By Geoff Cantrell


In 1969, on the eve of a new decade and with a newfound sense of promise on campus, Western Carolina University began what would become its School of Nursing.

Nursing, as a profession, is an in-demand and challenging career. To be a nurse requires specialized skill sets and aptitudes, and a high level of learning – plus a license to practice. A half-century after beginning its nursing program, WCU has more than 2,000 alumni who practice in clinical and leadership roles nationwide and now offers undergraduate and graduate degrees as well as a doctor of nursing practice degree.

“This is a proud moment,” said Tony Roberson, School of Nursing director since August 2017, noting that WCU’s nursing curriculum is recognized nationally and internationally.

This institutional milestone of preparing generations of nurses for a role that is vital to primary care, surgical care and intensive care ― the key word being care ― will be celebrated throughout 2019-20, with a series of events in the fall and spring semesters.

The program’s first graduating class in 1973 numbered 16. The cliché of “humble beginnings” could apply in hindsight, but then, as now, the quality of nursing instruction at WCU was top-notch, alumni say. The program has grown and expanded exponentially in the decades since, but the fundamentals are still in place, with a reputation built on results.

“I was very fortunate to have a great mom who wanted to ensure I chose a strong nursing program,” said Sherry Peel ’85, Duke Anesthetic Center administrator. “In the early ’80s my mom called the North Carolina Board of Nursing to inquire about bachelor of science in nursing programs and learned WCU was in the top five for board passing rates. Once I came to tour WCU, there was no other school I wanted to attend. Western was the only college that I applied to.”

Mary Knecht ’86, who works at Asheville Eye Associates, called Jacques a steady influence in the program, someone who encouraged and helped individuals, just as she steered curriculum and advanced the profession.

“She was so nice to let me back in the program after I had stayed out a year,” Knecht said. “She was so important to me and the program at the time.”

Jacques taught nursing at WCU for 36 years. She served as director for the Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing Degree Program and is the namesake for a scholarship available to outstanding students enrolled in the RN to BSN Program.


Roots in the 1960s

The foundations of the nursing school go back to 1965, when Mary Kneedler, a WCU faculty member and registered nurse, was tasked with chairing a committee to conduct a feasibility study about the potential of adding a nursing program. When the program started, Kneedler was the logical choice to lead it. She was a nurse and knew from the study the immediate and long-term program needs. Perhaps most importantly, she knew what initial course offerings would attract students.

Katie Kalarovich ’73, WCU’s Mary Kneedler Distinguished Professor of Nursing and the School of Nursing clinical placement coordinator, was a member of that first graduating class. “From the time I was 5 years old and stood on a stool, feeding my sick grandfather ice cream, I knew I would be a nurse,” said Kalarovich, a first-generation college graduate.

Kalarovich’s career has held many highlights, including establishing Jackson County’s first high-risk perinatal clinic, working as risk and claims manager with St. Joseph’s Hospital in Asheville, establishing a private legal nurse consulting business and serving on a legal firm’s litigation team, where she pioneered the nurse-paralegal role.

Since 2015, she has served as WCU’s clinical site coordinator,

Mable Carlyle ’73, also part of that first graduating class and later a faculty member, agreed with Jacques’ assessment of Kneedler’s impact.

“Mary was the right person at the right time,” Carlyle said. “There had been such a positive response from the community to starting a baccalaureate nursing program, and she was influential in how it came about. She was well respected and got things done.”

Carlyle remembers those earliest days of the program as exciting, challenging and rewarding, with colleagues socializing and learning the expectations of nursing, although she says she stood apart.

“It was all young people, except for one, and that one was me,” she said. “I was an RN living in Black Mountain with four children, commuting to Cullowhee. It gave me a different perspective, but we all shared similar goals.”

From its beginning, rural health needs have been a local consideration for the nursing program, not only as an opportunity for clinical training, community service and outreach, but for future employment opportunities.

“Harris Regional Hospital and Swain Community Hospital are honored to celebrate the successes of WCU’s School of Nursing,” said Lucretia Stargell, vice president of business and service line development for the Duke LifePoint Hospitals. “This important anniversary demonstrates WCU’s commitment to training generations of nurses, caring for our communities and strengthening the local economy through dedication to a discipline rooted in human compassion.”

This article originally appeared in Western Carolina Magazine.