Emory Nursing, Spring 1998

A Nursing Treasure Edith Folsom Honeycutt, 39N - A Legacy of Caring

A Legacy of Caring

1907: The first class graduates from Wesley Memorial Hospital's Training School for Nurses, located in the renowned "Calico House" in downtown Atlanta.

by Darryl Gossett

Edith Folsom Honeycutt, 39N, entered Emory's nursing school in 1936 with a prayer: "Dear Lord, please let them keep me." Apparently, the Lord was listening.

More than 60 years later, Edith and Emory have never parted ways. An alumni leader, she has also served as advocate for patients and for nursing education, as private nurse for four generations of Atlanta's Woodruff family, and as inspiration for a $1-million endowed chair in nursing. Her contributions to the school--and to the nursing profession--are fast approaching immeasurable.

Those contributions were acknowledged last fall during Alumni Weekend when President William M. Chace presented Mrs. Honeycutt with the university's highest honor, the Emory Medal. She is one of only five nurses who have been so honored.

By giving her this award, the university acknowledged something else the School of Nursing has long recognized: the unique role Honeycutt has carved for herself--through decades of activity and influence--as a bridge from nursing past to nursing future.

It is imperative to the spiritual well-being of any institution that its legacies be kept vital, that the living, breathing, lovable, fallible, complex humans who gave of themselves in pursuit of a dream are remembered by those who come afterward. The School of Nursing is fortunate to have in Edith Honeycutt someone who remembers...someone who knew intimately, as nurse and friend, the leading philanthropic families of Emory: the Candlers, Glenns, Joneses, and, most notably, the Woodruffs. As students, faculty, staff, and alumni spend time with Mrs. Honeycutt, and listen to her stories, they see her act as medium to these beneficent spirits, and see them come to life again.

A Rebel with a Cause

The "Father of the University," Bishop Warren Akin Candler.

When Edith Honeycutt entered nursing school in 1936, she lived, as did the other students, in the Florence Candler Harris Nurses Home, built just a few years earlier as a memorial by the nieces and nephews of Mrs. Harris and her brothers, Methodist Bishop Warren Candler, Judge John Candler, and Coca-Cola Company founder Asa Candler. "I thought I had died and gone to heaven," Edith says of the three years she spent in the stunning five-story Italian Renaissance-style home, known around the city for its beautifully appointed living room.

Edith had grown up in a musical family--studying violin, piano, dance--and like many other young people at Emory at the time, chafed under the strict rules for social conduct that existed on campus. Bishop Candler exercised complete moral authority over the school and spoke strongly against extracurricular activities such as intercollegiate sports ("evil and only evil") and, especially, dancing. As a result, the university's official ban on dancing on campus remained in effect until after the bishop's death in 1941. The first dance was held several years later in Harris Hall, during the War, as a fund-raiser for the Nurses Alumni Association and was organized by one Edith Honeycutt.

"We rolled up the rug," she said, "and got permission for the cadets to be out past curfew. We ended up making a lot of money."

Edith is still dancing, half a century later. She's taken ballroom lessons and took part in a citywide dancing competition with other women from her retirement community. "The Trashy Ladies," as they called themselves, donned Dolly Parton wigs, heavy make-up, and hot pink T-shirts and line-danced their way to a first place finish over ten other teams.

A First Glimpse of the Future

At a tea honoring nurses at the Woodruff home: (l to r) Nell Hodgson Woodruff, Frances Riley Bailey, Edith Honeycutt, and Dean Julia Miller.

It was at Christmastime in 1936, my first year in nursing school, that I first heard the name Nell Hodgson Woodruff," remembers Edith Honeycutt. At that time each year, she says, Mrs. Woodruff gave money to the nursing students to buy books for the Harris Hall nurses' library.

"In my day at Emory," remembers Honeycutt, "there were no recovery rooms or intensive care units, and patient care was given by student nurses, a small staff of graduate nurses, and private duty nurses. As a student, I was given a floor assignment and asked now and then to help turn a critically ill patient, an elderly woman who was suffering with cancer. One evening, I noticed a very handsome couple, dressed to the nines, by her bedside."

The younger lady, as Honeycutt recalls the episode, stood on one side of the bed, and the gentleman knelt at the other side, kissing the patient's hand. The visitors turned out to be the benefactress for the nursing library, Nell Hodgson Woodruff, and her husband, Robert, president of The Coca-Cola Company. The patient was Emily Winship Woodruff, the wife of Ernest Woodruff and mother of Robert, George, and Henry. "Emie," as she was known, was the daughter of Robert Winship and niece of George Winship, both devout Methodists and trustees of Emory College and Wesley Memorial Church. Her extended, painful struggle with cancer profoundly affected her eldest son, Robert, and led him to give $40,000 to Emory to build a first-class facility for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. The Robert Winship Memorial Clinic, as it was called, was the forerunner of The Emory Clinic.

The Importance of Nursing Ernest

In 1941, Emory physician Cyrus W. Strickler Sr. approached Edith Honeycutt to see if she would take over as private duty nurse for one of his more difficult patients. "Edith," he said, "we've got a crotchety old gentleman back here who can't keep nurses. He either fires them or they quit."

"Well," she answered. "I won't quit, and he won't fire me."

That patient was Ernest Woodruff, patriarch of the family and architect of the Woodruff takeover of Coca-Cola from the Candlers in 1919. And as she so often has proved to be, Edith was right.

The crotchety old man and the young nurse hit it off. "I was with him until his death in 1944. He never called me anything but daughter. I think he liked me because I saved him money," she says with a laugh, referring to Mr. Ernest's legendary frugality.

"I would darn his silk nightshirts and shave him. And he was a real gentleman. When he knew he was going to have a lady visitor, he used to perfume the tips of his mustache, so when he gave her a kiss he would smell good."

Edith started at a salary of $6 a day for a 12-hour shift, but says the grueling schedule "was worth it to bring him comfort as much as I could. He liked for me to read the Lord's Prayer and the Coca-Cola stock prices from the newspaper."

An Urge to Heal

Miss Nellie, dressed in her Red Cross uniform during World War I.

In 1954, Nell Hodgson Woodruff was appointed as delegate to the World Health Organization by President Dwight Eisenhower.

Edith knew she wanted to be a nurse early on. "One summer in Palm Beach," she says, "when I was about 7, I was at a dock where fishermen came in. Around dusk one evening, I remember men calling out from a rowboat, "Shark! Shark!" I stood there and watched it all--the blood, the panic--as they brought the injured man in, and I still remember how badly I wanted to help." Another experience three years later crystallized this desire--her brother's near death from pneumonia. His suffering and her family's rejoicing when he recovered exerted a powerful influence on the young girl.

This innate urge to care was a trait common to Nell Hodgson Woodruff as well, says Honeycutt. As a child, Nell nursed all the family pets, even bandaging and splinting the crushed leg of a wounded house cat. She began nurses' training at St. Mary's Hospital in Athens, Georgia, in 1910 but withdrew to marry Robert in 1912. Years later, he would confess that he had despaired of ever winning her hand. "I feared I was too healthy to interest her," he said. Nell continued to search for ways to serve the ill. As a Red Cross volunteer during World War I, she took 80 hours of nursing training and received permission to serve as a nurse's aide in any American hospital. She would also serve the Red Cross during World War II.

It was during those years, with their tremendous shortage of nurses, says Honeycutt, that she and Nell became especially close. "We couldn't have managed without the volunteers she recruited," she says. "Miss Nellie liked to feel that she was one of the girls, and she worked wherever needed."

After the war, in 1946, during one of Honeycutt's many terms as president, Emory's Nurses Alumni Association acknowledged Mrs. Woodruff's contributions to nursing and the school by awarding her one of its first honorary memberships. Edith and Miss Julia Miller, first dean of the school, made the presentation to Miss Nellie at her Springdale Road home, where she was recovering from bronchitis. The State Nurses Association later awarded Nell an honorary membership in the association.

The ultimate recognition of Mrs. Woodruff's selfless work for nursing at Emory came in 1968, with a unanimous decision by the university Board of Trustees to fund the construction of a new building for the School of Nursing and to rename the school itself in honor of Nell Hodgson Woodruff. Even Robert Woodruff took an uncustomary backseat on January 18, the day of the groundbreaking, standing quietly and proudly in the background.

"It was bitterly cold," Honeycutt says, "so Miss Nellie, her sister, Dorothy Jones, and I sat in Nell's car as we waited for the program to begin. I thought she looked so fragile, but she was so enthusiastic and thrilled about the new building."

A few days later, Nell suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage and died the next afternoon. "I have lost my partner," her husband would say later. "I have lost the one I could count on to be at my side."

During their 55 years of marriage, Nell had often remarked of life with Robert, "I tied myself to the tail of a kite." Without her stabilizing and steering influence, Robert would find himself emotionally adrift in the years to come.

"Following her death, I visited Patterson's Funeral Home in Atlanta," Edith recalls. "I went after work and sat there alone, crying, when suddenly in my mind I heard her tinkly little laugh and her saying, in that funny twang she would put on sometimes, 'Darlin', don't cry for me. I'm doin' fine. You jes' take care of my ole man.'"

Promise Me, Edith...

Mrs. Woodruff with Emory President Sanford Atwood at the groundbreaking for the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing building, 1968.

Honeycutt had long since pledged to take care of the "ole man."

In 1955, to celebrate the golden anniversary of the nursing school, Nell and Robert had given a dinner-dance at the Piedmont Driving Club. "Mr. Robert and I were dancing when he asked me to step out on the patio," Edith says. "He told me, 'I have never properly thanked you for nursing my Pa the way you did.' Then he added, 'I want you to promise me, Edith, when I am old and worn out, and they don't know what to do with me, that you will take care of me the way you cared for my Pa.'

"Well, I promised, and sometime later, Miss Nellie phoned me and said, 'Bob has to go into the hospital tomorrow, and he says he ain't going unless you go with him.'

"From then on, one of the requirements of my hospital staff position included the understanding that I would be available for Mr. Robert and Miss Nellie, whenever they needed me. As it turned out, I was available not only for them, but for four generations of the Woodruff family and relatives, Coca-Cola executives, and many others."

That included a time, in 1979, when Woodruff was struck with pneumonia. It was so serious that many in his inner circle, including Edith, didn't think the 89-year-old man would recover. He did, however, and within weeks would make philanthropic history when he and his brother, George, announced their plans to liquidate the Emily and Ernest Woodruff Fund and make a gift of the entire corpus--Coca-Cola stock worth $105 million--to Emory University. It was the largest single gift of its kind to date.

Woodruff's physical condition continued to deteriorate, however. By the end of the Ichauway quail season in February 1985, he had practically stopped eating and his vision and hearing were both very poor. Edith Honeycutt, the same woman who cared for his father nearly half a century earlier, fulfilled her promise to be at his side when he was "old and worn out."

"I called Emory and asked Dr. Schwarzmann to fly down with the Coca-Cola plane to bring us back to Emory," Edith says. "When we arrived, he asked me, 'Honey, where am I?'' I squeezed his hand and said, 'We're in your suite at Emory Hospital, at the Robert W. Woodruff Medical Center.' "

Woodruff died ten days later, on March 7, 1985, holding Edith's hand and listening to a recording of his favorite hymn, "Just a Closer Walk with Thee." "I believe he was aware of my presence," Edith says. "He knew I had kept my promise."

Reaping the Rewards

In 1994, Dr. Deborah McGuire, a well-known researcher in cancer pain and symptom management, was named as the first Edith Honeycutt Chair of Oncology Nursing at Emory.

Fittingly, the death of Robert Woodruff marked the end of Edith Honeycutt's professional nursing career. She was nearing age 70 and had, a few years earlier, retired from her work in the oncology wing of Emory University Hospital. She has, of course, remained active in the life of the school, speaking to its students each year about the history of the nursing school and the legendary friends of Emory she has been privileged to know.

The years since her retirement have been marked by widespread recognition. As early as 1980, she was honored by the Nurses Alumni Association, which presented her with its Award of Honor. In 1986, at the university's sesquicentennial commencement ceremonies, a declaration was read, praising Mrs. Honeycutt's "enduring loyalty" and recognizing her "as a uniquely cherished friend and supporter of the students and faculty of the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing."

In 1990, the Metropolitan Atlanta Community Foundation endowed, with a $1-million gift, a chair in nursing at Emory University in Honeycutt's name, the only such chair in the United States to honor a staff nurse. Acknowledging that staff nurses are not often recognized for their contribution to nursing scholarship, Honeycutt says, "One of the reasons I am so grateful there is a chair at Emory is because a nurse who really loved to work with patients--and wanted to work with patients--was honored. It meant honoring everyone."

The ultimate recognition from the university came this past fall with its presentation to her of the Emory Medal.

"I was floored--shocked, really," she says. "I've always said, I've gotten much more out of my relationship with Emory than the other way around. I was so grateful to be admitted to school here, to be given a roof over my head during the Depression and a chance to become a nurse. Emory gave me a feeling of security emotionally and took the place of the family unit I had lost as a teenager. I found my husband here. Both of my children were born here. I met my dearest friends here, lifelong friends. Emory has given me physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual fulfillment."

And Edith, in return, has given Emory and the inhabitants of the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing--well, herself. And just a little bit more.

Fifty-seven years ago, Ernest Woodruff recognized a spark of excellence in a newly minted nurse, a spark he had not seen elsewhere. Much as a guiding star, that ineffable quality attracted people--many who had the means to have chosen any nurse they wanted--to Edith Honeycutt, and thus to Emory. In the case of the Woodruffs, their philanthropic investments fanned the spark of excellence at Emory, transforming the institution and the entire city. It's a shining example of the power of legacies and the need to nurture them.


A Nursing Treasure | A Legacy of Scholars | 'A Remarkable Lady'
Missions of the Heart | A Question of Ethics
Newsbriefs | Development News | Alumni News & Class Notes

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Web version by Jaime Henriquez.

Last Updated: August 19, 1998