NEW YORK NURSE: January/February 2012
In celebration of Black History month, and the twentieth anniversary of her passing, we offer this excerpt from the February 1999 issue of Report, which profiled one of NYSNA’s most dynamic and beloved members, Maggie Jacobs.
NYSNA members can point with pride to a multitude of African-Americans who served as role models or achieved “firsts” for African-American nurses in New York. But there may be none more fondly remembered than NYSNA’s first African-American secretary, Maggie Jacobs.
Jacobs, bargaining unit chair at Kings County Hospital Center from 1977 until her death from breast cancer in 1992, was a leader in a wide variety of political, civic, neighborhood and church organizations, to which she brought energy, commitment, and a style both endearing and unforgettable.
Those who knew her recall a personality and a way of communicating that captured people’s attention. She spoke in soft, measured tones that distinguished her from the sometimes raucous discussions of others, but her very quietness was what commanded attention. And at meetings, she often spoke last.
Juanita Hunter, the first African-American president of NYSNA, says that Jacobs “came to every meeting prepared, with relevant information at hand. She took good notes, and when she spoke, always synthesized everything said earlier.”
By all accounts, Jacobs chose her mentors well. Hunter believes she watched Cathryne Welch, then executive director of NYSNA, and learned negotiating skills from her.
Jacobs was elected chair of the Executive Council of Nursing Practitioners employed by New York’s Health and Hospitals Corporation (HHC). This made her the leader of some 6,000 RNs, who comprised the largest exclusively-RN bargaining unit in the nation. “Cathryne Welch knew the citywide issues affecting all 20 hospitals in New York’s Health and Hospitals Corporation (HHC),” Hunter says. “Maggie went to HHC meetings with Cathryne, and she learned from her how to negotiate in the big city system.”
“She had a unique perspective,” Hunter recalls. “Maggie always was for the staff nurse, but she could communicate with top management, and command their attention and respect as well. She had a quiet, slow manner of speaking, as if she were teaching you something. We all learned from her.”
Welch agrees. “I was able to see and hear how nurse managers at Kings County spoke of Maggie” Welch said. “They had the greatest respect for her. And the same applied to her fellow NYSNA Board members. She was a role model for all of us.”
Descriptions of Jacobs inevitably include the words, “presence,” “dignity,” “nobility,” and “authority.” Welch, now executive director of the Foundation of NYSNA, put it perhaps most tellingly: “Maggie wasn’t tall, but you thought she was tall.”
Jacobs could explain persuasively why nurses should belong to NYSNA rather than the American Federation of Teachers, when Albert Shanker tried to get HHC nurses to join his union. She could rally HHC nurses to picket, protest and leaflet to get the attention of the New York City media.
In the fall of 1991, just a few months before her death, NYSNA presented Jacobs with its highest award—Honorary Recognition. When she died in January of 1992, it was a shock to almost everyone, because Jacobs, typically, had kept her own problems very private. She lived with her mother to the end of her life, and served as a role model for her brother Bobby’s two daughters, Adriane and Lisa, and for his son, Kenny. But other than them and a few others, no one knew how ill Jacobs was.
Did Maggie Jacobs have a special influence on African-American nurses? It seems as though the answer would have to be “no.” Those who knew her are unanimous that Jacobs influenced all nurses for the better. Her desire, as described to her friends, seems to have been granted: she is remembered as a strong advocate for the people.