When Virginia Simons Wentzel graduated from high school, she saw two possible paths forward.
"Women either became teachers or nurses," Wentzel says. She chose nursing, making her way from her family's farm in Algona, Iowa, to the Saint Marys School of Nursing in 1956.
"The first time I left home was for the entrance test," she says.
Wentzel and nearly 350 other alumni of the Saint Marys School of Nursing shared memories like those at the school's final all-class reunion, held this fall in Rochester. There was talk of how times have changed — no more restrictive dress codes or curfews. But mostly, Wentzel and other alumni reminisced about their studies, their instructors and the impact their education has had on their lives and careers.
"We received a wonderful nursing education," says Anne Hermanson Smith, president of the Saint Marys School of Nursing Alumni Board and a member of the class of 1970. "Excellence was expected. Patient care was number one. You worried about the patient first and everything else after. We knew we were learning from the best."
Much of the learning at the school came directly from the Sisters of Saint Francis, including Sister Mary Brigh, who taught ethics.
"She was a lovely, delightful person," Wentzel says. "And she didn't break rules."
The academic portion of the training was "rigorous," says Smith, who worked in pediatric nursing for two decades before moving to the business side of health care, eventually becoming CEO of Fredrikson Healthcare Consulting in Minneapolis. The clinicals were rigorous as well and started the first year of the program. By their second year, students were often placed in charge of entire units.
"It taught you to be organized," Nancy Schares Weber, another member of the class of 1970, says of the experience. "It was priceless learning."
Weber echoes Smith when she talks about the most important lesson she and her classmates learned.
"The focus was always, always, always on the patient," Weber says. That's a focus she says guided her throughout her career, which included stints as a bedside nurse, clinical educator, quality improvement specialist and finally, chief nursing officer of the Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare System.
"As CNO, I prayed about how I could make the right decisions," Weber says. The answer was always the same. "Keep the patient first. That's what I did."
The Saint Marys School of Nursing was established by Sister Joseph Dempsey in 1906 as a way to increase the number of nurses available to care for patients in the Mayo brothers' growing practice. The school, with the motto "Enter in to Learn, Go Forth to Serve," would eventually graduate close to 4,000 students. Not all would stay in Rochester, but as Smith's and Weber's words demonstrate, those who left would take their Mayo Clinic and Franciscan values with them.
Those values were perhaps on clearest display during World War II, when the Saint Marys School of Nursing opened its doors to Japanese Americans who had been forced to live in relocation camps. The U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps was created to help alleviate a nursing shortage during the war, and as part of that program, schools were encouraged to accept students from the camps. Saint Marys School of Nursing accepted 42 students — more than any other school in the country.
"My classmates were very friendly and thoughtful, and treated me as one of them," one of those students, Teruko Yamashita, told Mayo Clinic Alumni magazine. "The instructors and hospital staff were very helpful and kind, and seemed to go out of their way to make me feel welcome and comfortable. Attending Saint Marys School of Nursing was one of the best things that happened to me. It instilled in me this wonderful desire to continue learning new things and to always help others."
In the late 1960s, leaders of Saint Marys School of Nursing made a difficult decision: the class of 1970 would be its last cohort of graduates.
"Nursing was moving toward bachelor's programs, and at the time there was no institution in Rochester for them to partner with to provide that education," Smith says. "The closing was done with thought and regret."
In the decades since, alumni have gathered each year to share memories and fellowship. They'd often be joined by former instructors, including Sister Mary Brigh and Sister Generose Gervais.
Recently, it was the alumni association's turn to make a difficult decision. Due to their aging membership, they'd be ending their annual reunions.
"We'd planned to have the last reunion in 2020, which would have been the 50th anniversary of the last class of graduates," Smith says. "COVID had other plans."
The group convened this September instead, spending one last weekend celebrating the place and people who helped shape their lives. And while official reunions are now a thing of the past, it's likely alumni will continue to find ways to connect.
"You grew so close to everyone," Wentzel says. "Still to this day, my classmates are my closest friends."
Tags: Anne Hermanson Smith, Employee Stories, Medical Education Stories, Nancy Schares Weber, Saint Marys School of Nursing, Sister Generose Gervais., Sister Joseph Dempsey, Sister Mary Brigh, Virginia Simons Wentzel