School of Nursing mourns loss of Tom Christenbery, beloved professor and champion of compassion in nursing

Update: View Vanderbilt School of Nursing’s memorial service for Dr. Christenbery.

Thomas L. Christenbery, MSN’87, PhD’04, CNE, professor of nursing and director of program evaluation at Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, died unexpectedly in his sleep Tuesday, Feb. 16. He was 66.Portrait of VUSN professor Tom Christenbery leaning against porch rail.The popular Christenbery was legendary for his friendliness, kindness and encouraging nature. In his two decades at Vanderbilt, he taught and mentored hundreds of students and colleagues, encouraging them to reach for new possibilities.

“Tom made everyone—faculty, staff and students—feel like they had an unlimited horizon of possibilities. He fueled our passion to contribute and be the best,” said Pam Jones, BSN’81, MSN’92, DNP’13, FAAN, VUSN senior associate dean for clinical and community partnerships. “He made each and every one of us feel like we were special and could make a difference in the future of nursing.”

Dean Linda D. Norman, DSN, FAAN, brought Christenbery to Vanderbilt in 2000. “Tom left a mark on everyone he encountered with his friendly smile, quick wit, compassion for all, deep thinking and love for nursing,” she said. “He forged warm bonds with colleagues and students alike. We will deeply miss him and grieve his loss.”

Mariann Piano, PhD, FAAN, FAHA, senior associate dean for research and the Nancy and Hilliard Travis Professor of Nursing, said she often introduced Christenbery to others as ‘a VUSN pillar.’ “Tom was emblematic of our values as a school and the ultimate mission of nursing, which is to deliver kind and compassionate care to people,” Piano said.

Compassion was a word that many use in connection with Christenbery. It both described him and expressed his view of nursing. “Tom wanted to make sure we all remembered that nursing was about compassion, and that no matter what we taught or did, we needed to teach compassion,” said Tamika Hudson, DNP, MSN’12, assistant dean for student affairs.

Christenbery grew up in Kentucky and graduated with a bachelor of science in nursing degree from Murray State University. He received his master of science in nursing from VUSN in nursing administration in 1988. In 2004, he earned a PhD in nursing science from Vanderbilt.

He started his nursing career at Nashville’s Park View Hospital before moving to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where he worked in pediatrics and as a nurse manager. He joined Tennessee State University School of Nursing as an assistant professor in 1989 and taught for nine years before coming to VUSN.

Christenbery began as a lecturer in Vanderbilt’s PreSpecialty (Prelicensure) and MSN programs. He was promoted to assistant professor in 2004 and professor in 2017. In addition to teaching MSN courses, he taught in the doctor of nursing practice and the PhD in nursing science programs, and mentored DNP students regarding their scholarly projects. His book for DNP students and faculty, Fast Facts for Writing the DNP Project: Effective Structure Content and Presentation, was published in 2020.

Christenbery focused on teaching, research and scholarship endeavors related to evidence-based practice (the integration of current best evidence, clinical expertise and patient values into the decision-making process for patient care) and authored papers and a textbook on the subject, Evidence-Based Practice in Nursing: Foundations, Skills, and Roles. Additionally, as director of program evaluation for the School of Nursing, Christenbery led efforts to measure overall program effectiveness, providing outcome data to drive continuous improvement in program quality.

In 2019, Christenbery took on the task of evaluating VUSN’s support for men in nursing. His research and resulting presentation garnered the school recognition as a Best School for Men in Nursing from the American Association of Men in Nursing two years in a row. Similarly, his evaluation and documentation of VUSN’s commitment to educational excellence was instrumental in the school being named a National League for Nursing Center of Excellence.

Friends say that he loved people and he loved VUSN. He was very involved with school life and one of the first to volunteer for any project or initiative. On the day before he died, Christenbery moderated a school-wide discussion for VUSNPride, an LGBTQ+ student affinity group he helped establish and for which he proudly served as faculty adviser. He also founded and advised the Middle Tennessee/Vanderbilt chapter of the American Association of Men in Nursing.

In addition to his academic and administrative accomplishments, he led the school’s history initiative, served on the Dean’s Advisory Council and was a member of the Julia Hereford Society. He was past chair of the University Committee on Religious Affairs.  He was a key member of VUSN’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion taskforce, later committee. He was a strong supporter of human rights and the school’s diversity initiatives.

Christenbery was recognized with the Ingeborg Mauksch Award for mentorship of new faculty, the Sarah K. Archer Award for outstanding contributions in teaching, the Excellence in Teaching Award for Educational Innovation and the VUSN Dean’s Award for Recognition of Faculty Achievement in Media. He was a two-time winner of the Faculty of the Year Award at Tennessee State University School of Nursing.

Associate Dean for Non-tenure Track Faculty Affairs and Advancement Betsy Kennedy, PhD, BSN’89, MSN’93, was one of Christenbery’s closest friends. “Tom was an extraordinary educator, generous colleague and dear friend. It didn’t matter what topic was on the course schedule, what he really taught was a way of thinking and of being as a nurse,” Kennedy said. “He made everyone around him better and then joyfully applauded their successes. He was the most genuinely thoughtful and grateful person I have ever known. I will deeply miss his warmth, humor and guiding wisdom.”

Mary Ann Jessee, PhD, MSN’95, associate professor and assistant dean for academics, generalist nursing practice, worked with Christenbery for 17 years. “I truly believe that there are those individuals that so deeply influence and emulate the culture of an organization, that when they exit, the organization is forever changed,” Jessee said. “Tom is one of those few, valuable individuals.”

Christenbery recently announced his retirement from VUSN, effective at the end of the academic year. “I feel as if I have been at a long, delicious, and satisfying meal and now it is time to push my chair back from the table,” he wrote several friends and colleagues. “Nursing has been a nourishing career and a wise choice for me.”

He is survived by his husband, David Frese, BA’66, and several generations of nieces and nephews.

View May 26 memorial service for Dr. Christenbery

Photo: John Russell