NARROWSBURG, NY — Irma Schilling took her first breath on February 28th, 1927. Since then, she has had a rich 95 years of life and a whopping 70-plus years of public service-driven …
NARROWSBURG, NY — Irma Schilling took her first breath on February 28th, 1927. Since then, she has had a rich 95 years of life and a whopping 70-plus years of public service-driven work.
Schilling is a proud New Jersey native, born in Paterson and growing up in Hawthorne, close to New York City. “It was very nice to grow up in a nice little town,” she said.
Ever since she was a child, she knew what profession called to her.
“From the time I found out what a nurse did, I wanted to be a nurse,” she said. As a little girl, “every time we went by a hospital, I would look to see if I could see a nurse in her cap.” She would play make-pretend with “sick” dolls as a child, and she would go out and collect peppermint from the garden to make tea to “cure” them. Her grandmother made her a cap.
“When Pearl Harbor took place, we were 14,” Schilling said. “The call went out for nurses [to serve abroad in the war] and the hospitals were stripped of their bedside nurses.”
Since the country was also suffering from the Great Depression and many people did not have the money to fund their own schooling, the government formed the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps, which paid for tuition, housing, training, and food to become a registered nurse. Schilling attended a three-year course for hospital nursing and graduated from St. Joseph’s Hospital in Paterson; she also received conferment for her associate’s degree along the way.
“If you weren’t in the classroom, you were on the floors working,” she said of the active training.
Schilling wanted to work in the operating room. She reminisced about one surgeon who had critiqued her form when handing off instruments in surgery. “He said, ‘Stop right there. When I ask for an instrument don’t hand it to me, HAND it to me!’” She mimed a firm motion into her hand. “Boy did he get it slammed. I slammed everything,” she joked. “I really enjoyed it,” she said of her time nursing.
Schilling said an added bonus at the time was the street clothes provided to the nurses, “designed by top designers in the country.” The winter garb had a heavy, long wool coat, with a light two-piece woolen dress underneath, and a beret with a special pin on it. The summer outfit was a striped gray-and-white seeksucker dress with a gray fedora with a red ribbon around it, and the pin.
At the beginning of her nursing time during the war, they were paid $15 a month. “During the last six months, we got $30 a month,” Schilling said. “We were very lucky.”
After the war, Schilling worked in her local New Jersey hospital, and also here for seven years at Ellen Memorial Health Care Center in Honesdale, PA. Her nursing work was “piecemeal,” she said—she worked in between having seven children, four boys and three girls, the oldest of whom is now 72, and the youngest 57.
Schilling now lives in Cochecton, NY, and said she and her family initially moved here from their five acres in New Jersey because they “wanted more land.”
In Sullivan County, Schilling became involved with the library, though she said, “I’m still a nurse—you don’t lose it.” On top of Schilling’s 40 years in nursing, she has worked another 31 with the Sullivan County library system. She currently works between the Callicoon and Tusten-Cochecton branches.
She spoke about the process of opening the Tusten-Cochecton branch. “When you start a library, you need to be a reading center for five years,” she said, noting that the branch there had started in a small storefront. When they saw the current building the library is in, “We had all this shelf room and we said, ‘How are we going to fill this up?’ You turned around and it was full, and now there’s never enough room.”
Schilling sat amidst her regular Monday-night routine: the knitting circle takes place in the main room of the Tusten-Cochecton library. The other attendees chatted with her and commented on her stories as if they were familiar companions.
Schilling’s grandmother had been a dressmaker’s apprentice and sewed her own clothes. “It’s always fascinated me,” she said of spinning yarn. Schilling not only attends the Monday night knitting circles, but is also a member of the Woodland Weavers and Spinners Guild, which meets monthly in Damascus. Schilling brings out a material she is excited about: recycled cashmere yarn.
“Oh, it’s so fast,” she said when asked how 95 years felt. “I just think of my parents and all that they saw,” Schilling said, thinking of the changes in the world that occur in a lifetime. “They were born in 1901 and 1903.” Her mother’s family was of French descent, and her father’s family Hungarian.
Schilling attributes good fortune to her long years. “I’ve just been very fortunate I’ve stayed healthy. I don’t have any plans; I just take each day as it comes. I’m lucky I have so many good friends.”
The light dimmed outside the library as Monday’s knitting club came to a close. Amidst the talking, the librarians reminded everyone that the library was closing in five minutes. Schilling, humble and respectful but also humorous, exclaimed, “Oh my, it’s five to eight, we’ve gotta get out of here!”
She packed up her yarn and the cup she’s been drinking from, and eco-consciously said, “I’m taking my green cup and I’m saving it for next week. I don’t like to throw things out,” as she tucked it into her bag.
Through lives she has cared for or books she has helped make accessible in the library, Schilling has touched many facets of the community for years to come.
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here