Traverse City Record-Eagle

October 1, 2012

Retired nurse pens book on old state hospital school

Virginia LeClaire publishes book on nursing school at Traverse City State Hospital

By Carol South, Special to the Record-Eagle

---- — For 41 years, the Traverse City State Hospital Training School for Nurses provided thorough and rigorous training in the art and science of patient care.

More than 400 women plus some men graduated from the residential program, which ran from 1906 to 1947. Virginia LeClaire spent two years researching, documenting and writing about the school and its graduates.

"I met a lot of daughters and granddaughters and I tracked down graduates all over the country," she said. "There are some wonderful stories in here."

All proceeds from the book, which was published in May, benefit the History Center of Traverse City.

"I just think it's very important to preserve the history of the area and these women were a very important part of that history," LeClaire said.

A retired nurse who trained and worked downstate, LeClaire returned to her family's roots when she retired in 2006; she is descended from four local pioneering families and spent many summers here growing up.

LeClaire became intrigued by the State Hospital Training School for Nurses while volunteering at the History Center of Traverse City.

"Peg (Siciliano, the center's archivist) put me in charge of organizing a big collection on women's groups," LeClaire said of groups such as the Ladies Library Association and Musicale. "I realized all the books were written by men in the community, the women had been totally ignored."

When LeClaire found a small box of items from the nursing school, she initially planned to include the school as another chapter in a book on women's groups in the area. The scope of the project became clear and sparked a larger mission.

"They deserved a book of their own," LeClaire said. "It's been a labor of love."

The Traverse City State Hospital's Training School for Nurses was a two-year course during the school's first decade. In 1917, the curriculum expanded to three years, encompassing an augmented program of classroom and clinical time.

The first class of 1908 included 24 graduates, five of them men. The final classes in 1947 were all women, including four graduates in the winter class and five in the summer class.

The school closed its doors due to a shift from nursing training to education, especially collaborative education with universities and colleges. Residential programs around the country vanished as state licensing requirements reflected these educational changes.

"As nursing became more of a profession, it became more regulated by the state," LeClaire said.

LeClaire organized the book into four main parts. The first examines life at the school: from recruiting and entrance requirements to the school and dorm facilities, from uniforms, curriculum and faculty to daily life, graduation and examinations. LeClaire also explores the lifelong bond many graduates forged.

Her extensive and detailed research shows in the 231-page book's second section that provides a representative biography from each year. LeClaire follows this with a section detailing class rosters for each year and as many class photographs as she could find. The final part includes various documents in the appendices as well as an extensive bibliography and acknowledgements.

Photographs gleaned from relatives, graduates and other sources are included throughout the book. LeClaire is honored to also include about a half dozen photos made from glass negatives in the David Roosevelt collection.

"He donated a whole collection of glass negatives to the History Center but permission has never been given before," she said.

LeClaire also tapped the memories of living graduates who studied at the school during its later years, including Lorraine Hamilton, class of 1942, and Bernice Drake, class of 1944.

"It's a beautiful book, Virginia did an excellent job," said Hamilton.

Drake, inspired to attend the school by her older sister, a graduate, typifies what LeClaire found: class rosters contained many family connections. New family connections also were forged as students met and married classmates' brothers.

Less common but not unheard of were secret marriages as women in the program were required to remain single. Drake and her husband, Bob, married quietly a week before he deployed in the U.S. Navy; she didn't see him again for two years.

"There was one other gal in my class who was secretly married," Drake said. "If they found out, it meant you had to quit and leave."