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by Kathy Rivers | Posted on Thursday, Sep. 5, 2013 — 9:26 AM
He was a successful, self-made businessman, and she was a pioneering nurse, but the many professional accomplishments of Nancy and Hilliard Travis were eclipsed only by their ongoing generosity to the community, especially their beloved Vanderbilt.
The most recent example is a generous gift to the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing for student scholarships, and to the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt for ongoing research, both areas designated by the Travises themselves, through a bequest from their estate. The gift not only gives permanence to their legacy and dedication to Vanderbilt, it provides a significant boost to scholarship support and research in children’s health, impacting students, patients, families and society on a global level.
“Mr. and Mrs. Travis have left an indelible mark on Vanderbilt and on Nashville, continually giving of their time and financial support throughout their lives and now as part of their legacy,” said Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., vice chancellor for Health Affairs and dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “Lasting results of their generosity will provide for two noble missions; to train nursing leaders and to provide the funds necessary for our researchers to unravel the mysteries surrounding serious childhood diseases.”
The impact of prior Travis gifts to Vanderbilt include providing scholarships for 447 nursing students, bringing happiness and hope to the lives of children treated at Vanderbilt and endowing the Nancy and Hilliard Travis Chair in Nursing, which is currently held by Colleen Conway-Welch, Ph.D., C.N.M., School of Nursing Dean Emerita.
“These two remarkable people are wonderful role models for us all. They never took anything for granted, never shied away from hard work and found much joy in helping others in so many ways. Until her death last year, Nancy supported and encouraged me personally, and she was always committed to helping curious, hardworking students get a nursing education,” Conway-Welch said.
Perhaps the couple was so outwardly modest and so privately generous because each had humble beginnings. Hilliard was the oldest of three brothers raised on a farm 13 miles west of Nashville. Friends and family recall he never forgot the hardships of his youth that included living in the family’s shack and working in the fields. He also never forgot that when each of his parents got sick it was Vanderbilt Hospital that made them better.
Hilliard was smart and driven – two characteristics that served him well. He was a self-taught electrical engineer who got his start estimating and drafting for Edenfield Electric in Nashville. He and his brothers Wade and Leon founded Travis Electric just before Nashville’s big building boom in the 1950s. The men reinvested the vast majority of the business’s earnings in their new venture. The business grew its industrial and home electrical work largely through personal contacts.
Nancy Dillard was an independent young woman from Taylors, S.C. She was determined to become a nurse one day because she strongly believed health and wellness were crucial to a person’s quality of life. Her father discouraged her interests, thinking nursing was too difficult and strenuous a career, and suggested she attend a university closer to home. After her father’s death, Nancy headed to Vanderbilt, determined to become a member of the U.S. Army Cadet Nursing Corps, which had a strong foothold at the School of Nursing. She and her classmates formed life-long relationships.
“We were close because we didn’t do much other than go to school, go to church and ride the bus together. I remember my momma would send me boiled peanuts from Georgia and her mother would send her peaches from South Carolina that we both shared with our classmates,” said Martha McBurney, BSN’47. “Times were tough, and we never could have afforded to go to Vanderbilt if we weren’t in the Cadet Nurse Corps.”
Classmate Clo McGill remembers their public health assignments in Murfreesboro at the time. “We students would have our lunches packed, get in one of the school’s Fords, and drive to Murfreesboro to do prenatal visits or round up children who needed immunizations,” she said. “We would each visit families, sometimes walking one or two miles across a field to the family’s home. When we could, we would plan to meet at the side of a creek, eat our lunches together and then spend the afternoon visiting more families.”
Nancy and her classmates graduated in 1947. Since the war had ended, Nancy focused her interests in public health nursing in Nashville. She worked in the city’s health department where she made home visits as well as worked in the clinic. She later became the director of the Florence Crittendon Home.
Nancy and Hilliard both focused mostly on their careers throughout their 20s and 30s. As the story goes, they met while Hilliard was doing electrical work at the Crittendon Home where Nancy worked. The couple married in 1956. Conway-Welch recalls Nancy explaining it like this: “I’m still not sure how we decided to marry. He was a confirmed bachelor and I was a confirmed career woman, but I guess our hearts spoke up.” They settled down in a West Nashville home where they lived the rest of their lives. They enjoyed traveling together to areas of the world that neither could have imagined when they were growing up.
Nancy’s last career position was with the Methodist Publishing House where she served as the occupational health nurse from 1956 to 1963.
Meanwhile, Travis Electric had been growing along with Nashville. In a separate venture, Hilliard led the way for him and his brothers to become the first franchisees for a new restaurant called Shoney’s in East Tennessee, and it quickly grew. In 1963, Nancy and Hilliard, whom she called “Travis,” began commuting between their Nashville home and Knoxville to develop more Shoney’s restaurants in eastern Tennessee.
That’s when Nancy started volunteering at Vanderbilt and decided to spend her time trying to improve the lives of the children and families hospitalized there. “Sweetpea,” the clown persona Nancy created, was soon born. One day a week for 10 years, she dressed up, applied full makeup and joyfully acted as the colorful clown to bring smiles to the faces of the children. But it didn’t stop there.
“Nancy once told me that everybody loved Sweetpea. Even the doctors would come to Sweetpea and give her a hug,” said friend Ellen Smogur. “And Nancy loved it too because she could be funny and goofy and do things she normally couldn’t do.”
Nancy was also a devoted Vanderbilt Hospital Auxiliary volunteer and board member for a time. The group met regularly to sew items such as surgery drapes, quilts, lap ropes and bags for wheelchairs and walkers – anything they could make by hand that would help patients.
“There was an incredible goodness to the woman. She was such a special lady,” said Meredith Oates, friend and former Auxiliary volunteer.
The couple had a wonderful rhythm to their lives. Both became more involved in their local church, Bellevue United Methodist. Hilliard enjoyed following sports, particularly baseball, loved reading biographies and smoked good cigars. His businesses were growing, and Nancy was very involved in her volunteer work, which now included Alive Hospice, a nursing care organization for patients dealing with end-of-life illnesses.
It was at Alive Hospice where Nancy developed a special connection with a young Ethiopian woman with terminal stomach cancer named Abeba Yosef. She was married to a Vanderbilt postdoctoral student, and the couple had 6-year-old daughter, Mayeti. Nancy visited Abeba nearly every day, and the two developed an intense emotional bond with each other during the next six months – so much so, that as Abeba’s health worsened, she asked Nancy to help take care of Mayeti.
Hilliard was 66, and Nancy was 56 when they became “grandparents” to Mayeti following her mother’s death, welcoming her as their own. Mayeti lived with her father, but she would spend every weekend and school vacations with her new grandparents.
“Growing up with them was amazing. I spent a lot more time with them than typical kids do with their own grandparents,” said Mayeti Gametchu, who now has a family of her own. “I’m sure they had other concerns and interests, but they made me feel that I was all they cared about.”
Gametchu recalls Nancy picking her up from school still dressed as Sweetpea and enjoying the reaction from classmates and other drivers alike. She remembers as a teenager, playfully debating with Hilliard about politics and pleading with her grandfather, who felt most comfortable in blue work shirts and khakis, to buy her $80 designer jeans. He eventually gave in on the jeans.
“My grandparents were incredibly kind people, very focused on the well-being of other people. They were very nurturing, affectionate and fun loving,” said Gametchu. “My grandfather and I were particularly close and a lot alike. I remember him joking that even though we weren’t related by blood, we were both stubborn. I remember going to the local Waffle House with him on the weekends and meeting his friends.”
Nancy and Hilliard followed through on their pledge to help Mayeti throughout her lifetime, including with her education. If she could earn the grades, they would pay her tuition.
Today, Gametchu is a graduate of Williams College and earned her law degree from Harvard. She lives in Brookline, Mass., with her two young daughters, Abeba and Alice, and works for the Securities and Exchange Commission.
“I don’t think my mom ever could have imagined the degree to which they would honor their promise,” said Gametchu. “They were really amazing people – that were so much more than financial support. They completely gave their lives over to me.”
Many lives were touched by Nancy and Hilliard Travis through the years throughout Middle Tennessee. Their legacy lives on through people like Sara Doschadis, a pediatric nurse practitioner student at VUSN who recently finished her coursework.
“I admire Mrs. Travis because she knew what she wanted to do and had this drive. She made it happen,” said Doschadis. “People like her have made the nursing profession what it is today.”
Doschadis admits that in addition to receiving a Travis Scholarship, she also identifies with the Sweetpea side of Nancy Travis.
“I used to be a Child Life specialist, so Mrs. Travis dressing up as a clown for the kids stood out for me. I bet children from that time still remember Sweetpea and the nurses. Those were probably the most special things from their time at Vanderbilt,” said Doschadis.
Hilliard Travis died in 1996 and Nancy in 2012, but their ongoing commitment to research, education and their community—and their unwavering dedication to those things that were most important to them—will be long-remembered.
As Gametchu put it: “Even when I would visit my grandmother as her Alzheimer’s disease progressed, I could always get a positive reaction out of her if I mentioned Vanderbilt. Her eyes would light up and she would start smiling.”
Kathy Rivers, (615) 322-3894
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