The First Nurse

Marie Mason served Campbell (and her country) as a nurse in the ’40s, and she’s giving again with a scholarship for the new school of medicine


Marie Mason (’41) was 23 years old and already a registered nurse when she enrolled at Campbell College to start pursuing a degree in the liberal arts.

Her new school asked quite a lot of her.

Until that time, “nursing” responsibilities fell on the dean of men and women at Campbell, and because of her experience, Mason was asked to work part time as a nurse, working from dorm rooms (with a desk and no beds) in the men’s and women’s halls. During her third year, she became not only Campbell’s first-ever full-time nurse, but she also was director of physical education and coach of the school’s women’s basketball team.

Unlike her job as nurse, she wasn’t chosen to coach because of experience.

“I was tall, and when I played, the girl I guarded never scored,” Mason says with a laugh. “Needless to say, I got a lot of help from the boys’ coach.”

Mason would go on to serve her country as a nurse overseas during World War II, become director of nursing programs at the University of Kentucky and become dean of students at Meredith College in Raleigh.

Despite her affiliation with other schools and decades of service as a teacher at Meredith, Mason — who turned 97 this July — hasn’t forgotten about the school that asked so much of her, and in turn, gave so much back. This year, Mason has provided one of the first scholarships to the new Campbell University School of Osteopathic Medicine; and if Campbell’s efforts to launch a nursing program in 2014 are successful, that scholarship will eventually help nursing students.

“The way Campbell was then is the way it still is now,” says Mason. “When I was a student, the people there cared for us. Our teachers were on small salaries, and I guess the school still felt the effects of the Great Depression. The president [Leslie Campbell] would hire boys to dig a hole in his backyard just so they’d have some money. Then he’d hire another group of boys to come and fill the hole up. Some even stayed at his home. We were poor, but I guess we were poor together.”

And the nursing job? Mason says that was set up so she could pay her tuition.


Mason remained as a nurse at Campbell after graduation through 1942 before working the night shift at Rex Hospital in Raleigh. In 1943, the start of the U.S. involvement of World War II, her brothers were going overseas to fight in Europe.

“My youngest brother was in England piloting B-29s and dropping bombs over Berlin,” Mason recalls. “He’s the reason I went. I remember thinking, ‘If he’s hurt, I hope somebody takes care of him.’ Then I asked myself, ‘Why can’t you be the one taking care of him?’”

Mason was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army that year, and by 1945, she was working overseas for a hospital that cared for Allied soldiers as well as German prisoners of war. Some of the German patients were elite officers in the German army, and Mason says many refused to acknowledge her ranking.

“Oh, they didn’t like that one bit,” Mason says with a laugh. “They were prisoners and they had to walk a straight line, so they didn’t say much. But their body language and attitudes let us know they didn’t appreciate it at all.”

Mason returned home in 1946 and enrolled at Meredith College to study psychology. She found it difficult to concentrate early on, as she says it was difficult to adjust to civilian life. Bit by bit, she says, she relearned to concentrate and earned her degree (she would earn her PhD from the University of Kentucky nearly 20 years later).

After leading the nursing program at Kentucky for several years, she was asked to return to Meredith as dean of students. She initially turned down the offer, because it didn’t include the chance to teach, but Meredith’s president — Carlyle Campbell, brother of Campbell Dean Leslie Campbell and son of Campbell founder J.A. Campbell — gave in a year later and included teaching as part of the package.

Mason calls dean of students “the worst job I ever had.”

“Everybody in Raleigh brought their problems to my office,” she says, rolling her eyes as if it all happened yesterday. “The faculty, the teachers, the parents, the presidents, the students … everybody wanted me to solve their problems. A history teacher, for example, came to me once to complain that one of her students wore clothing that exposed her navel. I had to tell her that was something she’d have to take care of.”

The president called her one winter day to come in and tell students they couldn’t walk on the frozen lake, for safety reasons. And when the rowdy boys from North Carolina State invaded campus for “panty raids” at 2 a.m., it was Mason who received the first calls.

“The president didn’t want the boys arrested, but the police didn’t want any part if they couldn’t arrest the boys,” Mason recalls, laughing. “So what do I do? See what I mean? I could give you several more stories.”

Eventually, Mason was able to shed the dean job and continue doing what she loved — teach psychology, a job she held for decades before her retirement.

Today, at 97, Mason lives at home in Raleigh and is still very much involved in her church as a volunteer, despite a recent hip surgery. She credits her good health and longevity to good genes (she has one brother who is 102, and of her and her six siblings, all lived into their 80s, and four made it to their 90s), eating healthy and working hard.

Some of the German patients were elite officers in the German army, and Mason says many refused to acknowledge her ranking as an officer.