Anita Smith Lunsford - Giving Back Through History

Anita Smith 2008-webIf Anita is fascinated with history, it may be because she has a knack for being in the right place at the right times to watch it happen. While an intern at The Atlanta Journal, she helped cover Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s infamous stand in the schoolhouse door; when she joined the staff of The Birmingham News, she returned to a city beset by race riots and KKK rallies.

Smith has also had a front-row to much of the history at the School of Nursing, which, while not as turbulent as the other history going on around her, was still quite eventful. When she was just an undergraduate student at the University of Alabama, Smith met the SON’s first dean, Florence Hixson, through roommates who were nursing students; at The Birmingham News, she was first placed in the role of the newspaper’s medical editor, and she witnessed the school’s move from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham, as well as the tenure of its second dean, Marie O’Koren. Since then, she has developed close personal relationships with each of the school’s deans, so when she calls the SON uniquely blessed in terms of leadership, she knows whereof she speaks.

“The deans have known where they were going,” Smith says, “and they have known how to create a balance between preserving that which is quality that has come before and accepting what must be changed in order to meet today’s needs. The definition of a nurse has changed, and the deans haven’t just responded to those changes, they have actually been leaders for decades in telling the nation how to prepare for those changes. They’re constantly looking ahead to what society’s needs are going to be.

“And it’s not just the deans. All four of them have pointed out to me: Whenever I’ve said good things about the deans, they’ve replied, ‘Hey, wait a minute—it’s the entire faculty.’ But they recruited those faculty and very carefully selected them; the deans have been picky at times when they didn’t necessarily have that luxury.” 

One of the founding members of the Board of Visitors in 1992, Smith describes each dean as having a unique personality and impact on the school. Hixson, she says, was a portrait of quiet resilience, a demure woman who nevertheless had an “iron will” that helped her stand her ground in defense of nursing. O’Koren, on the other hand, was a “risk taker” and a “nursing entrepreneur” who greatly expanded the school’s scope in the 1970s up to her retirement in 1987. Rachel Booth, who served for 18 years, helped raise the school’s profile internationally and make it champion for nurses in developing countries. And today, Doreen Harper is adding even greater strength and depth to the school’s reputation as a research powerhouse, bringing in nationally renowned faculty and broadening the collaborative ties that have characterized UAB. “At a time in America when we are saying, ‘We must join hands and pool our knowledge, and we can do wonderful things in wonderful ways,’ she is putting the School of Nursing at the forefront of those efforts,” Smith says.

Of course, Smith, who published what was then the 50-year history of the nursing school in 2000, hasn’t viewed the school merely as an objective outside observer; she became intimately connected with the SON and, indeed, nursing as a whole over the last 15 years of the life of her husband, Jim Lunsford, who passed away this past February at the age of 76.

“The terrible news is that he is gone.” She says, “but the wonderful news was that he had 15 and a half years of incredible ‘bonus life’ because he was the recipient of a heart transplant at UAB. Many of the people who helped Jim have such a high-quality life during those 15 and half years were nurses, and some of them had degrees from the UAB School of Nursing. So I saw every day what a wonderful product this school created.”