NEW YORK NURSE: July/August 2008
by Joely Johnson
In 1980, there were 34 decertification attempts against NYSNA involving 9,000 RNs. Amazingly, the association lost only two facilities and a total of 179 nurses. The knock-down, drag-out fight against 19 different labor organizations, including 1199, was led by a petite, soft-spoken nurse named Cathryne Welch, who served as NYSNA executive director from 1979 to 1984.
Welch’s professional career has spanned the field of nursing. She has held positions as staff nurse, consultant, associate director of nursing, and clinical associate in nursing education at facilities including St. Luke’s Hospital and Montefiore Medical Center. In addition to serving on NYSNA staff for 15 years, Welch has filled the roles of executive director of several other nursing organizations.
Welch was born in rural Pennsylvania, near the New York border, and got her nursing diploma from the Robert Packer Hospital School of Nursing in Sayre, Pa. She went on to earn baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral degrees from the historic Teacher’s College, part of Columbia University in Manhattan. Welch said, “That was a mind-boggling experience for a dairy inspector’s daughter.”
Her relationship with NYSNA grew out of a connection with Veronica Driscoll, who became NYSNA executive director in 1969. Driscoll and Welch had been classmates at Teacher’s College. With Driscoll at the helm, Welch was quickly recruited – she might say strongly persuaded – by her old friend to come on board as director of planning and research. “It was one of the most critically important decisions of my career,” said Welch.
Welch’s first assignment was to staff a committee to review and revise the state’s Nurse Practice Act. The group proposed very bold revisions, focusing on changes to the legal definition of nursing that would insist upon the autonomous nature of nursing and reflect the diagnostic privileges of nurses. “When the proposed legislation was introduced, it electrified the nursing community,” Welch said. “It promoted a sense of professional identity and cohesion that I wish we could duplicate today.”
After some political drama, including intense opposition from the state Medical Society and an initial veto from then-Gov. Rockefeller, the revised New York State Nurse Practice Act was approved in 1972. It has become a prototype for nurse practice acts in many other states.
Following Driscoll’s resignation in 1979, Welch was offered the role of executive director. At that time, labor unions were entering a decline. The association faced growing pressure from competing labor organizations that were anxious to remain stable by adding nurses to their constituencies.
At one point, Welch met with Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a forceful competitor, who told her they were planning to spend $1 million to decertify city nurses. “They actually attended our Convention in Syracuse and advertised a reception with shrimp and gourmet food,” Welch said. “So dedicated and committed was the Voting Body that not a single member attended their event.”
Under Welch’s leadership, the association not only survived, but thrived. By the time she stepped down in 1984, NYSNA’s membership had grown from approximately 12,000 to 30,000 members. In their farewell to Welch, the Board of Directors lauded her “strong, energetic leadership” and “selfless dedication to the profession.”
At 46, Welch moved over to become executive director of the Foundation of the New York State Nurses Association. This separate, nonprofit organization is dedicated to increasing public understanding of nursing in many ways, including through the Bellevue Alumnae Center for Nursing History and the Central New York Nurses Center for Nursing Research, both of which Welch directs. During her tenure, the Foundation has expanded its staff and the Center for Nursing History’s growing collection of historical nursing-related items (memorabilia, records, uniforms, photos, books, and other pieces) has become one of the two largest in the country.
Asked about what she sees for her future, Welch said, “I’ve been very blessed and met extraordinary people who looked out for me and provided me with opportunities. I want to do my part now to move the Foundation even farther along if I can.”
On Saturday, Oct. 4, Cathryne Welch will be honored with a gala celebration. The semi-formal reception and dinner is being sponsored by the Foundation of the New York State Nurses Association and will be held at the Sheraton New York Hotel and Towers in Manhattan. According to Susan Fraley, executive director of the Foundation, the gala is intended to honor Welch’s leadership, “which is the primary reason for the Foundation’s success and growth.”
Seating is limited and RSVPs are requested by Sept. 15. To reserve a seat or a table, contact Linda Sickler at 518.456.7858, ext. 23 or firstname.lastname@example.org.