August 2007 Issue
From nurturing relatives as a child in southern Ohio to mentoring countless colleagues during her 50 years of nursing, May Wykle has always has a magic touch.
The praise came early and often.
It was expected, of course: whole heaps of praise, delivered from a podium by men in tuxedoes and women in sequined gowns in the ballroom of the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel. The honors were directed at May Wykle: a woman who's challenged more policies and swallowed more pride than anyone should ever have to for the sake of their profession.
Noteworthy speakers such as former congressman Louis Stokes mounted the ballroom's stage and declared that June night "magical." They said that Wykle, dean of Case Western Reserve University's Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing since 2001, "is an essential, central and heroic leader" who deserved the professorship being created in her name –– one of few endowed chairs at universities across the nation named for an African-American. They said, "Everybody here loves May," and set loose a chorus of "mmmm-hmmm" that made the sold-out crowd sound like a gospel choir.
The sentiments were true –– not to mention, overwhelming. As she basked in praise at her table near the stage, Wykle, 73, could still recall the painful time during the 1950s when the staff of a southern Ohio hospital, appalled at the thought of working alongside a black nurse's aide, threatened to strike if Wykle was hired.
The praise from the podium continued, accompanied by spotlights and standing ovations from the glitzy ballroom's sea of 500 guests. But the most heartfelt words weren't said on stage. They were in the conversation at table 23.
"May used to always tell us, ‘Keep your foot in as many doors as you can, because you never know when one is going to shut,'" said Noreen Brady, a former student of Wykle's at Frances Payne Bolton during the 1970s and now a professor there, to her tablemates. "I never forgot that. I say the same exact thing to my students today."
Lois Novikoff, a clinic administrator and another former student at the table, closed her eyes and nodded. "Whatever advice May gives, I take it."
The women weren't as well known as some of the other medical professionals present to pay tribute, such as the deans of the Yale School of Nursing and the NYU College of Nursing. They weren't even within earshot of Wykle, her bright blue gown and broad smile barely visible from table 23.
It didn't matter. May Wykle has had such a positive impact on their lives that praising her, even if only for the benefit of everyone else at the table, seemed the least they could do.
And they're not alone. With a curriculum vitae that stretches for 75 pages and covers more than a half-century spent in nursing, the number of people in the field who say that May Wykle's words and actions influenced their careers is countless and spans continents. There are the scores of students (like Novikoff and Brady) she's mentored since joining the faculty of CWRU in 1969, as well as nurses in Africa, where she was instrumental in starting a Master of Science in Nursing program at the University of Zimbabwe, and a Bachelor of Science in Nursing program at Makerere University in Uganda.
And as if her professional impact isn't praiseworthy enough, there is also her inspiring backstory; it's legend in nursing circles. Like the fact that her old nursing school in Martin's Ferry, Ohio, used to stage a minstrel show every year for the town's amusement –– complete with doctors and nurses performing skits in blackface –– and that Wykle, their first black student, was given an impossible choice: participate or you won't graduate.
At table 23, Noreen Brady was deep in admiration, the pain of Wykle's early obstacles eclipsed by praise for her achievements.
"Whenever I'm in a situation where a student needs guidance, or I'm looking for direction on something," said Brady, "I always ask myself: 'What would May do?'"
Folks have always been eager to see what May Wykle would do.
"When I was first getting into nursing, there'd be whites all over town saying, 'She's black and we're giving her a chance, so she better not mess up.' And then I had black people saying, ‘They're giving you a chance; please don't mess up.' It wasn't easy," Wykle recalls from her cozy living room, five days before her ballroom tribute.
The spacious home in Solon, a suburb east of Cleveland, which she shares with her husband of 48 years, Bill, is more than two hours from the Ohio River region where Wykle was raised, first in Martin's Ferry and later in Mount Pleasant and nearby Emerson. And the house's sunny exterior –– the vibrant yellow color, the flowerbeds in the yard, the butterflies that decorate the windows at the front entrance –– paired with Wykle's throaty laugh and gentle but authoritative voice, gives guests the warm, familiar feeling of visiting grandma's house.
But inside are plenty of reminders of Wykle as a youth in the southern part of the state. Most notably, the presence of Bill's 92-year-old mother, Lillian, whose diabetes and hypertension requires Wykle to adopt a role she's cultivated since childhood: caregiver. (The couple's daughter Caron, 40, a claims adjuster, also lives in the home; daughter Andra, 45, is a nurse in Shaker Heights.)
"Third, fourth, fifth grade … even though I didn't know much about this [profession], I thought it was my calling," Wykle says.
Looking back, what would have been most surprising is if she'd gone into a field that didn't involve caring for others. In fact, her grandfather could have been her first patient. The man had Alzheimer's Disease, and when he frequently wandered off the family's 16-acre farm in Mount Pleasant, the task turned to Wykle, the eldest of five children, to go find him.
"I'd take one of my little brothers and our dog, Bingo, and we'd set off to go find Gramp," says Wykle. "He'd usually be sitting there by the side of the road."
Her grandfather also suffered from an umbilical hernia, "even though nobody knew that's what it was back then," she says. All the family knew was that occasionally, he would have a painful knot protrude from his stomach (the intestine pressing against a weakness in his abdominal wall), and only one person seemed to know how to cure it.
"Nobody could get it to go back in, except me," Wykle says. Today, she realizes that she was able to rub the protrusion the right way, reducing the hernia and pushing it back through the abdominal wall so that her grandfather never had to have surgery. But at the time, Wykle was like a young magician, her deft hands the only ones that could heal his ailment.
Her grandfather didn't get to see Wykle eventually put her skill to good use by going into nursing; he died of a stroke when she was in the seventh grade. But her father, John, certainly did. It was his plan for his eldest child to go into medicine and complete his dream, which was deferred when financial woes during the Depression forced him to drop out of Wilberforce University and abandon his goal of becoming a doctor.
Instead, John would spend his life as a brick mason, plying his trade with the dexterity of a surgeon, so precise in measuring and laying bricks for a home that he attracted crowds of locals just to watch him work.
"If I ever hit the lottery, I'm going to go down there and buy one of them," Wykle says softly of her father's expertly crafted brick homes that still stand all over Martin's Ferry. "He was such a brilliant man."
The intelligence and perseverance that May Wykle inherited from her parents served her well as she pursued her calling in the face of both blatant and subtle discrimination.
"I always tell people, I grew up when bias was legal," says Wykle. So, even if she didn't like it, she became accustomed to such everyday injustices as only being allowed to swim in Martin's Ferry's public pool on Mondays, when the pool would be drained and cleaned. Or, walking home from church at night with her mother and, in the darkness, seeing the eerie glow of a cross burning in a field, the work of the local Ku Klux Klan. "You just lived with that," she says.
But, the opposition she encountered on the road to becoming one of the country's most respected members of the nursing profession –– that was something else.
It started early: She and a young African-American friend applied for summer position as nurse's aides at Martin's Ferry Hospital in 1952, and were steered toward a job with the hospital's housekeeping staff.
"So, we went to speak to the woman in housekeeping, but she wouldn't even let us in –– we talked through a screen door," Wykle remembers. "She said, ‘You two look like nice, clean girls. Why don't you try the kitchen?'
"Of course, the kitchen didn't want us either."
The director of the hospital (a friend of Wykle's family) intervened, and after a year spent as a nurse's aide –– one marked by tension, with staff members threatening to strike, and cruel pranks — the first patient she was given was a man who was already dead –– Wykle would become Martin Ferry's Ruth Brant School of Nursing's first black nursing student in 1953.
But even as administrators held her up as a symbol of their progressiveness, there were constant reminders that her race made her a target to for discrimination, like her living quarters, which were on the school's third floor, segregated from the rest of the girls in her class.
"They wouldn't talk to me anyway," Wykle says with a chuckle, the distance of time, clarity and a half-century's worth of achievements easing the sting of those early slights.
"My feeling is, you may not control the circumstances that you find yourself in, but you can control how you get out of them," says Wykle. "So, I decided I'd study a lot, and I got such good grades that all the girls wanted to talk to me. I ended up doing a lot of tutoring," she says with a smile.
Wykle even managed to graduate from the school in 1956, despite the incident that nearly got her kicked out.
Martin's Ferry Hospital's yearly springtime minstrel show was a much-anticipated event for residents in the area, who turned out in force to see the amateur talents of their local doctors and nurses, many of whom would croon and dance in a stereotypical fashion, clearly offensive to blacks. "It was a huge deal," Wykle says, shaking her head. "Everyone practiced for it. There was a stage; someone would play the organ. It was the staff's time to shine."
As a member of the school, Wykle was expected to participate in the chorus and don blackface. "I said, ‘There is no way I'm doing that,'" she says. "They said, ‘If you don't perform, you don't graduate.'"
But instead of humiliating herself by spreading greasepaint on her face, Wykle sang a gospel song, "I Believe." She did so clad in a gown that, unlike the dresses rented by the rest of the nursing students, she had to purchase: The local costume shop wouldn't accept returned dresses that'd been worn by blacks.
By the end of night, Wykle was anointed Martin's Ferry's version of famed singer Marian Anderson.
"You do what you have to do to make it through," she says.
Wykle wouldn't see another African American nurse until she came to Cleveland in the late 1950s, where she initially focused on psychiatric nursing at the Cleveland Psychiatric Institute; she held a number of positions there, from staff nurse to director of nursing education. Wykle would simultaneously go on to receive all her degrees in nursing from CWRU (culminating with a Ph.D. in Education in 1981) and serve on the faculty there for decades.
"I feel drawn to this profession. I think it's spiritual," she says. "It might sound a little dramatic, but I think that nursing is the kind of thing that Christ wanted people to do when he spoke of ministering unto others. … Part of ministering is being a good Samaritan, taking care of people."
That passion for nursing is why it hurts her so much that the field is going through difficult times.
"It used to be that the popular occupations for women were nursing, teaching and social work," she says. However, the loss of women over the years to other fields, coupled with a shortage of male applicants and the fact that, for a long time, nursing salaries typically didn't match the long hours and emotional toll the work demands, have left the profession in critical condition. Today, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, the average age of a nurse is 46, with many on the path toward retirement.
"That's been my mission: to get more people interested in this occupation," says Wykle, who serves on the board of the Johnson & Johnson Campaign for Nursing's Future. "When it comes to recruiting, I always tell people, ‘I'm looking for a few good men,' she says and laughs. "They tell me I can't say that because it belongs to the Marines. So, I say, ‘Be all you can be in nursing.' I guess that belongs to the Navy."
Whether it's the slogans, the government scholarship programs Wykle has spearheaded at Frances Payne Bolton to attract more applicants, or appointing a multicultural affairs coordinator to focus on recruitment and retention, her mission has been a success. This year, Frances Payne Bolton –– which has 900 students –– had an incoming freshman class that was 26 percent minorities and 14 percent men, "which is way, way up," says Wykle.
That's one of the many reasons why the university saw fit to throw her that lavish ballroom gala in June –– despite the fact that their humble honoree wasn't too keen on it. "They really had to talk me into it," Wykle says with a sigh.
But the people in charge knew just what to say: That the party was for the profession as a whole. That by letting them praise her, her accomplishments and the hurdle's she's overcome, they'd be praising nurses everywhere.
"Do you know that I've never heard one unkind word spoken about her? Not one," said Noreen Brady, her former student.
"May has spent her whole life in nursing, but her story transcends disciplines."