Putnam nursing school graduates hold first-ever reunion

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BENNINGTON - Betty Long, 83, woke up Thursday excited to attend her school reunion. She called a few friends to discuss the event and dug up her class photo.

Inspired by a nurse at a New York orphanage where she was living, Long enrolled in 1953 at the Putnam Memorial Hospital School of Practical Nursing in Bennington. She was interested in the sciences, taking biology and chemistry classes in high school.

"I decided I didn't wanna be a secretary," Long said. She had been 17 and was known to classmates by her maiden name, Betty Sedgwick.

She graduated from the nursing school in 1955 and worked on and off as a nurse in Bennington before retiring in 2003.

As a nursing student, she both lived and attended classes in a three-story brick building within the hospital grounds, called the Nurse's Home. It was constructed in 1921 to house nurses working at the Putnam hospital - now Southwestern Vermont Medical Center. The building continued to be a nurse's residence till the '60s though classes had at that point been moved elsewhere.

Mid-morning on Thursday, the main hall of the Nurse's Home was overflowing with people. About 60 graduates of the nursing school mingled with fellow alumni, including those now working for SVMC, as well as top hospital officials.

Around them were displays of old photos prepared for what would be the final event in the hospital's yearlong centennial celebration. It was also the first known reunion of the Putnam nursing school graduates.

"I was dying to see my room, and it's not there anymore," said Beverly Wimette McCoy, a 1957 graduate who lives a block away from Long in Bennington. McCoy's old bedroom had apparently been converted into storage space.

The Putnam nursing school opened its doors in 1946 and produced its first class of eight graduates two years later as hospitals around the country were setting up their own nurse-training programs. Students came not just from New England and East Coast states but as far away as California, said hospital archivist Sarah Jolivette.

"We were highly rated, we had some of the top teachers," Jolivette said. "The hospital, of course, had an excellent reputation that just drew people here."

In the early years, nurses apparently had to be unmarried and were kept to strict codes of conduct. The nursing school produced its last graduates in 1999, eventually closing as nurses' training began shifting to academic institutions.

As is still the case, there were few men who became nurses during the school's time. The Putnam nursing school didn't produce its first male graduate till 1964, and only one was able to make it to the reunion.

Ray Welch, 55, a nurse practitioner in Pittsfield, entered the school a couple of years after leaving the Navy in 1989. He graduated in 1993, along with two other men.

"I didn't wanna wake up one day wishing I'd done something else with my life," Welch said. Everyone around him was supportive of his decision, he said, though a grandmother initially raised her eyebrows.

His entry into the profession paved the way for a sister, aunt and cousin following suit.

In 2002, SVMC was the first Vermont hospital to earn the American Nurses Credentialing Center's Magnet designation. The hospital is among fewer than 50 hospitals that have continually passed the rigorous review process for that accreditation.

Tiffany Tan can be reached at ttan@benningtonbanner.com, @tiffgtan at Twitter and 802-447-7567 ext. 122.


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