’67 nursing class recalls blackout, sprinkler lore
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.