WCU’s School of Nursing counts more than 2,000 alumni, and Mary Kneedler inevitably encountered them as she grew older and her health required doctor’s visits and hospital stays. She didn’t know them, but they knew her. “The nurses would find out who she was, and boy, were they on it. They knew she was the one,” said niece Mary Emily Antley.
Kneedler, of Asheville, died June 11 at 97 years old. She not only served as the first head of WCU’s nursing department, she was instrumental in its founding. Arriving in Cullowhee in 1962, after her husband, Jay Kneedler, accepted a position on the business faculty, Mary Kneedler worked as a part-time instructor and soon turned her attention to establishing a bachelor’s degree of nursing program at WCU. After much work, the N.C. Board of Nursing granted permission for a WCU program in 1969, the same year the N.C. General Assembly appropriated money for its support.
Born May 4, 1913, in Wilmington, Mary Kneedler earned a nursing degree from Duke University in 1936, setting her on a career path to which she remained committed. She went to work as a public health nurse, driving her black Plymouth through rural Caldwell, Wake and Alamance counties to serve her patients. “When she could not reach her patients by car, Mary would walk,” according to the nomination for an honorary degree WCU awarded her in 2001. “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.” “Her heart was always with serving, especially poor people, women and children,” Antley said.
Kneedler arrived at WCU highly accomplished, having earned a bachelor’s degree in public health from 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. She directed the public health nursing section of the State Board of Health from 1954 to 1962, and in 1965 was part of a presidential panel that examined the needs of preschoolers, resulting in the formation of the Head Start early childhood program. Closer to home, Kneedler pledged the lead gift for the WCU campus childcare facility named in her honor, remarking at the center’s opening in 2002 that she’d had a life filled with “opportunities galore.”
At Kneedler’s memorial, family friend and WCU senior director of development Jim Manring ’74 MBA ’76 recalled Kneedler’s words from a decade earlier, when she was confined to a wheelchair. “Since I can no longer do, I will be,” she’d said. “I will be thoughtful and kind and generous and loving and caring.” To those who knew her, she always was.