It all started with a good book.
As an eight-year-old, Colleen Conway was a voracious reader. During the summer after third grade, she visited the Gloversville, N.Y., public library and happened across a book about a fictitious nurse named Cherry Ames.
I read the whole series that summer and was so intrigued by all the different things you could do and still be a nurse, said Colleen Conway-Welch, Ph.D., C.N.M., Nancy and Hilliard Travis Professor and Dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing. No other profession even came close in terms of adventure and flexibility.
Cherry Ames solved mysteries in the spirit of Nancy Drew, and was off to exciting new adventures in each installment. In various books, the character was a student nurse, an army nurse, a visiting nurse and on and on.
It was within these pages that Conway-Welch realized her desire to turn fiction into reality.
She was the first child born to Lorraine and Jack Conway, in Monticello, Iowa. Colleen's mother was a teacher, at first in a one-room schoolhouse and later as the owner of a nursery school. Jack was the oldest of six children. When his father died in an accident, Jack quit school at age 14 to run the family farm just outside Rochester, Minn. He eventually helped fund his siblings' college educations, though he never earned one himself.
He was a tough guy who had great respect for education, Conway-Welch said of her father. If he had an education, there was no telling what he could have done. That's probably why it was expected from the beginning that I would go to college.
The construction business took the Conway family to many different locations throughout the Midwest and Northeast. Conway-Welch recalls the year they spent on the Onondaga Indian Reservation near Syracuse, N. Y., living in a trailer while her father ran a dam project. Regardless of where they lived, Conway-Welch's education was always a top priority. Her mother talked the school administrator in Rochester, N.Y., into accepting her daughter into first grade at 5 years old. The family moved so often that, by the seventh grade, she had been enrolled in 17 different schools.
As Conway-Welch was entering her teenage years, the Conway family expanded. Sister Kathleen was born and was followed 18 months later by youngest sister Margaret. Colleen was not around much when her sisters were babies; she was figuring out her next move.
My father always told me that whatever I decided to do in life to make sure I could support myself, said Conway-Welch.
So, she entered Georgetown University School of Nursing in Washington, D.C., on a full scholarship at age 16. She thrived on change and wanted to see more of the world.
After earning her bachelor's degree, Conway-Welch was ready for more adventure.
Her original plan was to work on the medicine floor at Georgetown University Hospital, but a friend who was a labor and delivery nurse encouraged her to apply for an opening there.
I didn't really like labor and delivery then, Conway-Welch said. It was the only course I ever got a C in, but when the nurse recruiter asked for volunteers, a friend jabbed me in the ribs and I jumped. The administrator thought I had volunteered, so off I went.
She had no idea where she would end up. Her intent was to work for a year in every major city in the world. So, she went to Honolulu and worked in labor and delivery in Queen's Hospital and planned to follow that up by working in Kuala Lumpur.
Then she got a call from some friends in San Francisco who had a two-bedroom apartment with four single beds and needed a fourth roommate. There were also openings in the Presbyterian Medical Center (now called Pacific Medical Center) Emergency Room for nurses. Conway-Welch had never been to San Francisco before, so she went.
She spent several years as a nurse in labor and delivery, emergency rooms and intensive care units in many different parts of the country. During that time, she also earned her master's degree from Catholic University, trained in nurse-midwifery at Catholic Maternity Institute in Santa Fe, N.M., and earned her Ph.D. from New York University. In the early 1980s, Conway-Welch was recruited to the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver to run its nurse midwifery program.
It was very good preparation for becoming a dean, because I operated pretty independently and got very involved in the tangled web of reimbursement for nurse midwives and managing a grant budget, she said.
While in Colorado, Dean Jean Watson and Conway-Welch would discuss how education of nurses should change. They talked frequently about an accelerated master's program with emphasis on the liberal arts as well as advanced practice nursing, but both knew there would be many obstacles for a publicly funded university to make such dramatic changes.
A few years later, Vanderbilt University School of Nursing came knocking at Conway-Welch's door.
Heading to Nashville
In August 1984, Conway-Welch filled her car with most of her worldly possessions and headed for Nashville as the incoming dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing, which was on the brink of closing.
On the drive out, even I thought I was crazy for making this leap I was a divorced, Irish-Catholic, 40-year-old, female professional woman with no Southern connections or music skills, going to Nashville. It felt like an incredible risk, she said.
I cried all the way to the Kansas state line and then I told myself to suck it up. It was just another adventure, and that's exactly what I did.
In accepting the position, she had two stipulations. First, the undergraduate program would have to be overhauled. Second, the school would have to move from underneath the umbrella of the Provost and instead report directly to the Medical Center Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs, at that time Roscoe R. (Ike) Robinson, M.D.
Most of my professional work had been at medical centers, so I knew the roles and understood the politics, she said.
She thought she would serve at the school for about five years enough time to rejuvenate it with the new accelerated bridge to master's program.
Sometimes you can't do things in increments, you have to just find the window and drive the truck through it, said Conway-Welch. One of those cases was the decision by her and the Nursing School faculty not to admit freshman into the program. I woke up in a cold sweat the night before telling the registrar, but we needed to press on.
She thinks the biggest difference she has made in her professional career is developing the bridge program, where students have several different entry points toward earning their Master's in the Science of Nursing degree. Now, accelerated programs are common and flourishing.
I'm proud of doing it and proud of our faculty for taking the risk on me, said Conway-Welch. They all knew what was going to happen and they hired me anyway. However, it turned out to be the right decision.
Meeting Her Match
Nashville has had a longlasting lure for Conway-Welch because of a fateful fundraising call.
She had little fundraising experience when she came to Vanderbilt, but understood it was an important part of her position. Two months into her tenure as dean, she was ready to tackle her first fundraising visit to Ted Welch, father of a Vanderbilt nursing school student and prominent local businessman.
Conway-Welch recalls preparing in her Green Hills condo the night before. She wrote down all the key points and practiced her delivery in front of the mirror for hours.
I was willing to make the ask, but I couldn't imagine why this man would donate this substantial amount of money, she said.
Ten minutes into the meeting, Welch agreed to give the school the amount requested. Colleen thanked him, but rattled on with her presentation.
I knew nothing about closing, she said.
Their next meeting was a dinner date at Mario's.
I met Ted at Mario's at the entrance, and was escorted into a small private dining room filled with roses, candlelight and champagne, she recalls.
Their courtship ensued and the two married just three months later. The couple agreed that Colleen would resign the dean position in five years. Eight years into her tenure, Ted tore up the informal agreement and handed her the pieces.
I'd like to think that I had the good sense to know that you have to give your spouse running room to pursue the things they are passionate about, or the marriage isn't likely to work, said Welch.
Somewhere along the way, Conway-Welch also fell in love with Nashville. She has invested time and money into the community in many ways.
When Conway-Welch first came to Nashville, Ida Cooney, head of the HCA Foundation, introduced her to several people and helped her get acclimated to her new hometown. All these years later, Conway-Welch has not forgotten what it is like to be new to town. So, in honor of her now deceased friend, there are two or three Ida's Friends gatherings each year to help introduce new executive and philanthropic women to the Nashville community.
The list is constantly growing and changing. There are no bylaws, no membership, no officers and no dues, just an opportunity to network, just as Ida helped me to do, she said.
The Welches have each served on many corporate and philanthropic boards of Nashville-based organizations.
We do well together, and our worlds connect in very interesting ways, she said.
The couple is well known in Republican political circles and Ted is one of the nation's leading fundraisers for the party. Guests to their home can see virtually every table top filled with photos of the couple with Ronald Reagan, George H.W. and Barbara Bush, George and Laura Bush and members of the Tennessee Republican delegation over the years.
Because of Ted, I've learned a lot more about health care politics and how to get things done, she said.
Even though they are strong supporters of the Republican Party, the Welches make an even greater investment in various Middle Tennessee community organizations.
For instance, she chaired the board of directors of the Nashville Symphony. Welch helped lead efforts to build the Schermerhorn Symphony Hall, knowing that he couldn't ask others for financial contributions unless he and his wife did so first.
Stories about Conway-Welch's personal generosity abound at the School of Nursing. Only a small fraction of the examples are ever shared publicly. Perhaps one of the most telling is her friendship with Betty Holt, a member of the environmental services staff. When Holt's mother was dying, Conway-Welch provided counsel.
She listened for a long time and told me what to expect, so I could prepare myself. She served as my nurse, my friend and my consultant, said Holt. And when my mother passed, Colleen made sure she sent the biggest wreath to the service with a big black and gold bow.
The two have shared good times as well, such as when Holt's oldest grandson graduated college. Conway-Welch borrowed the graduation pictures for a few days so she could have them enlarged and framed as a gift.
Just a few weeks ago, she surprised Holt with a pair of Tennessee Titans tickets for this fall's game against the Minnesota Vikings. Holt and her daughter were delighted to see the game just six rows up from the field.
It touches my heart to think of her as a national leader and at the same time know that she cares about me as a person, said Holt.
Conway-Welch strives for a healthy work/life balance by enjoying her life outside of the dean's office.
She's a big believer in adopting pets in pairs so they have playmates. When Ted and Colleen married, she adopted two cats from the Nashville Humane Association.
Today, their lives include 10-year-old Heidi, a German shepherd, who they both cherish, and cats Boots and T.C. (short for Ted's Cat).
She is always very kind and tender and picks up every animal she sees, even a wounded bird, to see if they can be resurrected, said Welch.
One rainy night about 10 years ago, Conway-Welch saw a stray dog at the U.S. 70 South/Hwy 100 split. She took him in that night and brought the dog to work the next morning.
She spread the word that if anyone wanted to adopt this dog, she would pay for its veterinarian bills for the rest of the dog's life, which she has done. Herb Gentry, who has since retired from the school, adopted Buster and the two are inseparable.
Conway-Welch's weekends include Vanderbilt and Titans home games and heading out to dinner and a movie on Friday nights.
We like to unwind at the movies, so the only criteria for the movie is that it doesn't require more than one synapse to understand, said Conway-Welch.
While her roots are firmly in Nashville, Conway-Welch and her husband are avid travelers. Her favorite vacations are either skiing or scuba diving. Recently the couple traveled with friends to Bonaire in the Caribbean. Ted likes relaxing vacations, and Colleen likes being on the go, so often they compromise and go on cruises.
Although Conway-Welch has no plans to retire, she could imagine heading to Harvard to get a mediation certificate one day and working as a part-time mediator.
She has a list of places where she wants to immerse herself for months at a time, such as France, Vietnam and Italy. Maybe she will even resume the flying lessons she took as a teenager.
One thing is certain; Conway-Welch will always borrow a line from the pages of Cherry Ames Student Nurse and look into the exciting unknown future that stretches ahead of her.©2016 Vanderbilt University Medical Center