Barton's Brigade: Group of nurses still gathers in Westbrook

WESTBROOK -- The date was July 9, 1948: A group of 19 women gathered in Westbrook to establish an association of nurses and nursing aides. After much discussion, they decided to call themselves the Clara Barton Club, named after the founder of th...

WESTBROOK -- The date was July 9, 1948: A group of 19 women gathered in Westbrook to establish an association of nurses and nursing aides. After much discussion, they decided to call themselves the Clara Barton Club, named after the founder of the American Red Cross.

On Monday -- almost 59 years later -- eight of the nine current members of the Clara Barton Club met at Peterson Estates, located adjacent to the Westbrook hospital. Members have come and gone over the years, although six of the current members are listed on the original roster, but they have continued to gather monthly for almost six decades.

Today, the members are Edna Hubin, Bonnie Knutson, Kay Olson, Irene Pederson, Ruth Madson, Ethel Cohrs, Diana Rachuy, Iris Marshall and Jordis Jans. They're not as spry as they once were, and there's a lot more gray on the heads that gather around the table for the meeting, but they're just as eager to get together and focus their attention on the community's health-care needs.

The Clara Barton Club predates the Westbrook hospital, which is now affiliated with Sanford Hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D., but almost all its members worked at the facility at one time or another. Part of the group's original mission was to support what was then the "new" hospital -- an effort that still continues today.

"I was only going to work the first two days while they got the hospital opened," recalled Hubin, who was one of the hospital's original registered nurses and group's first secretary-treasurer. She now serves as its president. "That's all I was going to work, and it lasted 33 years. ... The hospital when we started that first day, you could never imagine it could turn into what we've got today."


The first minutes of the club, researched by Rachuy, define the aims and purposes of the Clara Barton Club as:

l Study the health needs of the community (including needs of hospital and recruiting nurses).

l Keep abreast of the times in regard to new drugs, nursing methods, etc.

l Help in any way possible toward the new hospital.

"The goals of the new organization are still an important part of the club, except that the 'new' hospital is now over 50 years old," noted Rachuy. "It also acts as a means for the nurses of the community to become better acquainted and enjoy social time together."

From her research, Rachuy gleaned a few other noteworthy tidbits:

Meetings were to be held the second Monday of each month during the school year. Dues were to be $1 a year. The constitution could be amended by a two-third majority vote.

In March 1949, the nurses attended Mrs. Lucille Carlson's funeral (wife of Dr. J.V. Carlson) as a body, in uniform.


On Nov. 12, 1951, the secretary's notes stated merely 'lunch was served' instead of the usual 'a delicious lunch was served.' However, the secretary was the hostess that evening.

In September of 1955 we read, 'Discussions on how to make the club interesting after which there was a motion to adjourn.' Perhaps a motion to adjourn would make more meetings more interesting!

In the long run, keeping things interesting didn't seem to be much of a problem for the Clara Barton nurses, as their meetings have endured to this day. Each month, one of the members is in charge of a program on a health topic.

"We've covered an awful lot of subjects over the years," said Hubin.

"The aim to keep abreast of the times in regard to health information resulted in monthly programs which covered topics from A to Z, acupuncture to Zaire; from conception to death ('Miracle of Life' video to report on a workshop on death and dying); and history from the life of Florence Nightingale to predictions of the 21st century; guest speakers (we tell them we can't pay them), tapes, videos, films, demonstrations and the reading and discussion of articles ...," detailed Rachuy, listing topics in the categories of chronic diseases, infectious diseases, drugs, food, surgery, mental, history and miscellaneous.

During the years they were working, such programs helped the Clara Barton members keep abreast on the advances and changes in health care. Nowadays, with almost all of them long retired from their nursing careers, the programs still serve the same purpose and also give the women an opportunity to reflect on how much nursing has changed.

"When we started in school, we had to wear black shoes and stockings until we got through the probationary period," recalled Hubin, who took her nursing training at the Swedish Hospital in Minneapolis. "Then we could go to the white. I remember the celebration when that happened. ... They strung rope from one building to another, and everybody hung up their black shoes and stockings."

The women remember their uniforms with pride, especially the starched white caps that signified where they'd done their training.


"Now you don't see caps or uniforms," scoffed Hubin. "The way they dress, they look like cleaning ladies."

The women also noted that nurses now have to complete much more paperwork, which takes them away from direct patient care.

"I think the joy and satisfaction you got when we were in nursing, you don't have that so much anymore. There's not so much patient contact," reflected Olson.

Starting pay for a registered nurse today may be about $20 an hour, but the Clara Barton Club members remember they were not so well compensated 50 years ago. When Pederson and Cohrs did private duty nursing in the early 1940s, they received $5 a day for working a 24-hour shift that included about four hours of sleep time.

"I got $40 a month, and I thought I was the richest person around," added Hubin. "I thought that was the highest wage around. ... And we had no benefits, not so much as a paid vacation."

Although the Westbrook hospital at one time boasted a large and active auxiliary membership, the Clara Barton Club also did its part to support the hospital -- sewing pajamas and gowns for patients, planning numerous fund-raisers and donating the proceeds and their dues to buy items for the hospital. When the group became less capable of organizing fund-raisers, the members increased their dues to $1 a month and have continued to act as benefactors for the hospital's kitchen area, donating utensils and other items. Marshall continues to work in the hospital's dietary department and takes note of various needs.

During the group's heyday, the women also served as role models in their community, wanting to interest young girls in the nursing profession. Several of the members had daughters who also became nurses.

"I think I already knew I wanted to be a nurse, but I remember as a high school student coming to a program where people told about their nursing experiences," recalled Rachuy.


Even though the Clara Barton Club has always been a vocationally oriented group, the meetings, especially in more recent times, are also about fellowship. They come together because of a shared interest in nursing, but they're not just colleagues. After all these years, they are also very good friends.

"We all make a special point to come just so we can see each other," explained Rachuy.

"It's just a matter of people getting together who are of the same mind, have the same interests," said Hubin.

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