Virginia A. Lucas, RN
Professor Virginia Lucas, Nu’55 and GNu’63, established a new scholarship at Penn Nursing in 2018. The Virginia A. Lucas Endowed Scholarship Fund provides financial support to an undergraduate in the School of Nursing with a preference for students from Italy and students of Italian heritage.
Virginia Lucas comes from a family of nurses. Three of her aunts were nurses in the field of public health, and she was always exposed to nursing as she was growing up. Of course, Virginia’s main concern was being able to have a career—and there weren’t many careers available to women in the 1950s. “Nursing was one of the few professions open to me,” Virginia says. “So that’s what I chose.”
Penn Nursing was established as an independent School at the University of Pennsylvania in 1950, making Virginia—who graduated from the BSN program in 1955—among the first groups of women to graduate, and one of the few women in the United States with a Bachelors degree. “There were 22 women in my class when I started as a student,” she says. “And I have to give Penn Nursing credit—my education really prepared me the hard work of nursing.”
Post-graduation, Virginia spent several years as a visiting nurse in Philadelphia before doing clinical work at a few local hospitals, including Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Jefferson, gaining experience in physical rehabilitation and working as a medical-surgical nurse. To further her knowledge, Virginia earned a Masters degree from Penn Nursing in 1963. “At Children’s Hospital I worked with a doctor doing brain surgery there,” Virginia says, “so I had a great deal of experience in that area. Between that and all that I learned about disabilities rehabilitation, well—I didn’t realize it, but I was preparing for the next chapter in my career.”
That chapter was serving in the Air Force as a flight crew nurse in Vietnam. In 1965, when Virginia was 34, she enlisted—just as the United States increased its involvement in the conflict.
“You could not join the service after the age of 35,” Virginia says. “I just made it in before the deadline. I decided to enlist because I was familiar with rehabilitation—I worked with people with brain injuries, limb injuries—and let me tell you, most of the other nurses were in their twenties. I served in Vietnam for about ten years, and I was one of the most experienced nurses—not just because of my age but because of my education and career experiences.”
She adds, “I knew what was going on, how to respond, and that was a great big help to me in Vietnam.”
To the injured men she helped as they were airlifted out of the field, it wasn’t just Virginia’s skill as a nurse that saved their lives and soothed their souls. “I would sometimes have a chance to talk to the injured soldiers for a short period of time,” she says. “They were on the aircraft, and maybe they were paralyzed—there were all very young, 17, 18, 19, and 20, and they realized that there would be problems. They were always worried about their sex lives. I’d tell them there was hope, that there were things that could be done.”
She spent ten years as a flight crew nurse in Vietnam, saving the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of young men. She retired from the Air Force, having achieved the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
Virginia took advantage of the GI Bill to earn a degree in Education from Columbia University, to prepare her for the next phase of her life. This endeavor, she says, was her best career choice. She became an educator, teaching nursing at Mercer County College in New Jersey. “I’m very fortunate,” she says. “Community colleges were just starting to really grow at that time. I love everything about teaching—the students, you’re always up to date on things, you’re active. It’s fun.”
It is Virginia’s love of teaching and her stellar educational experiences that led her to establish a scholarship at Penn Nursing. “When I was teaching,” Virginia says, “I’d see students needing help to afford school. Anytime I heard of a student who needed a scholarship, I’d do all I could to help them go after it. I’ve always been interested in education. And, of course, I established the scholarship as a way to honor my mother and father. They’d be thrilled that I’m able to do this—because education was just as important to them.”
It was also after Virginia’s retirement from the military that she started traveling more often and developed an interest in race-walking. “I’ve raced in Sweden—where I came in second—Germany, England, and the U.S. I won the Atlantic City Marathon when I was 46. A few months ago—I’m 87 now—I went on a walking trip to Italy. There was this one day, the trip leader announced that the next place we were going, you could do a three-mile walk to the restaurant. He asked if anyone wanted to go. My hand was the first one up. When we got back, this woman wanted to know how I could walk those three miles. She went on and on. Finally, I told her, ‘I want you to know I happen to be a competitive race-walker.’ I told her all the places I’ve race-walked. No one can tell me I can’t do something. If I say I can do it, I do it. Watch me.”
And that’s what Virginia’s legacy at Penn Nursing is all about—her “watch me” attitude to any challenge.