Gwendolyn Atkins spent a lifetime binding bruises, checking blood pressures, teaching teenage mothers, immunizing children, setting up makeshift clinics, soothing seniors’ stress, encouraging and loving patients as a public health nurse in Sarasota County. The woman of faith, educator, healthcare advocate, and sorority sister transitioned Saturday night while recovering from surgery.
Atkins will always be “the community’s nurse.” The line between work and play often blurred. Being on call, accessible and available was her norm.
During an oral history interview for the Newtown Conservation Historic District Project the 81-year old described growing up “in the country,” in a tiny Georgia town called Boston, near Thomasville. Her parents Willie Lee Crosby and Willie McKeever worked the fields sharecropping but prepared their daughter for college.
As a Florida A&M University student, Atkins focused on nursing, but participated in campus activities, including marches for civil rights. “The governor would call FAMU’s president asking him to keep the students on campus, but he couldn’t,” she recalled.
The 1964 FAMU graduate met her husband, Henry C. Atkins, also a FAMU alumnus and joined him in Sarasota to begin a family and career.
The young registered nurse landed a job at Sarasota Memorial Hospital the same year. From maternal child health to medical, surgical, psychiatric and pediatric nursing, she rotated through departments before passing the state exam. At the time, African American nurses and patients were located in a separate wing of the hospital, called “One North.”
“I chose public health nursing,” said Atkins proudly. She joined the Sarasota County Health Department in 1966 and was assigned the Newtown district. Atkins walked door-todoor in public housing complexes checking on patients. “We did comprehensive nursing care. I treated everyone in the home who was ill.”
Nearly ten years later, the health care provider became a senior supervisor in the department managing a mostly white staff of nurses and aides. Janet Headley, who relocated from Indiana, was a team member on her staff. Headley worked in Augustine Quarters, Project Lane, the Leonard Reid area and the migrant camp off Fruitville Road. “We hit it off and talked about everything. I learned everything I knew about people of color from Gwen. She knew I loved people. We were always so close,” Headley said. Even after hours, the nurses shared family time.
From 1983 – 1994 and again from 2000 to 2004, health department director and medical executive director Dr. Mark Maggenheim was Nurse Atkins’ supervisor. “She was a take charge, super nurse who seemed to find a way to get anything done despite obstacles. She was an inspiration to those of us in public service,” Maggenheim said.
After 33 years in public health, Atkins officially retired in 1995. The transition was anything but a traditional retirement. “I do a lot of volunteering; and even though I’m not practicing as a professional, I’m still available to the people. I want to be available anytime anyone calls me,” she said describing her daily routine.
And she meant every word. Newtown resident Raymel Grimes called her with healthcare questions. “She was always willing to volunteer information and resources,” Grimes said.
“She was a paragon of living one’s faith through action,” said Dr. Lisa Merritt. “Gwen took care of us all. She was my dear friend.” Together the pair planned hundreds of workshops, organized healing circles and monthly discussions about health issues through the Multicultural Health Institute. Atkins was a voting rights advocate for Suncoast Women of Action, and an avid volunteer for candidates running for local, state, and national elections.
She walked for the Sarasota Unit of the American Cancer Society, served on the board at J.H. Floyd Sunshine Manor, fundraised for the FAMU Alumni Association, the Bradenton/ Sarasota (Fl) Chapter of The Links, Incorporated, Habitat for Humanity and Lambda Omicron Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. “Soror Gwen was always responsible, always dependable. She worked on political action projects and was our number one, go-to person on AKA health initiatives,” said the sorority’s president Dr. Gloria Armstrong. “Gwen raised the bar for our work with Habitat for Humanity and used her extensive nursing background to work on numerous health projects. She always exuded the beautiful spirit of friendship and service,” said Links president Doris Johnson.
“She was certainly a shining light in the community,” said her colleague Veavie DeLaughter. “She never said ‘no.’”
Committed to health, wellness and prevention, Atkins will be celebrated by family members, friends, former patients and colleagues for her work as a community nurse, whose job was wrapped in purpose and passion.
The Celebration of Life for Gwendolyn Atkins is 2 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 12 at Light of the World International Church, 3809 Chapel Drive in Sarasota.