By RUTH MORGAN
For Starkville Daily News
Florence Nightingale is perhaps the name most associated with the history of nursing but the J.Z. George Hall Infirmary at A&M College had outstanding nurses for sixty-three years.
The tombstone of Louvenia Henderson located in the 1845 Pleasant Springs Presbyterian Church Cemetery in Preston, MS (Kemper County) just off Highway 21 was purchased by graduates of Mississippi A&M College (now Mississippi State University) as a memorial to her. The inscription reads:
"Louvenia Henderson, Nov 17, 1884-May 15, 1946 — 'In loving memory of 23 years of unselfish service as a nurse in the Mississippi State College Hospital.'"
I called Ruby Rankin, the Kemper County Extension Service County Director, a co-worker, to verify the marker. Ruby actually went to the cemetery and in a matter of minutes sent me two photographs of the marker from her iPhone. This tombstone is probably the only one of its kind in that graduates to memorialize her “unselfish service” as a nurse in the George Hall Infirmary purchased it.
That The Starkville News published a tribute to her one-year after her death is remarkable. The tribute was titled, “A Mother to Students.”
On the evening of May 15 of 1947 with the fading of the spring flowers, one of Mississippi State’s best-loved personages passed away, Miss Louvenia Henderson, who for twenty-three years served the college as matron and nurse, was an inspiration to the hundreds of students who studied at the institution.
Miss Henderson came to Mississippi State in 1923 to assist Dr. C.B. Mitchell, college physician. She had completed her nurse’s training at a private hospital in Alabama and had been employed at hospitals in Meridian. Having accepted Dr. Mitchell’s invitation to come to Starkville where she found that an epidemic of flu had stricken hundreds of students. Without a murmur, she spent days and nights at their bedsides nursing them back to recovery.
She found the James Z. George Memorial Infirmary bare of flowers and shrubs. From part of her own income she ordered seeds and plants and started a most beautiful display of colorful flowers in the midst of a very dull environment. Potted ferns and begonias were banked at the entrance to the hospital. From then on, she always shared her flowers with everyone.
Keeping the hospital spotlessly clean was kind of an obsession with Miss Henderson. Two African American ward boys were employed to keep the place immaculate. She always was to be found dressed in her white uniform except on Sunday mornings when she attended church.
Dr. C.B. Mitchell often made the statement, “Miss Henderson was the most wonderful Christian character that he had ever come in contact with.” Her life was devoted to living the kind of life that Christ would want her to live. Except when her nursing duties were pressing, she would always be found at the Presbyterian Church during worship services. She was very active in the women’s work of the church and supported any organization that needed relief.
Miss Henderson’s Bible was used as a constant inspiration and guide to living. Almost ever cent of her earnings were spent buying little gifts for her world of friends. On Easter, she always sent Easter lilies and at Christmas poinsettias. To the boys in the Armed Forces, no matter where they were, she wrote cheerful letters, sent Christmas candies and fruitcakes. Every serviceman whom she knew received a small pocket New Testament with his name engraved thereon. She kept the news from the campus going to the far corners of the earth and always kept the door open for their safe return.
After Dr. Mitchell left the college, Miss Henderson continued to work with Dr. James Swartzfager, who was called shortly after into Navy Medical Corps. During the entire war, Miss Henderson carried on spending long hours serving her patients.
Early in May 1946, for the first time in her life, she complained of pain in her right shoulder. Upon examination, it was revealed that she was suffering from cancer of the chest. Physicians informed her that she had only a very short time to live. She filled those last days writing letters, parting with her favorite books and knick-knacks, and being cheerful. She made all the detailed arrangements for her funeral.
Thousands of Mississippi State graduates expressed a desire to share in the creation of a memorial in her memory. President Fred Mitchell appointed a committee to receive contributions toward the realization of this plan. Friends of Miss Henderson told her before her death that they wished to establish a memorial for her, and she replied that they might purchase a simple marker for her grave. Upon being informed that something larger was intended, she suggested that some medical student who did his pre-medical work at Mississippi State might receive aid. Tentative plans called for the use of interest on the fund to be set aside as a perpetuating memorial.
Miss Henderson’s father was Samuel Henderson. He and his father were Elders in the Pleasant Springs Presbyterian Church and then he and his son were Elders together in the church – Like father like son.
Two years after the death of nurse Henderson, Dr. John Christopher Longest became the college doctor and served in George Hall from 1948 to 1965. Therefore, as a tribute to all the nurses in George Hall during his tenure, I asked his daughters for their memories of the nurses who served with him in the old infirmary. They kindly provided their collective memories. They were all quite young at the time so any omission is not intentional especially since it comes from memory and not documentation. It is hoped that the mere mention of the names may bring to mind “special memories” as each name is read.
Collective memories from the Longest Sisters: Betsy, Peggy, and Sally (Chris was not yet born) - Betsy said, “The first nurse I knew of was a Miss Welch.” I don't remember ever seeing her, but there was one photograph of her in uniform, standing in the dispensary that was among photos Papa took over the years. She was a large woman, tall and a bit heavy, and wore glasses. The nurse I really first remember was Ruby Myers. She wore red lipstick and fingernail polish! I have a vague memory that she was a former army nurse. She was certainly rather "modern" in her appearance and outlook. Ruby babysat us one time while Mother and Papa were out of town. She came to the house on Highway 82, and we didn't move there until the summer of 1954, so she was at the infirmary until the mid-1950s at least. Ruby rented an "apartment" over on south Washington Street rather than live on campus. The next nurse lived in the infirmary in the apartment upstairs on the west side of George Hall. None of us can remember her first name, but the “duty boys” called her "Ma." Her last name was Baylen...not sure about the spelling...and she lived there with her son, Jimmy, who was about Peggy's age. Mr. Baylen was always away somewhere, and the impression my sisters and I have is that he was overseas or somewhere far away. He was not military, and we think he may have been in some other sort of government work. When he returned, they moved...we think he obtained a position at Ole Miss. Peggy and I remember that "Ma" looked stern but really wasn't, and Mother didn't care for Mr. Baylen, because she thought he was too politically liberal! Next came two nurses, Elsie Sutphin and Liz Boyette. Liz, her husband John, and their son John Vicary lived in the apartment in George Hall. John was military and was often away but was around at least some of the time. Elsie and her family, including Cary Sutphin, who still lives in Starkville, may have lived on campus to start, but I think they built a house in Long Meadow later. (We think both Elsie and Liz were military nurses early in their lives.) Dorothy Guyton, wife of John and mother of John, Bobbie, Mark and Charles, was the lab and X-ray tech. She was there from the early 1950's. Celia Robson was hired as physical therapist toward the end of the time at George Hall. I think the Robson’s came to MSU when George Robson was assigned to the Army ROTC program here, and Celia was hired to start the physical therapy unit. Their daughter Aimee must have been about 4 years old. Of course, these four ladies, as well as the secretarial and janitorial staffs, moved with Papa into the new infirmary when it opened ca. 1965. Once they'd moved into the new facility the staff really doubled, but that's another story! My sisters and I pretty much ran wild about the place whenever we were there. I liked hanging around the lab and peeking into the microscope, but I also liked going into the dispensary to watch people getting shots! I was not a squeamish child, apparently!
Here's a stray memory: In the spring of 1957 Papa caught the mumps! It's one of the few times I ever remember him catching something from a patient or from whatever was going around. He had them on both sides, too, and really looked uncomfortable. He was isolated upstairs in George Hall, in a room at the very back on the east side. I remember that his bed was in a corner of a large room with several windows, including one that faced north, and, according to Papa, from which he could see our property over on Hwy 82. None of Mother or us girls had had mumps, which is why he stayed away. We were allowed to visit him from the doorway, only. I remember being told he was pretty sick, had a high fever, and he was there for about a week, I think.
The entire west side of the second floor of George Hall was the nurse’s living quarters and contained a living room, kitchen, bedrooms and bathroom. Liz Boyette and her husband, John was the last family to live in the nurse’s quarters of George Hall.
Dr. Doy Payne Longest (wife of Dr. John Christopher Longest, physician and director emeritus of the John C. Longest Student Health Center at Mississippi State), a historian, documented the history of George Hall in 1977. The information below was taken from her research.
The first building at Mississippi State University to be named for a person is George Hall, which is second only to the textile building in age. In President Hardy’s first report to the board in 1901, he spoke of the pressing need for an up-to-date infirmary. He quoted Dr. W.H. Barr, the college surgeon, who had been appointed to the post on Sept. 15, 1883. “The building now used for an infirmary is inadequate, inconvenient with no modern hospital improvement and incapable of being warmed in extremely cold weather.” The president then recommended that the legislature be asked to appropriate $10,000 for the purpose of constructing an up-to-date infirmary in which our boys may be properly accommodated. On April 18, 1902, the executive committee met to look at plans submitted by architects and on April 23, the board decided to spend the entire appropriation of $10,000 on the infirmary building with the understanding that this amount was to include the cost of heating, but not to include the cost of furnishings. On June 18, the board accepted the bid of McGee and Humphrey. The original bid for the infirmary had been $11,355. Man-made bricks were substituted for repressed bricks “except where headers are exposed.” They left off the Flemish bonds “with rock-face headers as specified except on front.” All-heart four-inch cypress shingles were substituted for slate. These economies brought the cost of $10,918. At the same meeting it was voted to pay two and one-half percent of the cost of the infirmary to the architects, Krouse and Hutchison for their plans. On July 17, 1902, additional changes were made in the specifications for the brick used in the walls and foundation, and the contract for the heating was let to F.A. Clegg of Louisville. The sum agreed on was $6,500 for both the scientific building and the infirmary.
The architects and board inspected the building on Jan. 16, 1903 and found many defects. The building superintendent blamed the condition on “conditions and circumstances, and the poor class of workmen obtainable in this part of the country.
The plumbing leaked, cheaper door locks had been substituted, the screens had been nailed in rather than screwed on, the electric light fixtures were wrong, the toilets were too small and the doors were hung on the wrong side. Some of the door were warped and would not catch. Wood was used on the roof instead of galvanized iron. And if that were not enough, the floors were not up to grade and not kiln dried, the outside door sills were not of Georgia marble as specified, and the certificate of inspection for the Board of Fire Underwriters had not been obtained.
The board let the superintendent go for his lack of cooperation. At the same board meeting Mr. McGee, the contractor, appeared before the board and was given until April 1 to complete the job. The due date had been Jan. 1. On March 11, 1903, the building was accepted and preparations were made to occupy the premises.
Back on June 27, 1898, W.C. George of Leflore County had established a scholarship at A&M in honor of and named for his father, James Zechariah George, who had been United States Senator and a member of the Board of Trustees for many years. On June 1, 1903, the board passed a resolution that read. “Resolved, that as a memorial to the late distinguished member of this board and friend of the college, Honorable J. Z. George, the new building recently erected on the campus for a hospital be from this date known as the J. Z. George Infirmary” and that the president be requested to procure an appropriate tablet to be put in front of said building.
The James Z. George Memorial Hospital served as the university's medical facility until 1965. Today, George Hall is home to University Relations, the university's public information office.
The student health center on campus, built in 1965 through Longest's influence, was named in his honor at the time of his retirement in 1988.