’67 nurs­ing class re­calls black­out, sprin­kler lore

The Hamilton Spectator - - LOCAL - JEFF MA­HONEY jma­honey@thes­pec.com 905-526-3306

The year was 1967. A young coun­try cel­e­brated its hun­dredth an­niver­sary, and about a hun­dred young women in Hamil­ton cel­e­brated their “I’m a nurse!”-ery.

The class of 1967, grad­u­at­ing after a rig­or­ous but mem­o­rable three­year pro­gram. Ninety or so women. Oh, and we al­most for­got — three men. The first guys to grad­u­ate from the St. Joseph’s School of Nurs­ing.

Time passes, cen­ten­ni­als turn into sesqui­cen­ten­ni­als and grad­u­a­tions sud­denly turn in to 50th an­niver­sary re­unions. That hap­pened at Michelangelo’s the other day.

And who was there but Frank De­mers, one of those three men, all the way from Ore­gon, He’s been liv­ing in the U.S. most of his ca­reer; he went on to do a mas­ter’s and be­come a nurse-anes­thetist.

He was one of only a hand­ful of men in a ban­quet hall filled with 350 women — those who grad­u­ated in ’67 and many other nurs­ing school alum­nae from dif­fer­ent grad­u­at­ing years, like Mary Tilden, Mar­jorie Tre­gunno and Teresa Walsh, from the 1940s.

It was a fes­tive time — per­haps a tinge coloured by the glow of Canada 150 and mem­o­ries of the cen­ten­nial — the ’67s were piped into the ban­quet hall. Frank took up the rear, with iden­ti­cal twins She­lagh and Colleen Mur­phy, dressed in iden­ti­cal red tops and red shoes, be­side him. Many hadn’t seen each other in decades.

“I’m not sure they’ll rec­og­nize me,” Fred told me.

He kind of stood out, tall, male and he now sports a great set of bushy white eye­brows.

“They’re my grand­mother’s eye­brows,” he said proudly. She had them too.

“She was a nurse in [the First World War] and in the at­tic she had a set of vagi­nal for­ceps,” Fred said in rec­ol­lec­tion of see­ing her with them once when he was a boy. “The way she han­dled them, it was like a car­pen­ter.”

Some­thing about that stuck with him. So he ap­plied to be a nurse. Sur­pris­ingly or per­haps not, he didn’t come in for any rib­bing for it. His ed­u­ca­tion went smoothly.

Not so much for the Mur­phy twins, though. It was the fa­mous black­out of 1965, and what fol­lows is a story vir­tu­ally ev­ery­one from their class re­mem­bers.

The twins had just come off re­treat and maybe it was be­ing let out, or maybe it was the black­out, but there was a kind of crazi­ness in the air. And so, when they found them­selves with a cou­ple of other nurs­ing stu­dents in the cafe­te­ria in the dark, She­lagh won­dered. “What would hap­pen if …”

If what? If she lit a match near the sprin­kler sys­tem.

“I gave her the match,” sis­ter Colleen told me at the re­union. “But she lit it.”

I mean, what could hap­pen, re­ally?

The rest is nurs­ing school lore. The fire alarm went off, dur­ing a black­out.

“Ev­ery­one ran,” She­lagh said. She got back to her room. “I put the cov­ers over my head.”

Later they were gath­ered to­gether and told no one was leav­ing un­til the peo­ple who set off the alarm came forth. She­lagh con­fessed.

“I was sus­pended for two weeks.”

And she got a lec­ture from the fire de­part­ment’s ar­son squad.

None­the­less, they grad­u­ated in ’67, and the Mur­phy twins were even cho­sen to model when the uni­forms changed in 1966; their pic­ture made the pages of The Spec­ta­tor.

It was a great class, among many great classes, Sis­ter Ann Mar­shall told me.

“I re­mem­ber some of the girls sit­ting on my bed, cry­ing over get­ting ditched” or some other cri­sis, she said.

Their joys and sor­rows and tragedies. Sis­ter Ann (of­fi­cially Sis­ter Maris Stella, star of the sea), now in her 80s, went on to be­come direc­tor of the school, and do mis­sion work, in­clud­ing 18 years in Ja­maica.

“I’m so glad I be­came a nurse,” said Denise Blais, a re­union or­ga­nizer.

It made her more fully hu­man, the ex­pe­ri­ences and the mis­sion work she did. And the heart­break.

“I was just 17,” she told me, when she first saw some­one die, a pa­tient. “It was hor­ri­fy­ing. He was just 36 and by the bed were his wife and chil­dren in the hos­pi­tal.”

Blais was there at the re­union. So was Sis­ter Ann and so many oth­ers. Those were the days. And, judg­ing by the re­union, these still are.


Colleen Mur­phy, left, and Frank De­mers join their fel­low graduates from the St. Joseph School of Nurs­ing’s class of 1967 at its 50th re­union re­cently.

Colleen Mur­phy, left, and her twin sis­ter She­lagh model the new uni­forms, flanked by the first male stu­dents at St. Joseph’s School of Nurs­ing: David Dal­gleisch, left, Frank De­mers and Stan Ben­benek in a photo from 1966.

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