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McCook's Florence Nightingale

Monday, October 24, 2011

Sallie Hawkins with Nancy Hanks III, right.
(File photo)
One of McCook's most beloved citizens in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s was Miss Sallie Hawkins, who served as the school nurse for all of the ward schools, as well as the McCook Junior High and High schools. She was variously referred to as "McCook's Florence Nightingale, and as a "selfless humanitarian, one of those rare individuals who never consider self when there is anyone in need of help."

Sallie Hawkins was born in Meade County, Kentucky the day after Christmas in 1883. After she finished her schooling she taught in Kentucky schools for 13 years, then migrated to Western Nebraska with her family, where she continued to teach in the Minden schools.. During her tenure in Minden one of her pupils was Carl Curtis, the long time representative of Nebraska in Congress and later the Senate. Another was Howard Ream, the uncle of McCook's Merrill Ream.

Apparently, Sallie had always dreamed of becoming a Christian missionary, and after four years of teaching in Minden decided that her calling lay in becoming a nurse and saving the lives as well as the souls of the needy people overseas.

At the end of the school year in 1917 she informed the Minden School Board that she would not be returning to teach in the fall. Instead she would be enrolling in the Illinois Training School for Nurses in Chicago. The man to whom she tendered her resignation was Mr. G.P. Kingsley, President of the Minden School Board at the time, as well as the father of one of her students, Donald Kingsley. (Kingsley was an important figure in Nebraska circles, and is the man for whom the Kingsley Dam is named.)

Mr. Kingsley arrived at Miss Hawkins home and announced that he would accompany her to the Railroad Station to catch her train to Chicago. On the way he attempted to persuade her to give up her Nursing dream and return to Minden in the fall for another year of teaching. When he saw that his arguments were not succeeding, he tried one last time, saying, "I don't believe you'll be a good nurse." This argument had the opposite effect from what Kingsley intended. It steeled Sallie's resolve to succeed.

By 1922, Miss Hawkins had completed her work in Chicago and in January of that year set sail for the Philippines, to become a Methodist Nurse Missionary. The next four years were the most rewarding years in Sallie's life. At her retirement in 1954, she was asked which of her many jobs she would most like to like to return. She unhesitatingly answered, "To the Philippines!"

Sallie's trip to the Philippines created much interest in 1922 in both the Minden and McCook communities, where her family was now living on a farm south of McCook, near the Kansas Line. Trips overseas in that era were not that common and school children followed her journey on maps and wrote essays on the people and places which Miss Hawkins would see in the Philippines.

The Missionary Societies in the Methodist Churches in McCook and Culbertson were especially interested in the missionary work of Sallie Hawkins, and voted to pay her salary of $1000 per year (a living wage in the Philippines in 1922). During this time the Methodist ladies made a quilt, which they sent to Miss Hawkins. The ladies sold the right to have a name embroidered on the quilt (for 15 or 25 cents). Hundreds of people in the area took advantage of the opportunity and the ladies were able to send nearly $600 along with the quilt. That quilt, with all the names, is on display at the High Plains Museum in McCook.

Sallie's work in the Philippines consisted of working and teaching in a hospital in Manila. (That hospital was destroyed by the Japanese in 1945. The new hospital, which replaced it, the Mary Johnson Memorial Hospital, paid for by the Methodist Campaign, "Crusade For Christ," is one of the best, if not the best in the Orient.)

For the rest of her life Miss Hawkins took much interest in the Philippines. She loved the native people and took pride in showing examples of the native folklore to her friends in the United States. She continued to stay in touch with her former students and the people with whom she had worked in the Philippines. One of her students, with whom Sallie stayed in touch, was Damiano Dororica, a brilliant Filipino woman who came to study at Columbia University on a DAR scholarship.

One of Miss Hawkins' first graduates was Librado Javalera, who became the head of nursing at the Manila hospital in which Sallie taught. (This was also the place where the Methodist Missionaries were interned by the Japanese during World War II.)

Sallie Hawkins would no doubt have stayed longer in missionary work, but returned to the United States after four years, when her father took sick and needed her help. Back home again she fell back on nursing for her livelihood, doing private nursing and other nursing positions, before taking the job as school nurse for the McCook Schools in 1937, a position she held for the next 17 years, until her retirement in 1954.

Miss Hawkins never received high pay for her work, but was always willing to share what she had with others who were less fortunate than she.

Early in the 1930s she bought a small house on East 6th Street (one of the houses removed when the viaduct was widened). When speaking of buying her home, Sallie laughed heartily, saying, "I always felt that the banker lent me his own money, for I had no resources of my own." Her home was simple, but it was a warm and happy place. Several of Sallie's brother's children stayed with her when they came to high school, and the family recalled many happy times at Aunt Sallie's place at holiday time.

When she began work as a case worker in the county welfare office she needed a car to make her calls. Again her banker came through, and Sallie did not let him down. Sallie christened her new car "Nancy Hanks." It was a great joy in her life and together Sallie and "Nancy" made many happy trips throughout the area.

Upon Sallie's retirement in 1954, the citizens of McCook responded to a Lions Club drive by presenting her with a new Chevrolet car, "Nancy Hanks III." Ralph Brooks noted that this was just a slight token of the esteem in which Miss Hawkins was held.

When Sallie Hawkins passed away in 1959, her death called forth memories of the good lady from scores of former students throughout the nation, who recalled her work as school nurse. Ralph Brooks, who had been Superintendent of McCook schools during her tenure, and was now Governor of the State, wrote a guest editorial in the Gazette. Among other things he said, "Sallie Hawkins was a school nurse. Sallie Hawkins was a social worker without portfolio. Sallie Hawkins was a friend of the ill, the distressed, and the destitute. Sally Hawkins was an institution. She is gone now, but will live in the hearts and minds of thousands, and her life, like a pebble tossed into a pool, will leave its impact on others who may never have heard of her. She exemplified the divine command, 'Let him who would be greatest among you be the servant of all.'"

The Gazette added its own praises, "This newspaper classes the late Sallie Hawkins among the world figures, such as Joan of Arc, Clara Barton, Madame Curie, and Florence Nightingale, all of whom left their marks on the advance of civilization."

Source: Gazette articles 1954 and 1959.

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Walt Sehnert
Days Gone By