, administrative assistant, who played an instrumental role in the nursing program (she passed away in 2005); Phyllis Dawson; Peg Owens; Angela Pruitt; Dr. Lisa Spangler (current Director/chair of the TMU Nursing Program); Ann Keller; Sue Brammer. (TMU Archives)

Nursing State Board Examination rates for graduates were: 95% in 1982; 100% in 1983 and 95% in 1984.

As of 1985, 100% of the previous nursing graduates were employed as professional nurses.

Up to ½ of the initial graduates were also enrolled in graduate school.

From 1980 through 1985, in any given year between 110 and 135 students (1983–1984) were listed as first majors in Nursing with 15 graduates in 1981–1982, 22 in 19821983 and 21 in 1983–1984.

By 1981–1982, there were 10 full-time faculty hired with a goal of 12 when at capacity.

By 1985, the full Nursing component of courses in the projected curriculum was in place and the nursing laboratory functioning as needed (Mary Ellen Kelley “Major Curriculum Study” March 15, 1985, TMU Archives).

Such statistics are typical of those found in the archives about a program that had proven itself as one of the finest in Greater Cincinnati.

With the goal of broadening the available options, Kelley brought forward a proposal in 1992 for a separate Associate Degree in Nursing option (separate from what had been the Bachelor of Science degree in place since the beginning). It would begin during the 1994–1995 academic year if approved. Not surprisingly, the major concerns were financial in nature, but Ms. Kelley was firm in her resolve. In her words:

“It is important to understand that the hiring of (additional) Nursing Faculty and the equipment budget are not to be considered contingency expenditures directly dependent on the numbers of students enrolled. In order to admit to an Associate Degree Nursing Program, it is necessary that all the laws, rules, and regulations set forth by the Kentucky Board of Nursing for the creation of new nursing programs, is strictly adhered to” (Mary Ellen Kelley letter attached to Associate Degree Nursing Proposal,” General Assembly Meeting, March 27, 1992, TMU Archives).

Dr. Lisa Spangler, department chair for the School of Nursing. (TMU Archives)

The proposal was not approved internally for mostly budgetary reasons, and it would be many years before that secondary direction would again be considered. However, it and other additions later would reflect the department’s willingness to keep the program in the forefront of the community’s healthcare needs.

By the 1990s the Nursing Program had proven itself many times over and was destined with its outstanding, committed faculty to become a vital part of the Thomas More College and Northern Kentucky community for many years to come. Today, in 2022, the Nursing major is still one of the most sought after on campus, under the capable leadership of Dr. Lisa Spangler as Director/Chair. The numbers have remained strong in recent years and the partnership with the St. Elizabeth Medical Center has been an integral part of that growth, as has been the reputation of the highly in-demand graduates. With the lingering pandemic as part of the backdrop, nursing programs across the country have experienced declines in enrollment, but the Thomas More program has found a way to focus on what is best for the students. We had, according to Dr. Spangler, “one of the few, if not the only Nursing program in the entire tri-state that continued with clinical experiences.” From March 2020 on, when all students left hospitals and organizations so PPE could be preserved for the staff, “Thomas More Nursing faculty were able to secure role transition placements for the senior nursing students who required the experience” (Dr. Lisa Spangler description of how TMU Nursing Program has responded to pandemic obstacles for students, August 3, 2022). Again, Thomas More’s personal touch addressed a need at a time when most institutions relied on online case studies as a substitution. Later, sophomore and junior majors returned to healthcare organizations when allowed to make up missed clinical experiences. What this reiterated was the Nursing faculty’s commitment to the irreplaceable value of “hands-on, patient care needed to be effective health care providers” (Dr. Spangler).

This type of care explains why Dr. Spangler is excited about the 77 returning upperclassmen majors and especially the promise of over 40 new first year pre-nursing students who have enrolled for the fall 2022 semester. Welcoming them will be seven full time faculty, and five part-time instructors who help with labs and clinicals. The reality, in looking back to the 1970s, is that Nursing Education has served Thomas More College/University well for almost fifty years and in doing so has been an indispensable part of Thomas More’s past and present and will remain one of the pillar programs in its future.

Dr. Raymond G. Hebert is a Professor of History and Executive Director of the William T. Robinson III Institute for Religious Liberty at Thomas More University. He has just completed his 46th year at Thomas More and, with that background, will now serve as the General Editor of the official history of Thomas More College/University from 1971-2021. With a projected title of RETROSPECT AND VISTA II, it will serve as the sequel to Sr. Irmina Saelinger’s RETROSPECT AND VISTA, the history of the first 50 years of Thomas More College (formerly Villa Madonna College). He can be contacted at hebertr@thomasmore.edu.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History and Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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