WCU to Bestow Honorary Doctorate on Longtime Public Health Leader

Western Carolina University will bestow an honorary doctorate on a longtime leader in public health issues who played an instrumental role in the creation of the national Head Start early childhood program, and in the establishment of WCU’s nursing program.

Mary King Kneedler, now retired and living in Asheville, will receive an honorary doctor of science degree when Western holds spring commencement exercises Saturday, May 12. She was nominated for the degree by Dennis Depew, dean of WCU’s College of Applied Sciences, Ann Johnson, associate dean of the college, and Sandra Greniewicki, nursing department head. Western’s board of trustees approved the honor at its December 2000 meeting.

Born in Magnolia, in Duplin County, Kneedler graduated from Duke University with a nursing degree in 1936 and took her skills into rural areas, serving as a public health nurse in three North Carolina counties, and in Kentucky.

Her nominators wrote that Kneedler “became a familiar and comforting sight in the economically depressed mountain area. In an era when few women even drove cars, Mary would start up her black Plymouth and drive off alone into the coves, hollows and woods to meet the health care needs of her patients. When she could not reach her patients by car, Mary would walk. Many a time she took off her shoes, held her nursing bag over her head, and forded a stream or creek to reach her patients.”

Kneedler returned to school and earned a bachelor’s degree in public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1947, and a master’s degree in public health nursing administration from the Teachers College of Columbia University in 1952. Prior to World War II, Kneedler was married to Bob Bailey, but the union ended tragically when he was killed in combat.

In 1954, Kneedler entered nursing administration by becoming chief of the public health nursing section of the State Board of Health. That year, she married Jay I. Kneedler, and the couple remained together until his death in 1994.

The Kneedlers’ long relationship with Western began in the summer of 1962 when the couple moved to Cullowhee after Jay Kneedler accepted a faculty position in business administration. Mary Kneedler joined the WCU staff, also, as a part-time instructor, teaching psychology and family health. She worked as a nurse in WCU’s Developmental Evaluation Clinic from 1964 through 1968.

In 1965, WCU began to consider establishing a nursing education program, and Kneedler served as chair of a committee formed to conduct a feasibility study. Four years later, the North Carolina Board of Nursing granted permission for the establishment of a nursing program at the university.

“Working with her nursing colleagues, representatives from the university and members of the community, Mary created and developed a professional, innovative and cutting-edge nursing program with diverse faculty members. Mary served as the first head of the department of nursing, and the program was delivered with style and distinction in the mountainous region of Western North Carolina,” her nominators wrote.

Kneedler’s professional accomplishments were recognized nationally when she was chosen to serve on committees relating to nursing education and child care. From 1960 and 1961, she served on the U.S. Surgeon General’s consultant group on nursing. She was a guest at the White House to witness President Lyndon Johnson’s signing of a bill aiding nursing education in 1964.

In 1965, Sargent Shriver, head of Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity, commissioned a panel of 14 experts, including Mary Kneedler, to create a strategy to meet the needs of preschoolers living in poverty. The committee’s recommendations concerning child care resulted in the national Head Start and Well Baby Clinic programs. Kneedler deems the Head Start program to be one of her “greatest joys” and achievements.

Kneedler retired as an assistant professor in WCU’s department of nursing in 1970. For many years she has funded an annual award for WCU’s outstanding senior nursing graduate, and Jay I. Kneedler scholarships for juniors and seniors in Western’s College of Business. She also recently funded a nursing scholarship program.

“Mary Kneedler has truly been and continues to be a major force in the development and maintenance of the Western Carolina University department of nursing,” her nominators wrote. “Her professional achievements have impacted health care at the local, state and national levels.”

WCU’s College of Applied Sciences and nursing department will hold a reception honoring Kneedler from 2 to 4pm on Tuesday, April 17, in the Mountain Area Health Education Center commons area at 501 Biltmore Ave., Asheville. Individuals wishing to attend are asked to R.S.V.P. by calling the department of nursing at (828) 227-7467.