Whitten knew early on that she would be in nursing

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By Panzi Blackwell

“I just kind of knew from about the age of 14 that was what the Lord had given me the gifts to do and to be."

That's what Mary Lou Whitten said, in regard to her notable and lengthy work and contributions in the nursing/teaching field. 

“I also had a favorite aunt, Fleeta Mattes, who was a nurse, and I think just being around her and watching her probably  contributed to it. But I felt the Lord gave me the gifts and I just took it from there. I never even thought about being anything but a nurse.”

Mary Lou (Elam) Whitten followed her calling and has served more than 40  years, not only as a caring, compassionate, proficient, skilled nurse, but also shared her skill and knowledge with others by applying another love, that of teaching students at Kaskaskia College, first as an instructor, then Director of Nursing, and then later as Dean of Nursing. She has also traveled to other countries to assist others in need of compassionate care and teaching, before retiring  due to health reasons. Meet Mary Lou Whtten, dean of nursing.

In the beginning…

“When you are 14 and a freshman in high school, and you have to start choosing courses, you have to decide whether you are going to college,” she said.

“I had been raised to pray about those kinds of things, to make that important kind of decision, and I felt like that was what the Lord led me to do.

“So I took all these pre-nursing courses, biologies, chemistries and algebra in high school, and as soon as I graduated from high school, I headed off to Baylor University.

“There I was, a little kid raised in Vandalia, and never been farther from home than Decatur and St. Louis, heading for Baylor University in Waco, Texas,” she said.

“Baylor offered a bachelor’s degree in nursing, and most hospitals at that time were offering a diploma. I somehow knew that someday, I would want to teach nursing, and I would have to have a degree to do that.”

She and Dennis Whitten were married while she was still in nursing school, in 1966.

“We lived in Dallas, Texas, at that time,” Mary Lou said.

“I was in my junior year of college. I knew my goal and I finished school."

They eventually came back to Vandalia, and Dennis got more and more involved in farming with his dad after attending school in Edwardsville. 

“Mary Lou’s first job after school was working at Murray’s Children’s Center in Centralia. “That was in the days when they had their own operating room and hospital, and I worked in the hospital part,” she said.

Because of the drive to and from Centralia,  “I went to Aunt Fleeta and asked her if I could work at Fayette County Hospital in Vandalia,” she said.

“Then, in 1970, Russell Hewitt called over at the hospital and asked if he could take me to coffee after work. He offered me the job of teaching a certified nurse’s aide class at the Okaw Vocational Center.”

That introduced her into the field of education,  “which has been my love forever, from then on out,” she said.

“I taught from 1970-74, the health occupation class, then we were expecting our second child, so I stayed home,” she said, “and got more involved with raising little people.” 

Dennis and Mary Lou have three sons: Michael, who farms; Christopher, a physical therapist (wife, Carrie); and Andy, youth pastor at Bethel Baptist Church (wife, Kiley).

Back to College…

…but this time as a teacher.

“In 1985, there was a teaching position open at Kaskaskia College, so I started teaching nursing at the college, and it was 25 years later before I quit, on Dec. 31, 2009,” she said.

During those years, she moved up from instructor to director of nursing, then dean of nursing.

“It’s been a wonderful career, and I’ve loved every minute of it,” she said. “And, probably, had my health not gone bad, I probably would not have chosen to retire quite so quickly.”

Rising to the Challenge

Mary Lou Whitten is fighting cancer for the second time since 2007.

“I was first diagnosed in 2007 and had my surgery,” she said, “and then they declared me cancer-free. It was all gone. Then it came back with a vengeance in 2009.“

Since last June, she has had more surgery and three different rounds of chemo, and, “I’m still fighting the stuff,” she said.

Explaining her decision to retire, she said, “When you’re going through cancer treatment, chemo takes all your strength and energy.”

In Person

“I have had some great things going on in my life, in music,” she said. “I had the privilege of singing with ‘The Singing Illinoisians,’ who toured around the state.

“I’ve sung in the choir, led the choir at Bethel Church, and I’ve sung at funerals and weddings.”

Also, she said, “I got to go to Kenya on a mission trip in the summer of 2006. It was wonderful. I got to be a nurse in some clinics over there, distributing medications and helping with the people over there.”

She also went to India over Christmas break in 2007 to assist in re-establishing a 300-bed nursing hospital and school following the school’s destruction by the Tsunami that devastated that part of the world.

She has served as a church camp counselor, and said she wants to do that again as her son, Andy, is heavily involved in the Rehobeth Camp.

“I’d really like to get back into doing that again, so maybe I will, if the good Lord is willing and I can get this conquered, then maybe I still have some things to do,” she said.

“One doesn’t know, but whatever, it’s a win-win situation. If I win, I get to stay here. We have eight grandchildren, and I’d like to be a part of their lives. And if I don’t, I still win, because then I get to go on to glory.”

And it seems that anyone who has had their life touched in some way by Mary Lou Whitten, a role model and inspiration, can be considered a winner, including the more than 2,000 students who have graduated in the Kaskaskia College associate degree, licensed practical nursing and nurse assistant programs under her leadership.

Many have, in turn, provided valuable nursing services to the residents of the KC District and surrounding area, showing that her influence has extended beyond the classroom.