Ira Velma Johnson Henderson (1911-2000) as she entered nursing school in 1950, left, and as a licensed vocational nurse, right. She was a grandmother before she realized her dream to become a nurse.
Ira Johnson Henderson waited for more than a quarter of a century for her dream of becoming a nurse to come to fruition.
Born on May 23, 1911, in Lindale to Benjamin Richard and Ida V. Lula Cross Johnson, Ira Velma was the eighth and youngest daughter of their nine children. The surviving older brothers and sisters were married and away from home when Lula’s health failed; Ira dropped out of school in the ninth grade to assume the major responsibilities of housekeeper and cook. Her father, whose work often took him away from home for four and five weeks at a time, remained the family stabilizer and her mother was always supportive and involved as much as her health would allow. But the major responsibilities of housekeeping and care of her much younger brother fell on Ira’s shoulders.
In a small booklet Ira wrote for her own children and grandchildren called “This is Ma Maw’s Story,” Ira told much about her early life and the conditions of her surroundings. But in it, she divulged little of her own imperative role in creating a wonderful life for those in her care.
Ira married very young, at age 15. She had met Joseph DeWitt Henderson when she went with her older sister Anna Mary and her husband Charlie Perkins Henderson to visit Anna’s parents-in-law Lee and Eva Henderson. The Johnsons and the Hendersons had much in common. Both were large families, constantly expanding to include near and distant relatives, friends who needed a temporary boost, the black people who lived in their communities, and itinerant blackberry pickers who came and went with the seasons, occasionally settling permanently in the community. Lindale was the blackberry capital of the world. In this setting, where everyone was welcomed and nobody dismissed as insignificant, Ira Johnson felt right at home.
It did not take long for her to fall in love with her sister’s brother-in-law. Six years her senior, DeWitt was Lee and Eva’s youngest surviving son. In the late summer of 1926 he, following the admonition to “Go West, Young Man” (to find your fortune) moved with his brother Charlie and his wife Anna to the Texas Panhandle, some 500 miles from the point of his birth. Distance apart proved too painful for the young couple. Their two loving families supported their decision to get married and, in a 1995 interview, Ira vividly recalled that her mother had handmade her trousseau while sitting up in her bed. “Mama and I found the styles. Mama selected the material and Papa went into Lindale to Marchman’s and had the lady there order what she needed. I can close my eyes today and see Mama sitting propped up in bed carefully whipping lace onto a gown and negligee she made for me. Papa took me to Caldwell Hughes in Tyler to buy my wedding dress, shoes, and hat.”
Raymond Henderson and his fiancée, Vivian Meredith, were honor attendants for the young couple who were married in the home of Presbyterian minister Dr. Logan in Tyler on Christmas Eve of 1926. They spent the first night of their wedded life in a hotel in Mineola and the next day the bridegroom’s father drove them to the train to go back to Lubbock, Texas. Her new father-in-law further endeared himself to the bride when he told her, “I know you love my son very much to leave your wonderful family and go so far away to start your new life together.”
“It has been a wonderful, wonderful life,” Ira said, displaying her usual positive attitude.
But it has not always been easy. They were in West Texas for eight months when they returned to Lindale so that Ira could again assume housekeeping responsibilities for her family. They lived with her parents and she became a 16-year-old mother on October 20, 1927, when their first child, Wanda Sue Henderson, was born.
Two years later they again moved to West Texas and made their home with his parents. “Granddaddy Henderson had become too sick to work. Grandmother was keeping house, looking after him, and sewing for the public. I would stay with her in the morning and help her cook dinner (the noon meal). In the afternoons I went to the fields and worked.” Several young men bunked in an apartment above the garage and worked picking cotton and pulling bolls, so in addition to the family (there were then seven of them), Eva and Ira would also be cooking for eight to ten extra men.
“That’s when Grandmother and I became so close. She taught me so much. She could take such a little bit of food and turn it into a wonderful meal. While we worked, she told me family stories. I wish I could remember them. I wish I’d written them down.”
There followed a series of ups and downs. DeWitt and Charlie leased a ranch and stocked it with the horses and cows. In the winter the snows were so deep that they had to ride horses through canyons picking their way by following the fence posts which were barely visible. Their house was not insulated and snow sifted through the cracks; once she found snow covering her baby’s bed when they got up in the morning. The windmill froze and the family’s only water was from chunks of ice they brought into the house and thawed on the wood-burning stove. In the summer the hot winds parched the earth and tumble weeds raced along the prairie and collected at fence rows. Sand storms blew dust day after day so thick that breathing was almost impossible. Women hung wet sheets and blankets over their doors and windows to help keep out the dust. It never worked. Sheets of fine-grained sand covered everything.
Lee Henderson became ill; he and Eva accepted the invitation of Ruby and Sam Taft to go to Taft, Texas, so that Ruby could nurse him. It was there he died in January 1929. Jess Mitchell, Eva’s cousin, lent his new car to Charlie and DeWitt so that they and their sister, Jessie Anderson, could make the trip back to Lindale for his funeral.
“A month later my mother died. Grandma and Grandpa Cross and my mother’s retarded brother had moved into the house with them and there was nobody to look after them. DeWitt and I moved back into the house with Papa and lived there for 14 years.” Her brother B.R. was only 13.
These were the years in which their other three children—Shirley Ann in 1934, Bobbie June in 1937, and Jerry Max in 1939—were born.
When Jerry was 2 1/2 years old, World War II began and DeWitt took a job at Fort Hood in Killeen, almost 200 miles southwest of Lindale. Ira became, for all practical purposes, a single parent. Her oldest daughter was 15.
By the time the war ended, DeWitt’s health had begun to fail. Increasingly he could not do the heavy farm labor that had sustained the family throughout his life. He still worked with his fruit trees, budding and grafting. He grew the first English walnuts ever produced in East Texas. He experimented with grape varieties, added cherries and figs to the usual East Texas crops of berries, pears, peaches, and apples. Like his father, John Lee, and grandfather, Joseph Asmon, for whom he was named, he was a wood craftsman. When there was carpentry work available, he hired out for those jobs, but he could no longer climb or do heavy construction.
“I knew I had to get a job,” Ira remembers. “I’d never worked for a paycheck and, remember, I didn’t even have a high school education.” Her first for-pay job was with Sledge’s Manufacturing Company, which made men’s pants. She was an inspector, which was far less glamorous than it sounds. “It was my job to see that the seams were done right!”
But she loved the feeling of community with other women workers. It was something like Grandmother’s kitchen had been back before the war. The women exchanged stories. That’s how Ira first heard about a new program in nursing. It involved both college and hospital training and it led to a licensed vocational nurse certificate. “At first I just listened and buried the thought in the back of my head. I had wanted to be a nurse all of my life. I’d given up on the dream...”
The more she heard, the more attractive the program sounded. Finally she told her husband about it. “DeWitt said, ‘If anybody else can do it, you can do it.’ So, then I got really serious to check out the possibilities.” She consulted the family doctor who told her that you don’t get nursing out of a book; it comes from the heart. He said the course would be difficult, but she could do it. She consulted other nurses.
In the fall of 1950, when she was 45 years old, Ira Henderson enrolled in nursing school. She studied at Tyler Junior College and graduated at Mother Frances Hospital in Tyler, in the second LVN class offered there. On her state boards, with 70 as a passing grade, she scored 84, one of the highest grades in the class.
She looks puzzled when queried about the reality of those days. “You do what you have to do,” she said. “DeWitt was my mainstay. If he had not been like he was—easy-going, supportive, very involved with the kids—I couldn’t have done it.”
Sue had married in 1946. Shirley was in high school and Jerry 13 years old. So, how did she manage?
“I got up at 4 a.m. and cooked breakfast for my family while doing whatever chores that had to be done that hadn’t gotten finished the night before—iron a blouse, sew on a button, whatever. Sometimes, at really rough times, I carried a book while stirring the breakfast eggs. Then I’d get the kids up and while they ate breakfast, I got my shower and dressed for class or work. The kids took their lunches to school. DeWitt usually put those together. I did most of the meal planning and food buying, but he would shop for groceries and run errands.
“I had to be at the hospital before 7 a.m. I drove 20 miles to work. Sometimes I would be so tired I thought I couldn’t keep it up.”
“And then I’d walk into the hospital and the tiredness would just melt away. Time flew! I absolutely loved nursing! It was everything I had always dreamed it would be—and more.”
Off at 3 p.m., she drove home, getting there in time to be present when her children got home from school. She cleaned house, did laundry, cooked dinner for the family, ran errands with or for her children, oversaw kitchen clean-up and homework and settled down to study. “The textbook work was very hard!” Sometimes it was 2 a.m. before she got to bed. “And every day I was more and more convinced that I was doing the right thing.”
At the hospital, she did whatever jobs were required of a nurse. Once for five months she had the nursery all to herself. “Watching a young family welcome a new baby never ceased to be a thrill. We always rejoiced when a sick child got well and got to go home. For a long time she assisted in surgery.
There were the sad times: Once a butane tank blew up in a small frame house near Tyler. “When I walked in that morning, a nun met me and handed me a baby wrapped in a pink and white blanket. She said for me to take care of it, to do what I could, just to hold it. Two others of the family were in surgery. The mother was pregnant. . . . We lost all five of them.” When tragedies like that happen, good nurses arc at their best. “We’re there to do all we can...what we are trained to do. The staff had lots of support when a tragedy happened. The nuns were so good!”
Then, there are the moments, which though incredibly sad, lift the human spirit. Such an event occurred one Sunday afternoon when a three-year-old girl who had fallen into a water tank on the family farm was brought in. There was no chance of saving her. We did what we could. Through everything her father never left her side and when he knew his child was dead, he bowed his head and thanked God for giving such a lovely gift. Even though the time was short, he said, he would take nothing for having had the child in their lives.
“When death comes—as it inevitably will to all of us—some people are so angry, so bitter, that they lash out. They blame the hospital, the caretakers, themselves. But the others, like that father with his little girl, rise to heights of compassion and love that makes us all proud to be human.”
At one time, in 1964, Ira Henderson left Medical Center where she worked and took the position as head nurse at Colonial Nursing Center, a new facility in Lindale only blocks from her house. She oversaw most of the placement of facilities, and DeWitt built most of the cabinets and other interior fittings. She ordered supplies, helped to hire the staff, and oversaw all patient care. It was during this year that Grandmother Henderson was a patient in the home from January until her death in September 1964. But nursing home care, convenient as it was, did not long satisfy the deep longing that Ira had for nursing. She went back to Medical Center.
DeWitt had a stroke in 1966 and died a year later. Ira continued as a nurse for seven more years. Her nursing career, begun at a time when most people are considering retirement, had lasted for 26 years, more than a quarter of a century. At a farewell party honoring her, the physicians presented her with an engraved plaque expressing their appreciation for her attributions—her ability, her aptitude and her attitude. She was the first LVN to be so honored.
She is reflective. “Oh, yes, the effort I made to become a nurse has been so rewarding. It supported us financially but even more it gave me a sense of worth, joy in being able to serve others and so many, many wonderful people in my life. . . . To do it you have to know Somebody Up There is watching over you. I’ve driven in the sleet, when it was snowing, lots of times in the rain. I never did have a wreck. I never did have a flat tire on the road. When I’d get to my car, I’d say, ‘I’m on my way home now, Lord. Watch over me until I get there!’ ”