Ellen Hao, based on a photograph by Paul Audia for Loyola Press

In the thirty-plus years that Joan Lawson, eighty, spent treating sick people in their homes throughout Chicago as a public health nurse, she gained unique insights into the human condition. It wasn’t until the Vatican selected her to be part of a collection of stories about elders from all over the world, however, that she realized her words could have an impact.

In an interview conducted at her Hyde Park home last year, Lawson sat down with Weekly contributor Bridget Gamble to talk about her work, community, hardships, and the philosophies that have shaped her life. An excerpt of the interview was included in Sharing the Wisdom of Time, a book on elder wisdom by Pope Francis and other contributors, which was published last month by Loyola Press. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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I was born in Atlanta, but I came to Chicago with my family when I was about three. So I didn’t really understand the South. I spent some summers with my grandmother from age eight to thirteen. They didn’t send me anymore because I didn’t understand it and I was getting my grandmother in trouble. I was too verbal. I didn’t understand that. I lived in a segregated community but it was different [from the South] where you would have to ride in the back of the bus, step off the sidewalk when a white person is coming. I didn’t have that experience in Chicago. Not really. Occasionally downtown we would have some experience like that. We didn’t go in other communities. That’s what you learned.

When I grew up, Black females didn’t have very many choices. You were a nurse, teacher, social worker, or secretary. Those were your choices. I knew that I wanted to be a nurse from the time I was a little girl. We lived in kitchenettes so my mother and father worked and I would go to school and have the key to come in. The neighbors looked out for us then and made sure…my mother took me to the library and got me a library card. I read myself through the library. There was a nurse series [of books] that I got hooked on at the library as a kid before I was eight years old. My parents were avid readers. So it never occurred to me that I would never do anything else. In my mind I wanted to be a nurse—I don’t know if I knew what that meant but that’s what I wanted to be.

Nursing was a desire. It wasn’t a job. Nurses wanted to take care of people in some way. Women didn’t have a lot of choices in jobs but I think that for the most part, they were caring.

My worst experience with racism was at the Cook County School of Nursing. I was eighteen years old. The instructor for anatomy and physiology gave me a C. I don’t get Cs. So in all my naiveté I went down with all my papers to talk to her and try to correct this. I was a freshman, I hadn’t been there three months. She looked me in the eye and said “My dear, because of your race, you will never get the grades that you deserve.” I’d never been talked to like that before. I’d never experienced anything like that before.

She was white. She could barely walk, she was so old. But she said that to my face. I went upstairs and I was packing to leave. Nobody was gonna talk to me like that. But I had a relative who was not educated with books, but had a lot of life experience, and he said, “Can you get through that school with a C?” and I said, “But that’s not the point!” He said, “That is the point. They let you in, but then they find ways to get rid of you to say that you can’t make it.” So I stayed and I got Cs all the way through. When I went to DePaul for my master’s I made the dean’s list, so I got real smart in between. The blatantness I can deal with better than the subtlety, the people who say, “You’ve got to go in through the back door.”

I have over thirty years’ experience with the Visiting Nurse Association (VNA) of Chicago as a public health nurse. They took care of primarily the poor or the disadvantaged, although there were people who paid. We went into communities that some people called undesirable because they were poor and there wasn’t a lot of hope. I worked in different areas of the city, and Chicago is a very segregated city. I was exposed to many different cultures that I would not have been exposed to in that way because I was in people’s homes. I was their guest, they weren’t my guest. For some of them, they had not had good experiences—they had not had any experiences with different ethnic groups.

These were immigrant families, they had no central heating. But they had to put somebody down. So I was it. But you develop scar tissue and you develop coping skills if you have a good support system and I had that with my family.

What I found is even though we are different ethnic groups, different practices, and different exposures we are very similar. I found that many times I was the first Black person they had ever met and they were the first whatever I had met and we found out we had many similarities. Part of it was how we felt about our families, maybe different traditions but the same feeling. Closeness, reliability, family comes first. The visiting nurses really brought it down to we are more similar than dissimilar. The way we think about things—religion, family, value systems, the need for happiness, somewhere to find it—we’re very much the same.

Back then, VNA was the only organization that sent nurses into people’s homes to do to the work. I learned a lot from those people. I still have little things they’ve given me over the years. I have place mats and little cups, glasses they’ve given me. Those people had nothing. But they were so appreciative that you came and [of] what you did for them. So they would give you something. One patient made an Easter lamb cake for my son. She lived in a senior citizen building and they didn’t have anything. She gave me this—I knew they deprived themselves to do that. You never forget that. Miss Halloway is her name, I could never forget that.

It was a struggle because the job can be very challenging and you do it because you want to do it, not because it’s a good environment. Most of the time, it isn’t. But being a nurse was really important to me. I made it. Part of that was because my family prayed me through everything. They believed in me. They believed I could do it. The expectation was that I’d somehow get it done. So I did.

[My family] had no money at all. I had two cousins that lived in Phoenix [in the south suburbs]. In a raggedy car, they drove all the way to Cook County School of Nursing to sit on the sofa and grin at me and say, “You can do this! We’re proud of you.” They had nothing. But that got me through. However bad it was, I had to get through it for them and their expectation.

Without education, I wouldn’t know what path I’d be on now. Education helps me choose and make choices that will be helpful to me and mine. I was a single parent for a while there. My son is fifty-nine now—I don’t know how that happened. But anyway. He started calling me when he was twenty-eight or twenty-nine and would say, “Thank you for my childhood.” He tells me, “I tell people about you all the time. You drove me crazy but what you said is true.” So if I hadn’t had the education, I wouldn’t be able to impart that to him. I would’ve done the best I could, like my mother. With education, you have direction.

I’m still growing. I grew up in the environment that many of the patients of La Rabida [Children’s Hospital, where Joan volunteers] grow up in. But somebody helped me along the way. People believed in me. If I didn’t have that, I don’t know where I’d be today. Everybody needs that and everybody needs somebody to talk to.

I gravitate toward helping those who are really needy. They need somebody to talk to and I want to be that neutral person that won’t judge. I feel like I’m really helping just by listening to what some people say. Sometimes I just pass out hugs, and the hugs are for me just as much as for them. I’m just drawn to those who seem to be the neediest. There are needy people in every culture in every neighborhood. They don’t talk about it a lot, or they’re selective with who they talk about it to, and many won’t seek help when it’s there for them. My mother was like that.

I’d like to really emphasize: you have to make your own assessments. Listen to other people but make your assessment. Sometimes you can deprive yourself of something special and good by listening to other people and it may not be applicable to you. If they would do that, you can learn. My grandmother used to say, you can learn from a fool, even if it’s nothing more than what not to do. There comes a time when you have to make decisions that can influence the rest of your life. You can be on a whole different track if you make the wrong decision. But make your own.

Critical thinking. They don’t teach that.

Pope Francis and Friends, Sharing the Wisdom of Time. $29.95. Loyola Press. 178 pages.

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Bridget Gamble is a contributor to the Weekly and a communications specialist. She last wrote about an art exhibit in the East Side celebrating artists who have passed away.

Join the Conversation


  1. I loved this interview! Joan Lawson is a strong woman who has given so much of her self to help others. I came away wanting to be a better person. So glad to learn all this about a fellow Chicagoan. This is why I love this town!!!!

  2. A wonderful piece that nicely captures the gentle spirit of a giving person as well as the tenacity she needed to persevere in her calling.

  3. I was reading stories from “Sharing the Wisdom of Time”, and I looked up Joan Crawford on the internet, only to find that she has passed away. It broke my heart to read that an instructor told her that she would never get the grades she deserved because of her race. That instructor should have, instead, risen above the racist mentality and given Joan the grade she earned. So many individuals go along with the group-think mentality. We will not stop racism until most individuals stand up against the crowd and do what they know is right. What that instructor most likely did do, though, is make Joan more determined to graduate from that school. Good for Joan for not allowing anyone to stop her from achieving her dream!

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