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Published in CenterView on September 23, 2013
Nancy Sharp, front row right, and her classmates were the first students in the baccalaureate program when it transitioned from a department at the University of Mississippi to the School of Nursing at UMMC in the 1950s.
Nancy Sharp, front row right, and her classmates were the first students in the baccalaureate program when it transitioned from a department at the University of Mississippi to the School of Nursing at UMMC in the 1950s.

1958 SON graduate combines passions for nursing, writing, Delta

By Matt Westerfield

Fresh from a tour of the Mississippi Delta, Nancy Sharp of Athens, Ga., was visiting the University of Mississippi Medical Center School of Nursing when she spotted in the lobby a photograph of her with her classmates dating back to 1957.

Sharp
Sharp

Beside it in the display case stood a small nurse doll that her late mother had made.

That a piece of her past is preserved at the School of Nursing is appropriate considering her lifelong tendency to record history through creative writing, even while keeping one eye on the future in support of the nursing profession.

In fact, she says, it was those prolific magazine ads aimed at recruiting nurses during World War II that helped lead her to nursing.

“Daddy wasn’t too thrilled about it because he had served in the First World War, and he thought nurses were low class,” Sharp recalled with a laugh. After all, nursing was still a young vocation early in the 20th century. “My mother said, ‘I don’t mind the nursing, but I’d like you to get a college degree.’

“At the time, that was almost unheard of.”

Sharp, who has lived in Athens for much of her life, returned to Mississippi earlier this month to visit family and friends and to tour the Mercy Delta Express Project’s school-based clinics, which she has been supporting financially through small gifts during the last two years.

She grew up in Pontotoc, where her Sunday school teacher had been a Red Cross nurse during World War I. One day, Sharp said, Christine Oglevee visited her high school on career day. At the time, Oglevee was chair of the Department of Nursing at arOle Miss.

Sharp was sold and enrolled in the program in 1953, taking her first two years of study at Oxford as part of the first class of the baccalaureate program. In 1956, the Ole Miss students officially transferred to UMMC — and Oglevee became the school’s first dean — even though there was not yet a classroom building for them.

“The Medical Center still wasn’t completed, so we went to Greenwood Leflore Hospital for one year,” she said.

During that year, Sharp roomed with Jeanette Waits, and the pair would become lifelong friends.

“All of us were close,” said Waits, who would eventually join the School of Nursing faculty before retiring in 1994. “But Nancy and I have always been good friends. We certainly have kept in touch and have continued to see each other throughout the years.”

Sharp also bucked the trend by getting married after her sophomore year to Johnny Sharp, a member of the storied Army Airborne 101st.

Back then, “if you got married in nursing school, they kicked you out,” Sharp said. But collegiate programs allowed it, although she was the only member of her class who was married.

Once the class moved onto the Jackson campus, Sharp lived with her husband on the campus of Millsaps College, where he was finishing his degree.

In a treasured scrapbook, Sharp has kept a library of photos, newspaper clipping, letters and event programs from her days as a nursing student and throughout her career.
In a treasured scrapbook, Sharp has kept a library of photos, newspaper clipping, letters and event programs from her days as a nursing student and throughout her career.

Both Sharp and Waits said they technically finished the program in December of 1957, although they officially marched in the 1958 commencement, which was off campus in Jackson.

Sharp and her husband moved to Chicago, where she was head nurse on a floor at the University of Chicago Medical Center. Around 1960, the head nurses were asked to nominate a candidate for an assistant nurse opening, and she put forth the name of an impressive African-American nurse, Sue Cadney. To her surprise, Cadney was accepted after much deliberation and became the first black assistant nurse at the university. Not long after that, the center had a black head nurse.

Sharp and Cadney have remained in contact over the years.

Sharp calls her role in helping to integrate the institution one of her greatest achievements.

“We lived in Jackson when Medgar Evers was killed,” she said. “We lived in Birmingham shortly after they bombed the church. Things like that break your heart and you want to go and join the march against it.”

Sharp's children's book “Puddles, Ponds and Piddles”
Sharp's children's book “Puddles, Ponds and Piddles”

As an artist and a writer, Sharp documented her experiences through poetry, a collection of which she still keeps from her days as a student. Today, she continues to write. She wrote and illustrated a children’s book, “Puddles, Ponds and Piddles,” which was published in 2011.

She said the story was based on the childhood challenges her son and daughter faced as they moved from Mississippi to Alabama to Georgia years ago.

Her most recent project is to transcribe love letters her father wrote to her mother while stationed in Paris during World War I.

“I write all the time, and I still write a lot of stories, but I don’t plan to publish anything more,” she said.

As someone who is still committed to the School of Nursing and her home state, Sharp was particularly interested in the school’s efforts to treat kids in the Delta, in part because her longtime friend Waits grew up in that area.

On Sept. 12, Dr. Lisa Haynie, professor of nursing, took Sharp and Waits on a tour of the school-based clinics the Mercy Delta Express Project has established in Anguilla, Rolling Fork and Mayersville.

“Mrs. Sharp has been very generous to our project,” said Haynie, director of the MDE Project. “Through Ms. Waits’ and Mrs. Sharp’s support, the project has gotten a lot of alumni support. And we had fun; those two are great.”

“I was really impressed with the staff and the rapport they’ve set up with the people and the teenagers,” said Sharp, who was a nurse educator and taught health professions in public school,  “because, having taught in high schools, I know how hard
it is.”