Working Without Uniforms

Working Without Uniforms: School Nursing in Chicago 1951 - 2001


I was born September 4, 1925 and lived in South Shore and in Roseland on the south side of Chicago.  When the Depression hit, we moved around with relatives and ended up on the north side.  I went to Patrick Henry Elementary School and Roosevelt High School.  My father was educated as a chemical engineer at the Armour Institute, which became part of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT).  My mother took courses at another Institute, which also became a part of IIT.

When my dad asked me what I wanted to do, I told him I wanted to be a physical education (P.E.) teacher.  He said, “I’ll call Michael Reese and get you in there.  I think you ought to be a nurse.”  I was athletic in my youth.  Later, I greatly enjoyed coaching my daughters in softball.  But my dad told me to become a nurse.  He told my brother – who became an ophthalmologist – to become a doctor.  He didn’t tell my sister what to do, so she went to the University of California at Berkeley and became an artist.

I attended Michael Reese Hospital School of Nursing.  We spent six months in classes and then we were on the floor.  It was war time and basically the students ran the hospital.  I ran a gyne floor with another nurse.  In the 40s, the government paid for nurses’ training if we promised to stay in nursing, so I became a cadet in the Nurse Corps.  After I completed the program at Michael Reese, I left Chicago and went to California for my baccalaureate degree.

When I returned to Chicago, a friend told me it was good to get experience with the Visiting Nurse Association (VNA) to become a good public health nurse.  I didn’t question her and went to work for the Evanston VNA.  In those days not that many nurses had degrees, so Madeline Roessler recruited me for the schools.  She sent me letters which I filed in a drawer.  Finally, when I went to see Madeline, she wanted to see my credentials, then she asked me to start work in a month.  So I resigned my VNA job and came into the Chicago public schools in 1952.  I was about the 13th nurse she hired.

When I started work, school nursing was much different than it is today.  My first assignment was to check up on all of the Chicago children who failed vision and hearing screenings.  We didn’t have to do all the reports that nurses do today.  We didn’t have to do the immunization reports.  There was no HIV, Hepatitis B, or lead screenings for little children.  We did whatever we felt it was important to do.  When I was in my second or third year as a school nurse, I went to a new school assignment and a school clerk gave me a first aid box.  I asked her what it was for, and she said, “Aren’t you a nurse?”  I took it since I didn’t think that was the time to explain what I did and didn’t do.

Everything I did was something I dreamed up.  I was very much into dental health and developed a project on it.  A teacher whose husband was a dental student helped me with that.  Teaching nutrition with a kindergarten teacher was one of my favorite projects.  We took the children to the grocery store, showed them vegetables they had never heard of, and brought some back to school for them to taste.  The children also made place mats and invited their parents to a breakfast at the school.  We did another project with the Chicago Heart Association.  They tape recorded the children’s heart sounds and looked for deviations.  This took a lot of work and coordination.  In the early days, we were permitted to do hearing and vision testing at schools.  So I learned how to do the testing as well as the follow-up.

After my citywide assignment with vision and hearing, I was assigned to three far south side schools.  After a year, I requested a change and started working at Kenwood and other wonderful schools.  Later, I became the nurse at Hyde Park High School.  What I loved most about school nursing was my relationship with the children.  I counseled them although I had not been trained, so I decided to go back to school to the University of Chicago for my master’s degree.  Dr. Bruno Bettleheim and Carl Rogers were both there.  It was very exciting.  I decided I’d rather study under Carl Rogers, so I learned counseling from him.


Since I had come out of VNA where I made a lot of home visits, I made a lot of home visits at school, three or four a day.  Sometimes teachers would ask me to find out why a child slept in the classroom.  Often it turned out they didn’t get enough sleep at home.  There would be six or eight people living in the home.  The child would have to sleep on a mattress on the living room floor, and the television would be on until midnight.

On one visit I read a news article hung on the wall about a rat that had gotten into a baby’s crib and eaten the baby’s toes.  It was pretty horrible, although by then the child was six and doing fine.  I would usually go to a home when the truant officers wouldn’t go there.  I had no fears.  I was young and I guess I felt that nothing would happen to me.  I didn’t wear a uniform, but I wore a lot of navy blue.  When I had been in the VNA I wore navy blue and a navy beret.  One time I went to a big community meeting with other VNA nurses.  We were all wearing our new navy berets.  “Virgins now approaching!” someone cried out when they saw our VNA berets.

One little boy I remember from the schools was one of 10 or 11 children, all of them boys.  The second oldest, he was a terribly troubled child.  I did what I could for him, but he needed more.  So I arranged for him to get into Hyde Park Counseling Services.  Their border was just a block south of the school, but I talked them into taking him anyway.  He stole my car one day – just took it out for a joy ride and then brought it back later.  Sometimes he’d tell me he brushed his teeth in the morning, but I could see he had only brushed his front teeth.  At his home people ate any place, even on the ironing board.  His dream was for his whole family to sit down together for Thanksgiving dinner.

Another child I remember needed a hearing aid, but she didn’t want to wear it.  I helped her wear the hearing aid by gradually increasing the time she wore it each day.  First she wore it for five minutes, then ten, and then longer.  She was sweet, but it was a lot of work to help her.

One child’s mother called me to request that I be a friend to her five-year-old daughter who had to share a room with her ailing grandmother.  She didn’t like sharing the room and wanted her grandmother to move out.  When the grandmother died, the girl felt terribly guilty and responsible for her death.  She’d hardly talk.  She’d climb on my lap at school when she felt she couldn’t cope.  She’d play with my pencil and paper, and when she felt better she’d return to class.

There were no district coordinators in those days, but Madeline Roessler used to call me her “lead nurse.”  She had me train new nurses who came on staff.  They would spend a week or two in orientation.

I left the Chicago Public Schools in 1961.  In those days, if you were pregnant you had to go on leave.  I had three children and took a nine-year leave of absence, three years for each child.  One day my husband said, “you run around all day anyhow.  Why don’t you bring in some money?”  My brother said the same thing to me.  So I called Chicago State.  My husband asked how much I’d be earning at the college, and I told him I didn’t know.  I called Chicago State back, and they told me $12,500.  It was a lot of money in those days.  I worked there one semester, then left.  In 1974 I interviewed at the University of Illinois School of Nursing and started my work there.

Evelyn Kahn headed the School Nurse Certification Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago until she retired in 1999.

The above excerpt is reprinted from Working Without Uniforms: School Nursing in Chicago 1951 – 2001.  Copyright 2002 by Helen Ramirez-Odell.  Reproduced with permission of the author.