The 50th anniversary of the deaths of eight Chicago nurses reminds me of why I became a nurse in the first place. On July 14, 1966, I was sitting with my Uncle Danny, who had leukemia, in the TV lounge of a veterans hospital in Chicago, when the news broke that eight South Chicago Community Hospital student nurses were murdered by Richard Speck. The crime occurred at the townhouse the women shared, less than a month before their graduation from nursing school.
Initially, a hush fell over the room. But soon the veterans displayed their shock and outrage that anyone would hurt nurses. The high regard and respect they had for nurses taught me how important they are. That is the day I decided to become one. I was 15 years old.
I didn’t think about my decision to become a nurse again until 1972, six months into my first nursing job. A co-worker and friend shared that she was part of the 1966 graduating class of South Chicago Community Hospital. I didn’t ask questions; I understood her sadness. Her revelation brought back my own sad memories.
Over the years, I’ve thought about those nurses many times, and how they influenced my life and my career.
In May of this year, the Chicago Tribune highlighted the lives of these nurses. When I read the article, I realized I did not know the nurses’ names or stories, yet I knew plenty about their killer. But knowing who these nurses were and what they were aiming to become is more important.
Who were these nurses?
Six of the eight women killed were student nurses and two were exchange nurses trained in the Philippines. They all had already contributed to nursing and cared for patients, but many of their dreams remained unfulfilled.
• Gloria Jean Davy was born in the same hospital where she eventually ended up studying nursing. In the Tribune article, Gloria’s sister, Lori, described her as “driven, independent, intelligent, headstrong, poised, creative and snippy.” Davy originally was an English major. She was 1965 president of the Illinois Student Nurses Association.
• Suzanne (Suzie) Bridget Farris worked as a file clerk before she enrolled in nursing school. As a girl, she had not dreamed of being a nurse but displayed “uncommon ease with the dying and never balked at tending to patients,” according to the article. She was engaged to Phil Jordan, brother of her classmate Mary Ann.
• Mary Ann Jordan grew up hearing stories about her Irish grandmother, Grace, a University of Michigan surgical nurse. Because of her grandmother’s exciting life and her younger brother being born with Downs Syndrome, Jordan decided to become a nurse. She had moved out of the townhouse, however the night of the killings she visited her future sister-in-law, Farris, to talk about wedding plans.
• Patricia Ann Matusek was smart, assertive, funny and full of life. At 14, she would spend afternoons with her 15-year-old cousin, Tommy, who was terminally ill. She would bring him water and fluff his pillow. This experience led her to nursing.
• Nina Jo Schmale decided to become a nurse at age 19. She was working as a secretary and did not like the work, but was passionate about her volunteer work in an elder care facility. “She loved Elvis, cats and the color pink,” according to the Tribune article.
• Pamela Lee Wilkening was quiet, studious and decisive. Her father was a pipe fitter and her mother, from Germany, a homemaker. She and her brother, Jack, grew up in a small, one-story brick Cape Cod home in a “close-knit community where almost no one locked their doors,” according to the Tribune.
• Merlita Gargullo was from the island of Mindoro. She was the first in her village to come to America, according to the article. She had a beautiful voice and sang while washing dishes in the townhouse. She was “quiet, shy, hardworking, efficient and pretty.”
• Valentina (Tina) Pasion arrived in the U.S. in May 1966 from the Philippines. She had graduated among the top 10 nursing students in her class at Manila Central University. In the U.S., she wanted to work and send money back to her family. But she also wanted to experience new things and make friends.
Cora Amurao Atienza, the only survivor, came from Batangas, a province south of Manila known for volcanoes. She had wit, courage and faith. After testifying against Speck, she moved back to the Philippines, but later returned to the U.S. She is now retired.
Part of the healing process
At one time, it was believed that trying to forget the details of a tragedy helped the healing process. Today we believe in remembering the victims of tragedy and that learning who they were is part of healing. Fifty years later, perhaps rather than reflecting on how the nurses died, we can spend more time remembering the eight nurses’ lives, dreams and hopes. As nurses, we also can imagine that caring for patients may have been a highlight of their lives and their professional careers.
If you have the opportunity to do so, thank those who made an impression on your decision to become a nurse; many times they are unaware of their impact. I could not thank these nurses, so I thanked someone else: John Schmale, Nina Jo’s brother. During a recent telephone conversation, I explained to him why I became a nurse; he was grateful that some good came out of the tragedy. His wish mirrored my hope that during the 50th anniversary of this tragedy we spend more time remembering this group of nurses and not their killer. •
Article written by Carolyn Hope Smeltzer, MSN, RN, EdD, FAAN. Smeltzer is the author of several articles and books, including “Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives, the Stories of Nurses,” which she co-authored with Frances R. Vlasses, PhD, RN, in 2001. From 2002-2013, Smeltzer served on the board of directors for Advocate Health Care in Illinois, which included Trinity Hospital — originally called South Chicago Community Hospital. “Serving on the board was a constant reminder of the eight nurses and why I am a nurse,” she said.
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