Special to South Florida Times
MIAMI — All Willie Pearl Porter ever wanted to be was a nurse, even though, as she was growing up, her mother told her nurses were nothing more than “glorified maids” and she didn’t want her daughter becoming one.
"Momma wanted me to be a teacher because, back then, it was the teachers and the preachers who had the respect of the community," Porter recalled in a recent interview.
But one day, when Porter was a senior in high school, a nurse came to speak to her home economics class. "I remember how beautiful she looked in her white uniform and cap," Porter said. “She wore a beautiful blue cape over her uniform. I told her what my dream was and she recommended the Freedman's School of Nursing at Howard University and said that was a great place to study nursing.”
The rest, as they say, is history – really history. Porter went on to become a well respected nurse and educator who remains satisfied with her career choice as she celebrates her 100th birthday this week.
On Saturday, family and friends will honor Porter at a gala birthday party at the Miami Shores Country Club.
The third of seven children born to Willie and Pearl Kelker in Milton, Porter graduated from Washington High School in Pensacola in 1933.
Going against her mother’s wishes, she applied to Howard University’s nursing program and was accepted. "When I went to Washington, it was my first time ever leaving home," she recalled as she sat in the Florida room of her Northwest Miami-Dade home and reflected on her younger days.
Despite her displeasure, Porter’s mother supported her daughter in college, sending her a box from home once a week and keeping her up-to-date on the happenings in her community with weekly letters. "I never had a chance to get homesick," Porter said with a chuckle.
Porter graduated as a registered nurse in 1935 and began her career as a public health nurse in 1937 in Washington, D.C., where Howard University is located.
She was later appointed supervisor of nurses at then Florida A&M College Hospital in Tallahassee, a job she said she didn't want to take at first. "Once I got there, I had to change a lot of things. They had the nurses in the hospital doing everything but nursing. They really were glorified maids,” she said.
That all changed when Porter took over and the nurses began to receive the respect they deserved.
While at the college —now a university — Porter also continued her studies, earning a Bachelor of Science in sociology. She went on to earned a Master of Science in medical and surgical nursing at Indiana University in Bloomington.
It was while in Tallahassee that she met the late Gilbert Porter. They married in 1939.
Kansas-born Gilbert Porter distinguished himself as an educator and labor leader who became the first full-time paid executive secretary of the Florida State Teachers Association. When the association merged with the Classroom Teachers Association, he moved to Miami as special assistant to the Miami-Dade school superintendent, retiring in 1973. He died in 1995.
After the Porters moved their family in 1965 to Miami, Willie Porter became a member of the nursing staff at the now defunct Christian Hospital. She quit that job to join the Mount Sinai Hospital staff as the first African American to serve as an instructor in its school of nursing. When Mount Sinai closed its nursing school, Porter became a teacher at Miami Jackson High School and at Miami Senior High school. She retired in 1973.
Porter’s honors are many, since she has always been active in the community and has served on several boards. She is a member of several nursing organizations, including the National Black Nurses Association. She also is a member of the Florida A&M University Alumni Association, Freedman's Hospital School of Nursing Alumni, Family Christian Association and other social and civic organizations, including Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority. She is a longtime member of The Church of the Incarnation.
On her 90th birthday, Porter established the Willie Pearl Porter Nursing Scholarship Fund, designed to help high school students who are pursuing a degree in nursing. To date, eight $1,000 scholarships have been awarded.
The by-invitation-only birthday party for Porter is being given by her daughter Laurestine Porter and son Albert. Her only grandchild, Crystal, will serve as mistress of ceremonies.
How has she been able to live for a century?
Porter smiled at the question and said, "Well, I am a nurse. I knew how to live well and eat right."
Then she added that it’s in the genes: Her mother lived to be 107.
Photo: Photo Courtesy of Porter Faimly
Nurse then: Willie Pearl
Retired now: Willie Pearl