Leading by example, serving from the heart: “Mrs. Tate” was among the first nurses at St. Jude

As an African-American woman, Maurice Walton Tate helped pave the way with caring and courage.

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On the day Danny Thomas opened the doors of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to the world, he said, “It took your hearts and your loving minds and your generous souls to make this fabulous dream come true.”

He was talking, of course, about the dream of a specialty children’s research hospital seeking to eradicate some of the most devastating pediatric diseases in the world, most notably leukemia.

But he might also have been talking about the crowd itself, some 9,000 strong. There to celebrate the first integrated children’s hospital in the South, they were witnessing history.

There to champion Danny and his dream of an oasis where children of all races would be treated equally, they were disavowing the divisive laws of the land.

In the crowd was an African-American woman described by her daughter as an “old school” nurse who “always wore her full uniform — white dress, nursing pin, white cap, stockings and Oxfords. The whole nine yards.”

Purposeful dress for a purposeful life. A life of healing and, for Maurice Walton Tate — the nurse known affectionately as “Mrs. Tate” — one of courage.

As one of the first nurses to walk into St. Jude alongside Danny Thomas, Mrs. Tate was a symbol of the love and care St. Jude was founded upon. In a time when she would have been denied entrance to many establishments just a few blocks away, her presence as a Black nurse that day was an act of courage as well.

Her son, Odell, was there for the ceremony and recalls the example his mother set. “My mother was only 5’2”, but you’d have thought she was 9 feet tall.”

Like eye color or skin tone, character can be handed down from generation to generation. Purpose. Compassion. Courage. Perhaps not through DNA, but certainly by example.

As a second-generation supporter of the St. Jude mission myself, I understand the call to serve and do all we can to ensure the hope and healing our parents worked for is carried forward to the kids of today and tomorrow.

Mrs. Tate knew what it was to serve a mission larger than herself. A nurse for 20 years before St. Jude opened, she joined its ranks for the impact this new, innovative and courageous institution would have in her community.

She, too, would have an impact, going on to blaze a trail in the research and treatment of sickle cell disease, a blood disorder that occurs in about one in 365 African-American babies born in this country.

Her children saw that example. They took to heart her purpose, compassion and courage. They carry her memory in their own hearts and look to her, the St. Jude mission and the empathy of nurses everywhere as inspiration today. May we all lead lives of such conviction and purpose.

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