In Memoriam: Georgetown BSN Alumna and Renowned Nurse Leader Dr. Bernardine M. Lacey (1932-2021)

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March 28, 2021 – Renowned nurse leader Dr. Bernardine (Mays) Lacey, who received her BSN at Georgetown in 1969, passed away Friday, March 26.

Lacey, who served as the founding dean of Western Michigan University School of Nursing, was honored for her distinguished career in 2014 by the American Academy of Nursing, becoming one of four Living Legends that year. 

Twenty-one years earlier, Georgetown’s School of Nursing recognized Lacey’s contributions by presenting her with the distinguished alumni award, according to a Maryland Nurses Association obituary and a history of the school by Dr. Alma Woolley.

‘Role Model and Mentor’

Lacey is a part of an oral history project that Assistant Dean Brian Floyd and Dr. Edilma Yearwood, chair of the Department of Professional Nursing Practice, are currently working on that features the first four African American graduates of Georgetown’s School of Nursing.

Floyd said that Lacey “came of age – personally and professionally – during a period of vast social changes in American society” and that the Georgetown alumna “will forever be remembered as a role model and mentor to many and for her immense dedication to her profession and community.”

He added that she contributed so much to the African American community and the field of nursing. “Her work and presence was a gift to everyone who had the pleasure of knowing her,” Floyd said. “Her dignity and grace were unmatched and she will certainly be missed, but her legacy lives on. Thank you for blessing us and lighting the way, thank you for the lessons you shared with us, and thank you for walking through the world the way you did.”

‘Unparalleled Trailblazer and Advocate’

“A bright, vibrant, and forceful light was extinguished with the passing of Dr. Bernardine Lacey,” Yearwood said. “She was an unparalleled trailblazer and advocate within the profession, keenly aware and supportive of the needs of those who could benefit from her support.” 

Yearwood highlighted that she “will cherish the time spent with her gathering the story of her early nursing career in the South and learning about her time as an RN-BSN student at Georgetown.” 

“The numerous individuals she mentored throughout her lifetime were enriched by her intentional attention,” she said. “A firebrand and staunch fighter for vulnerable and neglected individuals, her loss brings tears to those of us who had the good fortune to know her. You will be missed Dr. Lacey.”

‘Indelible Mark’

In August 2020, the American Journal of Nursing also featured Lacey in the article, “‘You Don’t Have Any Business Being This Good’: An Oral History Interview with Bernardine Lacey,” by Dr. Sandra B. Lewenson and Ashley Graham-Perel. (Visit the oral history interview via the American Journal of Nursing.)

“Racism left an indelible mark on Bernardine Lacey and her professional growth as a nurse, including roles as an educator, political advocate, researcher, clinician, and leader,” the article’s abstract explains.

Lacey, according to the authors, had received her nursing diploma at Gilfoy School of Nursing at Mississippi Baptist Hospital in 1962. She later attended Georgetown’s RN-to-BSN program to receive the degree, which she did in 1969.

“She was one of the first black students to be admitted to this institution,” Lewenson and Graham-Perel write. “Lacey explained, ‘Friends would say, ‘I didn’t know that they let blacks into Georgetown’. . . . I was the only one in this [program], and they asked, ‘How are you being treated?’ And I said, ‘Well, very well.’”

‘Life Well Lived’

In addition to Western Michigan University, as sources collectively note, Lacey’s professional career, including her leadership roles, involved several organizations – in Alabama at a Tuskegee University-affiliated hospital, St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in D.C., the College of Nursing at Howard University, Bowie State University’s Nursing Department, and Children’s National Medical Center. (Howard presented Lacey with its Legacy of Leadership Award.)

In 2014, when she was named a Living Legend of the American Academy of Nursing, Lacey reflected on her career: “I sincerely thank the American Academy of Nursing Board of Directors for this recognition and my sponsors for nominating me for this award. I feel honored and humbled for this acknowledgment, but I am most grateful to the patients and clients that I have been privileged to serve over these 52 years. What more can be said for a life well lived?”

Dr. Ernest Grant, president of the American Nurses Association, shared a message of sympathy on Twitter upon learning of Lacey’s death.

“I offer my deepest condolences to the family, friends & colleagues of Dr. Bernardine Lacey,” Grant said. “A dedicated & prestigious nurse, she earned several honors including ANA’s Pearl McIver Public Health Nurse award. A great loss to the nursing community, she will be missed by so many.”

By Bill Cessato