Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

July 11, 2010

99-year-old devoted life to health of others

— GLENWOOD — She immunized over 10,000 local children, helped found the Mercer County Health Department, worked as a nurse for 50 years, and has seen the eradication of diseases such as diphtheria, polio, and small pox.

Beulah Ann Bailey moved to Mercer County in 1939 and since then has left an everlasting mark on West Virginia public health and the community at large.

“I’ve always loved keeping people well,” Beulah Ann  said. “It’s been my privilege to work with the greatest doctors, teachers, professionals and ordinary citizens in West Virginia. It has greatly enriched my life.”

She was born Beulah Ann Graybeal in Ashe County, N.C., and decided to pursue a career in medicine early in her life.

“When I was seven years old, a nurse came to my house and gave me the smallpox vaccine,” Beulah Ann said. “People were dying of smallpox then and usually, only the rich could afford to have a vaccine. I decided then I wanted to help people get well.”

Beulah Ann went on to become valedictorian of her 1929 graduating class of Elk Creek High School in North Carolina. She received nursing training at St. Luke’s Hospital then completed the New York Post Graduate Medical School and Nursing Program, graduating from Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Medicine in Nashville with a degree in public health, one of few universities that offered such a degree at that time.

“I spent the rest of my life teaching public health, nutrition and immunization,” Beulah Ann said.

Education would continue to be a theme in Beulah Ann’s life as she educated others about health issue and took refresher courses herself.  Beulah Ann not only took a course in public health at the University of North Carolina but spent 14 summers at West Virginia University taking classes in mental health, public health, substance abuse and behavioral science during her nursing career.

She worked in Raleigh County for four years before moving to Mercer County. She said she was “appalled” By the conditions of public health in Mercer County, where there were no clinics for pre-natal care, child care, immunizations or venereal disease prevention clinics.

Childbirth was the leading cause of death among women in those days while children were dying from diseases easily cured by vaccination.

“I started the crusade to get state health volunteers to give out vaccines and I was on the committee that worked to get the health department to work with Alcoholics Anonymous,” Beulah Ann said. “I spent my life teaching public health, nutrition and immunization.”

Beulah Ann went on to found the Mercer County Health Council in 1954.

She worked with organizations such as the Mercer County Medical Society, the Romney School for the Blind, the Blaydes Clinic, the Medical Auxiliary, the Department of Human Services, the Board of Education, the Ministerial Association and Alcoholics Anonymous to raise awareness of health issues in the county.

Beulah Ann’s son Kent Bailey, 71 of Richmond, Va., is now a professor emeritus of clinical psychology at the Virginia Commonwealth University. He said has always been inspired by his mother’s accomplishments.

“She was the first public health nurse in southern West Virginia and led the cause of ending death due to childbirth,” Kent said. “She was not only involved on the nursing side when it came to the deaths of mothers, but was socially active in the cause. She helped to not only change the medical profession’s attitudes but in changing social attitudes toward medicine.”

While Beulah Ann would be considered a social activist in modern terms, she did not think of herself in that way.

“She was a social activist in an era of medical need, before there was such a thing as activism,” Kent said. “She was so committed to bringing these changes she didn’t even realize she was part of a movement.”

Kent remembers how the late Sen. Robert Byrd was often a guest at the family’s home on Middlesex Avenue in Princeton.

He said his mother would cook old-fashioned homemade meals whenever the family would put up the senator for the night while he helped with her public health crusades.

“She certainly did her best to improve the health of all these people,” Kent said. “During her lifetime, they defeated various medical disorders like polio, diphtheria, and syphilis. She was fortunate to be part of medicine at a time when some of the greatest innovations of healing began. During her time as a nurse, some of the greatest medical research was taking place. Her job was to implement these new, exciting discoveries, such as inoculation.”

He also said his mother made sure everyone stayed healthy at home.

“We had cod liver oil for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” he said. “People were not as knowledgeable then as they are now about certain things, but we ate healthy foods and were involved in tons of church activities. When we look back, those were formative experiences.”

There were other important lessons Kent learned from his mother.

“She taught me to choose something important to devote my life to and to pursue it with a passion,” Kent said. “Her mark will be to be remembered for a life that was significant, that was important, that touched many, many people. It’s not the length of your life, but the significance.”

Jim Baker, 67, of Princeton, and his wife Rebecca both worked with Beulah Ann when they came to work for Southern Highlands in 1969. Jim worked alongside Beulah Ann for 35 years and recalled how she helped bring Alcoholics Anonymous to the county.

“She was the only alcoholic counselor,” Baker said. “She helped raise the money to get other staff. She was quite a lady to work with. She always knew her way around politics and funding sources. She could help connect you.”

Though she kept employees on their toes, Baker remembers Beulah Ann always made those around her feel special.

“It was always a challenge because she got you into some tight situations, but she could always solve your problems,” Baker said. “Beulah Ann could make you believe you were the most important person on earth. She could charm anyone with her southern belle style, but she always had the upper-hand.”

Baker also remembers how Beulah Ann was always an active member of the community.

“She was very active in the Women’s Democratic Committee,” he said. “She was instrumental in the health department’s mental health programs and getting many programs going. She was always involved in the community.”

Even after retiring from the hospital in 1978, Baker remembers how Beulah Ann would stop by to help plan events and always remained committed to helping others.

“Both she and her husband Woodrow were loving, Christian people,” Baker said. “They were always involved in helping individuals who needed them.”

A testament to Beulah Ann’s imprint on Mercer County was the party thrown for her at GlenWood Park Retirement Village Friday celebrating her 99th birthday.

“We are very honored at GlenWood to host an event like this to honor a special lady like Mrs. Bailey,” said Susan Belcher, marketing director for the facility.

Belcher has her own personal history with Beulah Ann.

“She and my grandmother worked together as public health nurses when public health was just beginning in this county,” Belcher said. “She’s always shared stories of projects and meetings they worked on together with me. She was the key person in creating the Mercer County public health program. She came to the area and got others motivated.”

Beulah Ann’s birthday was celebrated not only by her fellow GlenWood residents and family but the GlenWood nurses and local health officials.

“She and her husband Woodrow were very well liked,” Belcher said. “She’s touched people in so many ways and her faith is incredible. That’s something that sets her apart and she demonstrates her faith in so many ways.”

In her long life, Beulah Ann has still managed to keep herself attentive and mentally active.

“She’s a person who is still mentally agile,” Kent said. “She read extensively until she became legally blind and still keeps up to date by having people read to her, listening to CDs of books and periodicals and listening to what is going on around her.”

Kent said his mother has become a “feature” of Mercer County.

“She’s much beloved by all who come in contact with her,” Kent said. “She devoted her life to social services and nursing through churches and civic organizations. She’s a special person and when she goes to the Lord, there will be a large, empty space in the lives of more people than you can count.”

Since she began her nursing career in the 1930s, much has changed in the world of medicine and the world at large.

“I’m overwhelmed with the changes in our world,” Beulah Ann said. “My life has been a great investment in the good health of others. I’m a pretty good example at 99.”

— Contact Kate Coil at kcoil@bdtonline.com

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