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Esther Arrington has had many firsts in her long life

Bonnie Bucy Living Writer • Dec 17, 2015 at 6:37 PM

Esther Arrington, 86, claims she was “born in the center of the universe, Liberty, Tenn.,” and so far as she knows today, she was the first registered nurse from DeKalb County.

After starting elementary school in Liberty, Arrington’s family moved to Watertown when she was in the fifth grade, and she finished her regular schooling there when she graduated from Watertown High School.

“I guess you could say [I always wanted to be a nurse]. Both of my folks lost their mothers and a sibling in childbirth,” Arrington said. “My father’s mother had planted a lilac bush when she was married. When both mothers died and lost their babies, it was so traumatic on us kids; we would go to the lilac bush each year and hear the story. When I’d go, I’d promise each year to do something to keep anymore mommies and babies from dying in childbirth. So, yes the idea of being a nurse was there for me from the beginning.”

Arrington graduated from high school in 1945. World War II had ended in Europe, but was still raging in the Pacific. Two weeks after graduating, Arrington was enrolled in nursing school.

“At first, I wanted badly to go to Baylor in Texas,” she said. “That was going to be so far from home. Then, I thought about Erlanger in Chattanooga. It’s funny; I never even considered a Nashville location. Then, Dr. Baddour told me about his niece going to Baptist Memorial in Memphis. I made application to them and they brought me in for a one hour test. I passed the test and enrolled. This was two weeks after graduating from high school.”

Arrington said the largest amount of credit was given to where the student nurses came from and not their grades or abilities.

“They wanted girls from small towns who had strong, enduring work habits more than they wanted good grades or fluff interests,” Arrington said. “Up until this point in time, nurses had not had good schooling or proper courses, such as chemistry, psychology, social studies and anatomy. Eleanor Roosevelt had dreamed up the Cadet Nursing Program, which was operated through the defense program so soldiers overseas and at home could have better nursing and follow through. So, technically, I was in the service at that time. Olita Culp Hobby ran the program, and I was in just the third such class to graduate from the Cadet Nursing Program.”

Only 25 of the 72 original student nurses in that class made it completely through the program. 

“Also, the government gave us $15 a month stipend to handle our expenses, but we also had to take the price out of that if we broke a thermometer or a syringe or broke anything,” she said.

Arrington said nursing program operated much like the military. The cadets had to pass inspection every morning. If they wore something wrong, they got their seat back.

“We weren’t allowed jewelry, perfumes, nothing that detracted,” Arrington said. “We were required to attend chapel every morning at 6:15 a.m. You were not allowed to talk when you were washing the patents’ feet as the patients felt they could talk then and that time was exclusively theirs. If we, as the nurses, even butted in, we were reprimanded.”

When the Japanese surrendered, the student nurses were invited to participate in the parade.

“Someone reminded the upper echelon we had never been taught to march,” said Arrington. “I don’t know what got into me, but I volunteered and took it upon myself to teach the student nurses to march. We went to the park and practiced every day until the parade.

“The last six months of our training, we were assigned where we were most needed. I was sent to the Merchant Marine Hospital in New Orleans. While I was stationed there, I went to the public library and read everything and every book on health they had, even covering subjects I never studied otherwise. I was becoming self educated. The instructors finally asked me why I was getting better grades than anyone else. At last I understood why I was studying so much. I had a morning and an afternoon class, so I learned time management. There was only one registered nurse on the floor of the whole hospital at night...it was all the student nurses. We would take turns being in charge. There were no arguments, no resenting each other. We all learned on the job.”

Arrington told a story about the doctor of neurology.

“One of our nurses hated brain surgery until the day the neurology doctor handed her a grading sheet that showed the lowest grade we were allowed to make was an 85 because that would be a “D” instead of the usual “B” because if we didn’t have better than 85 percent knowledge, there were going to be an awful lot of dead people on our tables and in our beds,” she said.

Arrington graduated from nursing school in 1948. She came to McFarland Hospital in Lebanon for a while because she wanted back closer to home, but said she couldn’t stand it as they “didn’t even have a procedure book.” She went to the University of Chicago for its graduate program. 

“My instructor there, Mrs. Carmen, wrote the book on obstetric student nursing. When she retired, she was written up in Time Magazine. I started taking Time Magazine as a student and I’m still subscribing to it all these years later although it’s not nearly as good now as it was then. 

“Then, I came back to work at St. Thomas and that’s where I met my husband, Carl Arrington, although I had first heard of him back in the fifth grade.”

Arrington explained that when her family first moved her to Watertown, she had heard of these two twin boys who were going to school there...one was the smart one and liked to study and the other was having to go to summer school all the time.

“I wanted a smart man and when I finally got to meet him years later, he chased me until I caught him,” said Arrington. “A mutual friend lined us up for a date and I told my mother I was meeting the man I thought I was going to marry. My mother got so excited, she burnt the biscuits that first night he came to dinner. I thought I was going to be an old maid and we finally met in 1949 and got married November 1949. He had all kinds of books on so many things. He loved to write letters to The Tennessean, The Lebanon Democrat and others.

“Carl had gotten out of the Coast Guard and graduated from the Spartan School of Aeronautics by the time we got together” she went on. “Oh, and he had a yellow convertible. He claims that was what caught my eye, not his brain.”

Carl’s first job with the National Weather Service took the newly married Arringtons to Appalachia, Fla.

“If anyone can survive two years in Appalachia, they’ll stay together forever,” said Arrington. “It was so isolated. The people were wonderful, but they weren’t Tennessee people. The food was no good.  At the grocery store, you learned to survive. Thank God he (Carl) got sent to Atlanta, and we stayed there until he retired 32 years ago in 1979. Lebanon was his hometown, so we returned to Lebanon on retirement. My beloved husband died six years ago at age 86.”

The years they were in Atlanta, Arrington said she taught more than 40 nurses in every phase of nursing. She also worked in mental health and behavior modification, where the first thing they had to figure out was who is causing what problem. It would mean discovering it would take a bribe of ice cream to get a door opened. They’d find a whole lot of undercover tragedies and would work in any way they could to get people to help each other. 

“It was all new to us and we had to come up with the answers,” said Arrington. “Like we got so tired of having to round up the entire group therapy class everyday. Then, one day, I found the group was waiting on me. I had to figure out what I’d done to make that happen.”  

When they left Atlanta at her husband’s retirement, her next move was supposed to have been to Director of Nursing, one move she never got to take. Then there was the fact she’s ambidextrous (the ability to use her right hand as well as her left hand) making her the only one in her years of service that could set up an operating room using both hands or for a right or left handed doctor.

After she and Carl Arrington moved to Lebanon on his retirement, Esther worked with the Memories Group at the Senior Citizens’ Center for many years. It could be that helping so many others retrieve and keep their memories has helped keep her memory so sharp for her 86 years today.

The Arringtons only surviving child, Ronald, lives in Atlanta, where he makes violins and teaches violin and has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years.

She has a one-of-a-kind, red, Billy Goat Bridge crossing over a small creek in her backyard. Built by her nephew’s son, Kelly Vantrease, the structure doesn’t have a single nail in it. It’s shaped by the layers of wood used in the arches.

“I love it and am so proud of Kelly for building it,” said Arrington.

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