By Shondalea Wollaston
Choosing a college and even a major can leave some students teetering on the brink of insanity. But Theresa Jeanne (Livingston) Cathell read every book about nursing she could find, served as a Red Cross volunteer, and landed a job as a nurse’s aide at Fitzgerald Mercy Hospital in 1964, all before graduating high school.
Cathell thought she had a rock -solid plan. But somehow fate failed to get the memo, and as some say, she was thrown a nasty curve ball in the bottom of the ninth. Delaware County Community College’s first female student never saw this edit coming.
During her senior year of high school, and only weeks after learning she was accepted at Fitzgerald Mercy School of Nursing, the college administration announced a new plan that not only changed the cost of tuition, but also change the course of Cathell’s academic career.
Feeling as if the wind had been knocked out of her, Cathell knew her dreams were now out of reach. Thinking of the financial burden to her parents, still raising her younger siblings, she knew she could not ask for the money.
Now a 1967 graduate of Archbishop Prendergast High School, refusing to give up on her dream of becoming a nurse, Cathell decided to search for a more affordable option.
At that time, the Philadelphia diocese, in an attempt to expedite the process of gaining new teachers, offered to pay for young women to attend Villanova University at night and throughout the summer months, in exchange for a job teaching at a parochial school.
Cathell remembers her conversation with her father vividly. “Maybe you want to be a teacher?” he said. “Dad, I may or may not kill someone as a nurse, but I would definitely kill someone as a teacher,” she replied.
According to Cathell, she felt very depressed, as if all hope had been dashed. However, she remembered just before graduation, a representative from a new community college had visited. She could not stop thinking maybe there was another option she had not previously considered.
Although not yet a reality, due to an ongoing court battle arguing the need for a community college in Delaware County, she allowed herself to once again feel hopeful, aware it was a long shot.
After a heart to heart talk with her father, Cathell travelled to Media, Pa., in search of the community college’s admission center. She scoured the town, determined to find the college and enroll.
Cathell remembers seeing a small storefront in town, labelled on as Community College of Delaware County, with only one employee inside.
This would be the day Cathell, of Prospect Park, Pa. became the first female student to enroll at Delaware County Community College.
According to the DCCC repository, the first location of the college was Ridley High School, in Folsom, and Cathell, like many others, would work during the day and attended classes at night.
On the first day of classes, Cathell excitedly got dressed for work and grabbed her usual danish and coffee. She rushed to catch the Chester- Wilmington Local to 30th street, then walked to the corner of Cherry and 32nd, where she worked as an office clerk at American Foresight.
“I left work early and returned home to make my 4PM class,” Cathell said.
She then walked from her home in Prospect Park to Lincoln Avenue and then MacDade Boulevard where she caught the bus to Morton Ave.
According to Cathell, upon arrival at Ridley High School, she noticed a crowd of people standing in the parking lot. She nervously walked up the hill where she saw her friend Phyllis Corsi, and several other faces from her old high school. She suddenly felt relieved. It was all going to be okay.
All the students were handed class cards which read “DO NOT FOLD, STAPLE, or BEND,” and taken to the book store in the basement of the high school. Cathell recalls feeling a little nervous about the wording on the cards.
“I often wondered what horrible punishment would ensue if I did fold, staple, or bend the card?” she said.
Not exactly thrilled to return to a high school classroom after graduation, Cathell was greeted by her professors, hired from neighboring states and nearby private colleges. “Although it was still a high school, things felt very different,” she said.
According to Cathell, early on in the semester, students and staff began to feel like a second family and new friendships began to emerge from campus social events.
“For 25 cents you could buy a hamburger, fries, and a coke at Johnny’s Hamburgers at the corner of Morton and MacDade Boulevard,” Cathell said, recalling the popular hangout at the time.
During the summer of 1968, Dr. Hill, the director of admissions at DCCC, invited students to meet at his home in Drexel hill to form a Student Government Association. It was here that Cathell learned she was selected, along with 19 other students, to be part of the first nursing program at DCCC.
In order for the nursing program to receive full accreditation, Cathell and fellow students would first need to pass the state boards.
“We were building an airplane, while running down the runway, but we didn’t know it,” she said.
Cathell, unable to drive the first year of college, caught a ride with her friend, Jackie Bell, who would pick her up on days they had classes scheduled around the same time.
While walking from Prospect Park to Ridley High School at Folsom, Cathell mentally completed assignments, even composing an entire sociology paper on one of those walks. “It was my first lesson in time management,” she said.
In 1969, the Deveraux Foundation contacted DCCC to inquire about nursing students interested in a summer job at a camp in North Ansen, Maine. Cathell spent the next three summers as a camp nurse, flying back to Pennsylvania during the summer of 1970 to take the state boards.
While waiting for the results of the state boards, Cathell was hired to work in the newborn intensive care nursery at Crozier Chester Hospital (now a medical center). It was there in the NICU, while feeding a baby, Cathell learned she passed the boards.
“The excitement was overwhelming,” she said.
On June 18, 1970, Cathell graduated from the first nursing program at DCCC, alongside 11 of the 20 students originally enrolled in 1968.
Cathell soon left Crozier-Chester Hospital to work at Taylor Hospital, earning the position of charge nurse on a medical/surgical floor.
While working a shift at the hospital on March 10, 1972, a co-worker insisted that she meet her brother, who had just returned from serving in the U.S. Navy. According to Cathell the co-worker claimed they were a perfect match.
The two met, fell deeply in love, and married on Sept. 2, just six months later.
Cathell continued her academic career, earning her Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), with a minor in business, from Old Dominion University in 2004.
In 2011, she earned a Master’s of Science degree in Addiction Studies (IPAS) through a collaboration of three universities in an International Program in the field of Addiction Science, King’s College in London, the University of Adelaide (South Australia) and Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.
Looking back, Cathell considers DCCC her jumping off point in life.
“I would not trade the lessons I learned for anything,” she said. “I just still can’t believe it has been 50 years.”
Three of Cathell’s siblings also graduated from DCCC, including her sister that graduated from the nursing program in 1978.
Cathell and her husband David have spent the last 32 years living in Richmond, Va., raising three sons.
Today Cathell works part time at Anthem Blue Cross, Blue Shield, in Va., but these days spends much more time making edits to travel plans as life’s “little things” continue to come around.
“We are always looking for our next adventure,” Cathell said.
Contact Shondalea Wollaston at email@example.com