HANCEVILLE, Ala. — When Virginia Henderson entered the nursing program at Wallace State Community College in 1973, the college wasn’t even 10 years old and the facilities were a far cry from what they are today. Last week, Henderson and several other early graduates of the Wallace State Associate Degree program for registered nurses reminisced about those days and shared amazement at the school’s nursing building today.
Henderson, a member of the first graduating class of RNs at Wallace State, and Paula Burks and Marcia Tillman, who graduated four years later, were among the earliest of the program’s graduates attending the Nursing Alumni Connection hosted by the Wallace State Community College Alumni Association. Each of the last five decades was represented at the meeting that offered area nurses continuing education credits, with pharmacology being the focus of this day’s events.
Though she’s retired now, Henderson enjoyed the chance to visit with former co-workers Burks and Tillman, with whom she worked over her 30-plus year career in nursing. Henderson and Burks both went to high school together at Hanceville, with Burks graduating in 1970, two years before Henderson.
Having always wanted to be a nurse and knowing then Wallace State President James C. Bailey as a babysitter for his children, Henderson began taking courses in Wallace State’s new registered nursing program that started in 1973, adding to the practical nursing program already in place.
Burks had enrolled in St. Bernard College after high school and attended for three and half years to get a degree in education before deciding she really wanted to be a nurse and dropped out. After getting married, she started attending Wallace State for nursing.
“Ginny was already about to graduate when I started attending for my nursing degree,” Burks said of Henderson.
After graduating from Wallace State, Henderson began working at Cullman Medical Center in the Intensive Care Unit from 1975 to around 1988. She then worked with Dr. Bill Peinhardt from 1988 to 1992, while also working part-time in the ICU at the hospital. She also worked with outpatient, home care and hospice before retiring due to illness.
Henderson said her education at Wallace State prepared her very well for her career as a nurse. “Way back then, they let student nurses work in the hospital. We worked intensive care on the night shift and the supervisor RN was over us,” Henderson said.
“I think that Wallace gave me a really good basis to start out,” said Burks, who began working in intensive care with Henderson after graduating.
“I think Ginny and I had some really good preceptors at the hospital,” Burks added. “I think they taught us a lot.” Preceptors are clinical instructors who help train student nurses in the field.
“Even the aides and LPNs were helpful,” Henderson said. “We had an aide that could have been a nurse, Adell Mize. If she saw something when she was helping a patient she would come get us.”
“We just had some great hands-on experience and with the education provide at Wallace State, that was immeasurable,” Burks said.
Burks retired in May 2015, but is still practicing part-time, working at nursing home and rehab centers in north Alabama.
Burks and Tillman both graduated from WSCC in 1979, and worked together in the ICU at CRMC. They also graduated with Henderson’s sister, Mary, who also became a nurse.
“We’d work the night shift and Ginny would come in on days and go, ‘What the heck? Oh, never mind. Marcia and Paula were here. I know what happened,’” Tillman said, pulling a laugh from Henderson. “We had fun.
“I can’t understand why there are so many people still alive in Cullman County, with me and Paul working,” Tillman joked. Tillman continues to work as a nurse practitioner at Cullman Internal Medicine.
All three said they enjoyed their time at Wallace State. As older students, 23 or 24 years old and as young mothers, Tillman said she thinks they may have tried harder than some of the younger students. “But we had a lot of fun,” she added. “We’d get together after school with our kids and study.”
“And it was a small class and we were all very close,” Burks said. They had to be, because the students practiced on each other for learning how to give injections or draw blood. Students today have mannequins to practice on before they’re allowed to work with live people.
The women said they could tell when a nurse is a Wallace State graduate. “I haven’t met a Wallace State graduate that wasn’t an excellent nurse,” Tillman said.
“It’s a good college to go to,” Burks said.
“You get an education on the level of a university,” Tillman said. “This is as good as or better an education than going to a university and it’s close to home and a lot more personable.”