Strong, visionary and unforgettable

Vanderbilt University School of Nursing lost two trailblazing and visionary icons just 80 days apart in 2018 – one a longtime dean who transformed nursing education at Vanderbilt and nationally, and the other a champion of nurse practitioners and founder of the school’s Family Nurse Practitioner Program.

They were both strong women known to speak their minds, who educated, nurtured and made national leaders of many of the school’s students and faculty members.

Photo by Anne Rayner

Colleen Conway-Welch, PhD, CNM, FAAN, FACNM, dean of VUSN from 1984-2013, died Oct. 12, 2018, following a courageous battle with cancer.

When Conway-Welch was recruited to become VUSN’s dean, the school was educating approximately 100 baccalaureate students and a few master’s degree students. It had no doctoral program. First on her agenda was overhauling the school’s curriculum, starting with the introduction of an accelerated master’s program.

Under her leadership, VUSN opened its PhD program in 1993 and the Doctor of Nursing Practice Program in 2008. Today VUSN is one of the largest schools of nursing in the country and continually ranked as a top nursing school nationally. When she retired as dean in 2013, she was named Dean Emerita by the university.

World changer

Conway-Welch received numerous recognitions and honors in her career, including being elected into the Modern Healthcare Hall of Fame in 2017 and receiving the Health Education Visionary Award from the Society for Women’s Health Research in 2018. She was also active in health policy and education, and was named by President Ronald Reagan to serve on the President’s Commission on AIDS in 1987. In 2006 she was nominated by President George W. Bush to serve as a member of the Board of Regents of the Uniformed Services University. In 1997 she was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Science and was appointed to the National Bipartisan Commission on Medicare, a 17-member commission made up of 10 members of the U.S. Senate and House or Representatives and seven health care leaders.

Conway-Welch was married to prominent Nashville businessman Ted Welch and the couple was active in the Nashville community and national political circles. Welch died in 2014.

Mentor and friend

VUSN Dean Linda Norman, DSN, FAAN, was recruited to Vanderbilt by Conway-Welch and the two worked together for nearly 30 years.

Conway-Welch with then-Senior Associate Dean for Academics Linda Norman at Investiture in 2013.

“Colleen was my friend, mentor, colleague and ally,” said Norman, the Valere Potter Menefee Professor of Nursing. “She changed the School of Nursing, but her impact went beyond that. She was a visionary champion of causes that mattered. The country’s attitude toward persons with HIV, for example, was shaped by Colleen’s compassion and knowledge in her work on the President’s Commission on the HIV Epidemic.”

Norman said that even though Conway-Welch was a national nursing leader and counted senators, presidents and CEOs as her friends, she treated everyone with genuine interest and graciousness. “She was the same to people great or small,” Norman said.

Bonnie Pilon, PhD, professor of nursing emerita, called Conway-Welch “the most significant mentor in my professional life” in a letter she wrote to her shortly before her death and shared with Vanderbilt Nurse.

“I have learned so much from you. Your penchant for inclusiveness is tremendously moving. You gave me confidence to talk to senators and representatives, testify before the state legislature, and give Congressional briefings. No way was I ever going to be doing any of that without your mentorship and confidence in me. You are one of the few leaders I’ve encountered who has a natural capacity to ‘raise the bar’ on performance and then provide the necessary resources for your team to meet these expectations (even when we were sure we could not possibly do it). That is a gift and I was a direct beneficiary since 1989.”

Randolph Rasch, PhD, FAANP, now dean of Michigan State University College of Nursing, met Conway-Welch in 1984 and was recruited by her in 2002 as director of the Family Nurse Practitioner Program and co-director of the Nurse-Midwifery/FNP dual program.

“I would describe her as a visionary,” he said. “She was always thinking ahead and had her finger on the pulse of what was happening in health care. She believed nurses should not just be contributors but leaders in health care. She was a national leader and expected us all to develop our expertise and knowledge in that way.”

Rasch, MSN’79, was summoned to Conway-Welch’s office soon after arriving at VUSN. “I wondered what trouble I was in, but she called me in to pick my brain about my perspective on an issue. I realized at some point what she was really doing was getting me to think about the issue in a particular way because she knew I could,” he said. “She was giving me a gentle nudge, letting me know ‘you have these competencies and capabilities.’ She was leading me through a different way of thinking about an issue and allowing me to see myself in a different way. That’s the kind of person she was.”

Rasch, who spoke at the VUSN memorial service for Conway-Welch, said he considered her a friend as well as a mentor. “Even as dean she positioned herself more in the role of a colleague than a boss.”

Virginia George — FNP pioneer

Rasch also had a special professional and personal relationship with VUSN’s Virginia George, BSN’47, MS’72, CFNC, professor of nursing emerita, and an early champion of nurse practitioners. She died July 26, 2018.

Virginia George volunteered with Siloam Family Health Center after retirement from VUSN. Photo courtesy George family.

George was founding director of Vanderbilt’s Family Nurse Practitioner Program, one of the first in the Southeast. She taught at Vanderbilt for 27 years, earning numerous teaching awards and serving in many leadership roles. Rasch, who spoke at her memorial service, was one of her students.

He remembers meeting the outspoken George during an admissions interview, where she suggested they look at his transcripts. Rasch jokingly told her he’d rather not, then after she did, she replied, “Well, I can see you had a good time your first two years, but you’ve had straight A’s your second two years.” George, he said, recognized the promise that existed beyond his transcript.

George with former student and colleague Randolph Rasch at renovation ceremonies for Godchaux Hall. Photo by Susan Urmy.

George, “warm, open and inviting,” always cheered her students on, Rasch said. “She helped us see that we could not only be nurse practitioners, but problem-solvers and (health) system problem-solvers,” he said. “She let us know we were accepted into this program not only because of what we could do clinically, but also as leaders. She followed our careers long after we were gone (from VUSN).”

Dedicated to nursing and teaching

George joined the VUSN faculty in 1956 and taught for several years. She left in 1958, but returned in 1964 as an instructor in maternal and child nursing. She became an assistant professor in 1970, the year she was recognized with the school’s Shirley Titus Award for excellence in teaching. She was named associate professor two years later.

In 1973 she was appointed director of Primex, Vanderbilt’s post-BSN family nurse clinician certificate program for RNs. In 1975 she planned and oversaw the transformation of the Primex program into the School of Nursing’s first family nurse practitioner graduate degree program. She led the program for 15 years, teaching courses, writing academic papers and grant proposals and mentoring students. She won the school’s Sara K. Archer Award for graduate-level teaching in 1989.

Dean Colleen Conway-Welch, George, and her daughter, Lee Anne George, in 2012.

After retirement in 2000 she remained involved in state and local politics, took medical mission trips and helped with community health clinics in Nashville, including the Fall Hamilton School Clinic and Siloam Family Health Center. In 2005 she established the Virginia M. George Nursing Scholarship, awarded annually to a VUSN nurse practitioner student.

Norman knew George as both a colleague and friend. “Virginia was a trailblazer in advancing the profession of family nurse practitioners. She was one of the first, and she developed Vanderbilt’s FNP program, which became, and continues to be, our largest specialty. Personally and professionally, she was someone who freely spoke her mind — and when she did, it was smart to listen. She had great wisdom and was dedicated to nursing and to Vanderbilt.”

George is survived by her daughter, Lee Anne George, BS’77 (Peabody), and son-in-law David Rapp, BA’73,  of Washington, D.C., and a sister, Mary Savoye of Towson, Maryland. She was predeceased by her husband of 57 years, Ralph T. George, and daughter Kittye George.

Editor’s note: The information about when Virginia George started teaching at Vanderbilt has been updated to reflect that she taught at VUSN in the mid to late 1950s. Our thanks to alumna Constance McKay Adams, BSN’1959, for letting us know so we could correct the information.