Editor’s Note: The author researches North Carolina nursing history and collects oral histories of older nurses. She is also an Appalachian alumna, having earned a master’s degree in education in 1989.
On a crisp, fall day in September 1949, Mrs. Mary Stevenson Shook, R.N., walked into her office in what was to be the student infirmary in White Hall on the Appalachian State Teachers College campus. She found two basement rooms separated by a half bath located on the basement floor of the dormitory, a single bed without linens, exposed water pipes and heating ducts, no supplies or equipment and no telephone. In addition, she had no allotted budget.
Then Nurse Shook heard a mouse. Demonstrating her “can-do” attitude, she promptly walked over to the Administration Building and told ASTC’s business manager, Bernard Dougherty, nephew of one of the college founders, she was “not going to work with rats.”
Nurse Mary S. Shook talks about her 40-year career healing and nurturing Appalachian State University students.
Mary Shook: My name is Mary Stevenson Shook and I was the first nurse at Appalachian State Teachers College. Appalachian had never had a budget set up for medicine of any kind. Walked into the basement with the heating pipes and the water pipes. I had two rooms, you walked into two rooms connected by a half bath. No closets, no nothing and that was all. I didn’t have anything. So I went up to the drug store and bought me a thermometer and some aspirin and some cough syrup, and that’s what I started with. An administrator kept telling me that I would have a place on the campus sometime, he promised me that. I worked anywhere from that hall that I started off in, to what was once the nursing home and then I went into the basement of a dormitory and worked in there, and finally ended up in the building that we’re in now. Making decisions of what to do with sick students was my main concern. I remember dealing with the polio situation. It was no fun. It wasn’t as bad as it was in a lot of places. They tried to prevent spreading it by keeping it all in one place, but that was before we had vaccine. They converted a hotel, I think, in Hickory for this area. We would take turns about sending nurses from hospitals and health departments. Take days off and go work for polio. Same way with flu shots. We had 4,000 students and we had three-fourths of the students in bed at the same time and sick. One nurse volunteered to stay in the office, in my office, and she took the boy’s dorms and I took the girl’s dorms. We would start at 7 o’clock in the morning and work all day, taking temperatures and what not. We took care of them the best way we could. Home sicknesses is a disease and certainly for the first semester. The boys were just coming back from service at that time and we had a lot of students within a 50-mile radius that was homesick. I took many of them home with me overnight. Just sort of be mama to them until they got ready to go bed, make them comfortable, gave them a good night's sleep, wake ’em up, give them breakfast and take them back to school.
MS: When I first came they had a trainer for the football team, but on Monday morning I had football clinic. Dressings, ultrasounds and such as the like to do, until we finally ended up with a full-time physician. He took over the football field, and that was in 1965. We got along, I don’t know how, but we did. When I had time, trying to do something about a student health service that was more important than anything else because at that time the larger schools in the state had student health services that were financed and everything. And we were just building. And I learned from going to meetings with other schools like Wake Forest, Duke, Clemson. Every time I’d go to a meeting, I’d bring an idea back and try to do something about it on the campus. That was the beginning of our student health service, that was the way it was set up. When we went into the student health building, not a single building, but one floor of a building in 1982...and I retired in ’83. When I had learned that they named the infirmary after me, I didn’t know they had dedicated it. I was just...shocked, but thrilled. I couldn’t help but think about the hours that had gone into getting it to where it was because there was many hours in it. I had worked as far as I could, not being a doctor, to bring the standard to student health up to par. It was good. It really was, to walk into it the first time. To have an office of my own, never had an office of my own and wasn’t connected to somebody else...and I was proud.
MS: (Reading) “For one whose sympathy, understanding and loving counsel has endeared her to all who knew her and has made her such a vital part of life on our campus. And for one whose friendship has meant so much to all of us. We, the staff of the 1955 Rhododendron, do dedicate the volume to one whom we respect so highly and love so dearly, Mrs. Shook.”
Her third stop that day was the local drugstore, where she bought some aspirin and a thermometer so she could start taking care of students. Relying on her ingenuity, spunk and determination, it was not long before Appalachian State Teachers College had a functioning student health program where Shook made a lifelong commitment to the health and well-being of Appalachian students, faculty and staff.
Appalachian’s first health care provider
Mary Stevenson (Shook) was born Dec. 10, 1918, near Taylorsville in North Carolina’s Alexander County at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Desiring to help others, she chose nursing as her career. The young woman followed her older sister, Lucille, into the Grace Hospital School of Nursing at Lees-McRae College in nearby Banner Elk. After graduating from the arduous program in 1941, Stevenson accepted a job as a floor nurse and eventually became the nursing director of the operating room at Grace Hospital.
In order to excel in her new position, Stevenson soon completed advanced training in Operating Room Technique and Management at the University of Pennsylvania. She enjoyed her work in the operating room and acquired a reputation as a caring and skilled nursing supervisor. When a severe polio epidemic hit Western North Carolina in 1944, a summer camp near Hickory was converted into the Emergency Polio Hospital. “Every week we would work straight through in the operating room and then go to Hickory to relieve the nurses at the polio hospital. We just had to help each other,” she recalled.
Major changes occurred for her in 1945 when Stevenson married Zeb Shook, who would become the Appalachian State Teachers College acquisitions librarian. The couple moved to Boone, where she began her career in student health. A new accreditation rule mandating health services on campuses spurred the administrators at ASTC to hire their first nurse. Shook was the only health care professional employed on the campus from 1949 until 1952, when Nina Martin, R.N., filled in for Shook’s first maternity leave. For many years, Shook singularly provided all the counseling services and health education on campus in addition to caring for physical health needs. The first physician hired by ASTC, Dr. Evan Ashby, arrived in 1965.
From fevers to sex education
Out of her small basement office in White Hall, then located across from the school cafeteria, Shook took care of everything from fevers to sex education. Although considered a faculty member, she had no job description, was on call 24/7, and took care of anyone and everyone on campus and in the community who needed her help. Her presence on campus was ubiquitous; she taught numerous health lessons to ASTC and Appalachian High School students and provided care at sporting and other campus events. Monday mornings in the fall were reserved for “football clinic,” when she would take care of players injured in weekend games.
Dressed in her full white uniform and cap, she often accompanied the college’s founder, Dr. B.B. Dougherty, on official travel. She even gave B-12 and allergy injections to people who vacationed in Watauga County in the summer months. In addition to her nursing work, Shook found time to sponsor the campus YWCA with another faculty member and worked with the Presbyterian student group on campus. Her daughters remember her bringing many students who were suffering from homesickness or needed some special attention into their home.
Before the arrival of a campus physician when a student required specialized care, she grabbed whomever she could find to help “load [the patient] into ‘Old Brown’,” the infirmary’s aged, brown station wagon, and take them to a nearby doctor. Local physicians, Drs. Len Hagaman, J.B. Hagaman, Henry Perry Sr., Henry Perry Jr., Bill Smith and Hadley Wilson, dispensed care and counsel to the campus community whenever Shook asked.
When a flu epidemic hit the campus a couple of years after she arrived, 3,000 out of the 4,000 students on campus fell ill. The cafeteria employees made hot soups and fruit juice available to the afflicted patients. Dormitory “house mothers” cared for the sick, but when fevers reached over 103 degrees for 12 hours, parents were called to pick up their children because there were not enough beds or personnel on campus to handle the epidemic. Shook was stretched thin checking on ailing students across campus.
Help, in the form of more nurses, arrived in 1952. When Shook was nine months pregnant with her first daughter, Tanya, she was called to a student’s room around midnight to adjust bandaging on the student’s sprained ankle. She took care of the student and then gave birth to her daughter four hours later. Nurse Martin was hired to fill in for Shook for a three-month maternity leave, but after eight weeks, she called Shook pleading with her to return to her duties. Soon, Martin was employed as a day nurse in the infirmary. Over time, early infirmary nurses included Lucille Hovis, Merle Vick, Pat Light, Issa Saylors and Sandy Hagler. Eventually, Inez Williams joined the team as a night nurse. While Shook was pregnant with her second daughter, Myra, Appalachian nurses successfully battled another flu epidemic in 1957. As vaccines developed in the 1950s to prevent polio and the flu, Shook and her team subsequently immunized thousands of students, faculty and staff against these diseases. Over time, as more nurses and physicians were added to the Student Health Services staff in the 1960s and 1970s, Shook continued to work with patients while taking on an administrative position at the infirmary.
A leader in her profession
In addition to her on-campus activities, Shook became a founding member of the Student Health Association of North Carolina and an active member of the Southern College Health Association. She attended annual meetings around the state and the Southeast, getting to know other student health professionals and bringing new ideas back to the Appalachian campus. Shook was elected president of the Southern College Health Association in the early 1960s, the first nurse and the first woman to hold that office. During her tenure as president, she worked ardently to increase the membership of the organization since many college health services around the South had yet to join. While doing so, Shook made life-long friends whom she would bring to Appalachian. Colleagues from institutions like Duke University and Clemson University came to know the campus and Boone area well.
Shook has received numerous honors and awards. The 1955 Rhododendron, the college yearbook, was dedicated to her, and she received an Outstanding Service Award from the university in 1982. She was instrumental in designing the current Student Health Services building, and upon her retirement from Appalachian State University in 1983, it was named in her honor. In 1984, the National College Health Association conferred the Ollie B. Moten award on Shook for the culmination of a lifetime of service. Gov. James Hunt bestowed the Governor’s Award for Outstanding Service to North Carolina on her in 1982. She became a Distinguished Fellow in the American College Health Association in 1982 and was inducted as an honorary member into Delta Kappa Gamma, a national education sorority.
Today Shook is a spry 97-year-old who treasures her 63-year marriage to Zeb, who passed away in 2008. Still recognized anywhere she goes for administering flu shots and caring for sick students during her 40 years at Appalachian, she lives alone near campus and takes pleasure in her children, grandchildren and other family members. She remains an active member of First Presbyterian Church.
Shook looks back fondly on the people she helped and the friends she made at Appalachian State University. Over her long career, Nurse Shook left an indelible mark on the Appalachian Community.
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