A Woman’s Courage to March On

I never met my Great-Aunt Lucy. She wasn’t famous. But she lived a life marked by courage and adventure. 

When WWII rocked the world, the Red Cross recruited nurses. Great-Aunt Lucy responded to the call as did her nursing classmates, graduates from the New York Post Graduate Hospital. They were quite a public-spirited group. Aunt Lucy served for five years. She was stationed in England, Ireland, and the Philippines, eventually rising to the rank of Captain in the Army Nurse Corp. 

I wonder what her duties included. Did she organize blood drives? Maybe she assisted in the operating room, bandaged mangled bodies, comforted the sick and dying. Did she run for cover when the bombs fell? I may never know. But as a nurse, myself, I’m pretty sure there were times she felt stretched beyond her limits.

When not traveling, Aunt Lucy made her home in New York City where she served as a school and public health nurse. How many rickety stairs did she climb in the tenement buildings to identify new cases of tuberculosis and provide health care for those living in squalor?

I imagine her passing shoeshine boys, racks of garments, and children from all ethnicities huddled in the Manhattan doorways. Did she see the homeless warming their hands over flames crackling in metal trash cans? Did she hear the children playing ball amid rubble in vacant lots, women protesting the tearing down of their homes to make way for the high-rise buildings rapidly altering the New York City skyline?

New York City, the home of theater, Broadway, and the Rockefeller Center. Did the love of theater draw her into accepting a position as a traveling nurse with the Gilbert and Sullivan troupe throughout the states and overseas? I wonder if she tapped her foot and sang behind the scenes to the tunes of H.M.S. Pinaforeor The Pirates of Penzance.  

Aunt Lucy was a world traveler, but not just with the war. She taught for several years at the University of Beirut in the 1920’s and traveled around the world as the only woman on a freighter. As a registered nurse, tutor, and chaperone, she directed a four-month tour with students from the University of Maine to New Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, and Pakistan.

Where did Aunt Lucy’s adventurous spirit come from? Her desire to serve? Maybe a calling instilled deep within, fostered by her dad, a circuit rider preacher and evangelist. A man who had a heart for the downtrodden which spurred him to start the Helping Hand Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1894 to help homeless men find employment. 

When Aunt Lucy retired, she joined her two unmarried sisters in Florida, managing a tearoom. She continued to volunteer with the Red Cross and manned numerous first aid stations at civic events, earning her 50-year service pin.

Wrinkled folds hide the dimple on the weathered face in the old black and white photo, but not the plucky smile or sparkle in her eyes. 

Lucy May Shawhan 1897-1977

March is Women’s History Month. Great-Aunt Lucy is part of my history.

Who are the women in your history whose stories inspire you with courage to march on into greatness?