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Honoring the Legacy of Anne Zimmerman

The current featured ANS article is titled “The View From Anne’s
Shoulders: Preserving and Honoring the Legacy of Our Leaders
” authored by Geraldine Gorman, PhD, RN; Brigid Lusk, PhD, RN, FAAN;
Rebecca Clay, MSN, RN. You can download this interesting article at no cost while it is featured, and we welcome your comments here! Dr. Gorman provided this message giving more background about this work for ANS readers here:

Geri Gorman

Anne Larson Zimmerman, 1914-2003, was an extraordinary woman, world citizen, activist and nurse. Likely you do not know her name. She blazed through the world before we digitalized. She leaves only a ghostly thread of internet references. But in the Special Archives section of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Health Sciences library, boxes of her donated papers attest to an extraordinary life. Human rights activist, labor leader, staunch proponent of nursing in general and of every individual nurse in particular, Anne’s star shines brightly in our firmament. But how would we know? How many will visit the special archives and take the time to delve into the boxes that hold Anne’s life?

Dare we, then, to tell a story?

We are not very good at that anymore, we nurses. We disparage our stories for fear they will make us seem less rigorous, less scientific. Instead of stories we exchange data. And nurses like Anne will not be found there. So if we want to celebrate our leaders and heroes, the ones who inspire and edify us, we are well advised to tell their stories before they slip from our collective memory.

I knew Anne only for the last seven years of her life but her impact was indelible. I was a new nurse and an old PhD student struggling with a dissertation which told the story of one the Midwest’s last surviving VNA’s. Anne’s glory days as international human rights ambassador, ANA president, INA Executive Director and union champion were behind her. Voted a Living Legend by the ANA, she described her retirement years as time spent “not so much in consultation as in consolation.” She believed in the importance of the story I struggled to tell and she helped me to organize the VNA nurses in one last glorious act of public resistance before the proud organization was gobbled up by a corporate health care system. When she died at age 89, nurses acclaimed and unheralded packed the Chicago church for a celebration of her magnificent life.

By that time I was new faculty at the College of Nursing at UIC. I spoke to the incoming nursing students about the importance of knowing our history—the good and the bad—but our textbooks really stopped telling the stories of individual nurses somewhere in the early part of the twentieth century. I told them about Anne but the weight of her insistent legacy grew heavier from year to year.

By 2015, a full twelve years after her death, Anne’s voice was a constant presence in my life and teaching. It was payback time. Dr. Brigid Lusk, nursing historian, had joined our faculty. I engaged Brigid in discussions about a performance which had been gestating within me for a decade. I envisioned nurses and nursing students rediscovering and recreating and Anne’s life, told in her own words and in those of her colleagues and friends and legions of admirers. I wanted us to pull those boxes from the stacks and dig in. There was a story which must be told. Brigid agreed.

Amy Spreitzer, Rachel Renee Gage and Jocelyn Mallard, who portrayed Anne at different times in her career, standing in front of a portrait of Anne’s hands.

And so we did. Through 2015 till the end of 2016 we composed a celebration of Anne’s struggles and accomplishments against a backdrop of events from the twentieth century with which her life intersected. Nursing students immersed themselves in the papers from those boxes. They interviewed Anne’s family and surviving colleagues. They created an historical timeline replete with images that defined her life and the evolving century. I wrote the story into a script and we added music. Twenty-three students and nurses brought it to life in three separate performances in 2016, one of which took place at the American Association for the History of Nursing’s annual conference.

Rachel Reichlin with Anne’s closet friend, the late Peg Stafford, RN, FAAN, who Rachel portrayed in the performance

At all the performances, Anne’s friends, admirers and family members co-mingled with those who were hearing her story for the first time.
I am grateful to ANS for its breadth of vision and understanding. It is no easy task to publish the account of a such a project—one that extols the intrinsic worth of storytelling—in our professional journals. We are wary of narratives for the reasons I outlined; they can threaten the staunchness of our rigor, make us look fuzzy and dreamy, like the ‘sentimental women’ image which has haunted the profession. But oh my Lord—do we need a revolution in our thinking!

Rachel Neuschatz in front of photo of Anne holding her daughter, Nancy

As we wait for science to save us from ourselves, to concoct that magic vaccine which will deliver us from the wages of our societal sins, we gravitate toward stories to comfort us, to ease the rawness of this historical moment. The statistics which flash across our screens numb us but the stories of health care workers who confront the pandemic ennoble us, give us hope. Studies about structural racism do not compel us to march in the streets but the story of a man’s murder detailed by a public countdown of minutes inspired a spontaneous movement. What kept so many of us glued to our screens during John Lewis’s long and eloquent memorial were the details of the life of the man from Troy. We are ravenous for such stories. And too seldom do our professional journals feed that hunger. Instead we are offered a steady stream of dry and formulaic articles in which the author’s voice and the precious human details are obscured beneath a mountain of statistical data.

So I appreciate the opportunity to share Anne’s story through the account of the performance we created: While I am Here: the life and legacy of Anne Larson Zimmerman. May it inspire you to celebrate the heroes you have known and to encourage nursing’s literature to bestow upon them their deserved place in the record, not as a statistic but as a vibrant story demanding a telling.


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