A Woman in Business – Adeline Hawxhurst

Adeline Hawxhurst’s career was almost synonymous with the growth of the Indiana Hospital.  She began working there in 1915, when suffragists were still avidly campaigning for women’s right to vote and had not yet even begun to agitate for equal employment opportunities.  The hospital itself was barely a year old.  In 1967, fifty-two years later, Miss Hawxhurst was still employed there.  Her career, spanning over half a century, illustrates how, even before the feminist thrust of the 1960s, a young local girl might rise to a position of considerable distinction, namely administrator of a vital community health center.

Adeline Hawxhurst

Adeline Hawxhurst is a native Indianan with roots going well back into the County’s past.  During the Civil War years her father’s family, under the leadership of her great-grandfather Soloman Hawxhurst, moved to Indiana from Long Island.  At the time the family operated both a paper mill off Indian Springs Road and a farm where they grew potatoes and corn, maintained a beautiful apple orchard, and raised horses. It was a small farm, but it was conveniently situated close to Indiana.  In fact, its location was familiar to many since it was adjacent to the old Hospital Road when that was the main route out of town. Route 119 simply didn’t exist in those days, and, instead of the now well-traveled auto road, railroads, and the old trolleys to Blairsville had rights-of-way over the western part of the family property.  Her father continued to live on the farm, although he himself worked at the local glass factory as a mixer.  On her mother’s side, too, her family was deeply rooted in Indiana County’s past.  Her mother, Belle Pierce, was born in Chambersville, where her father was a cobbler before he moved to Indiana.  Adeline herself grew up on the farm with her parents and loved it, but as she grew older she knew she didn’t want to look to the farm for a livelihood.

Finding an alternative, however, was not easy in those pre-World War I days.  Examples of successful career women were rare nationally much less in Indiana County.  Furthermore, except in the fields of teaching and nursing, opportunities were severely limited by the view that a woman’s place was in the home.  Fortunately, Miss Hawxhurst’s aunt, Mrs. Sue Willard, had definite ideas about careers for women.  She was already renowned locally as a social reformer (the County’s orphanage was eventually named the Willard Home in her honor). Perhaps already sensing the changes and challenges of a world opening to women, Sue Willard was convinced that women should work.  Of the opportunities then available, she “just thought office work would be the most respectable.”  Taking her advice seriously, Adeline Hawxhurst, after completing her basic education at the Model School, decided to attend Indiana Normal School because there she could enroll in the business courses.  For two years she received extensive training in bookkeeping and mathematics – both of which served her well once she started her work career in 1915 at age eighteen.

It was like a happy dream come true.  Her first job, as it turned out, was very near her home, at Indiana Hospital, which at that time was still often called the miner’s hospital or the coal company hospital.  Her aunt, who was on the Board of Directors then, heard of a vacancy there and told her niece to go for an interview.  Miss Hawxhurst was immediately hired as a bookkeeper.  However, to her surprise, she found herself totally alone in charge of a tiny office in the Iselin Building, now part of the north wing of the hospital.  Just out of school, she was responsible for providing information, admitting patients, receiving payments, and answering the telephone at what was then an already antiquated switchboard covering the five or six hospital phones.

Miss Hawxhurst recalls that admitting patients was simple yet efficient in those early days before computerized cards and nationwide insurance companies.  A new patient would be asked to pay in advance for a week’s room and board – then about $2.50 a day.  Miners, or subscription patients as they were sometimes called, merely showed their card proving that fifty cents per month had been deducted from their paycheck, and the company picked up the bill.  Ruefully shaking her head, Miss Hawxhurst particularly remembers the many accidents – mostly back injuries – which brought old-time miners to the hospital.  “The accidents – you can’t imagine how terrible they were.”  Hospital authorities, she recalls, quickly accommodated victims of any mine disaster.  As she says, “Everyone was very sympathetic when something happened in the mines.  That was a terrible thing in Indiana County.”  Yet those early days of admitting patients were not without their lighter moments, and remembering the innocence of her youth, she recalls that “the most amazing thing happened when I was so young I hardly knew what it was.  They sent me up to the third floor to admit a woman in labor.  So I got her name and everything.  I said, “Can you tell me how I can get in touch with your husband?’ and she said, ‘You can’t. I ain’t got one.’”

But gradually the school-girlishness was lost, and Adeline Hawxhurst became a business woman and a competent one at that.  She learned the routine and demands of the hospital and soon felt familiar with the personnel.  Gradually she got to know the doctors, and she remembers how, especially in those early days, they exhibited great kindness both to her and the patients.  As for the nurses, then dressed in stiffly starched uniforms that went down to the floor and covering tightly laced shoes, she “always made friends with them … although as the hospital expanded that became harder and harder to do.” From being a “more or less shy child” she gradually learned to handle people and adjust to new situations.  However, for all this work, pay was low, as it generally was for women in those days – a fact Miss Hawxhurst remembers with considerable consternation.  With something akin to disbelief she was that her starting salary was five dollars a week.

Fortunately, even from the beginning she felt that her job had many rewards.  IN fact, as she notes, “I got to like it so much I was glad that I had gotten into something like that.”  Obviously she had correctly chosen a business oriented career rather than one in nursing or teaching, neither of which had ever appealed to her temperament.  Finally her diligence had its rewards.  In 1929, she became office manager.  From 1939 on she progressed to positions as assistant superintendent, and then acting administrator when the regular administrator, Miss Lillian Hollohan, was ill.  Eventually, in 1944, she was offered the top position of hospital administrator.  It was a significant honor for as Mrs. Martha Copelli, once Miss Hawxhurst’s secretary and now administrative secretary and director of public relations, notes, “Very few women achieved this position in those days.”

Perhaps it is significant that Adeline Hawxhurst made her greatest career advancement during World War II, when women were being recognized nationally for their abilities and service to the nation.  In unprecedented numbers, women had entered the labor force and the armed services.  Certainly their abilities could not be denied and many thought their right to equal advancement should be protected. Many Democratic and Republican leaders at the national level urged the adoption of an equal rights amendment.  However, the power of traditional female stereotypes reasserted itself as Americans entered a period Betty Friedan has dubbed “the feminine mystique.”  But for Adeline Hawxhurst this was the very period when her executive abilities were being tested to their utmost, and with over twenty years of practical experience behind her, she was still far from complacent about her work.

Taking her new responsibility very seriously, she informed members of the hospital board that she not only intended to get around and meet people, but also regularly would attend seminars and institutes devoted to hospital expansion and new concepts of health care.  She took special courses in hospital administration at the University of Chicago.  As Miss Hawxhurst put it, “I didn’t want to be somebody that’s here because she was here when she was young.”  With this in mind Miss Hawxhurst in 1954 applied for admission to the American College of Hospital Administrators and, after an obligatory waiting period of two years, took its exam.  Remembering distinctly her nervousness as she sat in Atlantic City for the day-long exam and the follow-up oral interview, she notes that all aspects of hospital administration were covered.  Although she felt some anxiety during the interview because she could not guess what one of the examiners was thinking, she nevertheless remarks in retrospect, “It all went just wonderfully.”

The Indiana Hospital board and her friends were quick to applaud her achievement.  Happily recalling their enthusiasm, she notes, “They were so proud of me.” And it was obvious that they had every confidence in her.  As Martha Copelli observes, in spite of society’s reluctance to advance women to positions of authority in those days, there was never any doubt about her qualifications or abilities for “everyone looked up to her even though she was a woman.”  Miss Hawxhurst now possessed the complete authority of an executive officer, indeed, just as much authority as any man might have had.  And as her secretary recalls with a  smile, “Miss Hawxhurst was noted for speaking out.”  Asked whether she then really had run the hospital, she replied with her usual candor, “Oh, indeed I did.” Once Adeline Hawxhurst had efficiently managed a tiny office.  As administrator she just as efficiently took charge of the administration and physical plant of a large hospital complex.  Adeline Hawxhurst at age eighteen had no idea how far her career would take her.  In 1915, most women did not even begin to hope for such professional advancement, and she had been no exception.  If only her aunt could have seen it.  Sue Willard, herself so foreseeing about the status of women, would have been proud to have seen her own niece’s achievement.  But although her career could easily serve as an inspiration for feminists, it never occurred to her at the time that her success was unusual or even enviable – at least, as she comments, not until men began to seriously compete for such positions themselves.

As top administrator, Miss Hawxhurst’s duties were varied, so varied that she had accumulated considerable knowledge and diverse expertise.  She had to oversee the kitchen, the heating plant, housekeeping, fire safety, and the business office.  It was her job to “recognize when things weren’t being done” and “to see that everything was safe.”  When a problem arose, Miss Hawxhurst was called in whether it was the extraordinary, the mundane, or even the slightly comical, such as one situation in the 1950s when a few local field mice in almost Disneylike fashion decided to slip into the hospital through its unlatched doors.

From the very start of her tenure as top administrator she confronted difficult problems.  During the war years Indiana Hospital had to endure the same rationing program as the rest of the population.  Overseeing the general conduct of the kitchen service, Miss Hawxhurst encouraged the regular use of the hospital’s vegetable farm located behind the buildings.  Crises, too, had to be met.  After the Lucerne mine explosion on February 9, 1954, Adeline Hawxhurst coordinated efforts of hospital employees and professional personnel.  It is significant that the hospital received praise from both the coal company and miners’ families.

As administrator Miss Hawxhurst was significant in some permanent efforts as well. Much of her work went into the planning and completion of the 1956 wing of the hospital.  Afterward she initiated the still operative guide service manned by volunteers.  But especially, as Mrs. Copelli remarks, “Her teaching and procedures stayed, and she instilled the importance of documentation and reports.”  Hospital finances, too, received much of her attention.  This included the admittedly difficult and thankless task of negotiating with contractors as well as with hospital employees, who were, she readily admits, underpaid for years.  Another often thankless task involved her efforts to initiate social security coverage for all employees at the hospital in the early 1950s.  Needing two-thirds support of her workers, she personally addressed the employees to convince them to vote in the program.  She believed it was especially important for married women to be able to maintain such protection, but she recalls many irate husbands of nurses who angrily phoned her to protest any plan which would require their working wives to make individual contributions from their salary.

Often legal difficulties required Miss Hawxhurst’s care.  She had general responsibility for protecting patients’ hospital records.  In emergencies, she had to help evaluate problems of admitting children who were underage.  As administrator, Miss Hawxhurst found that some of the more serious problems often followed her home.  A patient wandered away, and she was called in.  A patient fell from a hospital window, and Miss Hawxhurst had to be alerted.

As one might well imagine Adeline Hawxhurst became something of a legend during her tenure in office.  Her rather tall, commanding stature and powerful position increased professionalism among subordinates throughout the hospital.  They were all too aware that she might enter any department day or night.  As Mrs. Copelli remarks, “If she had given an order to be carried out, there wasn’t a second time she had to come back to you.”  “They’d see Hawxie coming down the hall and everyone looked alert.”  Perhaps illustrative of her reputation was an incident involving three young local men who had broken a hospital rule while dating student nurses.  Advised to go to Miss Hawxhurst’s office, they later left with very sober expressions.  Mrs. Copelli remembers “the look on their faces as they left. [I don’t] think any of them ever dated anyone from the hospital again.”  But though Miss Hawxhurst had to be stern at times, Mrs. Copelli is quick to add that the warmth was there “for she is the most lovely person.” Her “concern for employees and their families” was always obvious.

As administrator, Miss Hawxhurst had to handle any and all situations from the impersonality of account books to direct confrontation with individuals.  In over fifty years at Indiana Hospital, Miss Hawxhurst had seen and coped with just about every conceivable administrative problem and had proven the competence and devotedness of a woman in an executive position.  You might even say the hospital directors had found her invaluable, for after her retirement in 1965, the Hospital Board kept calling her requesting, “Will you come back and help us out?”  Finally, she decided to return, as she put it “for two months which stretched on for one year.”

Looking back on her successful career, Miss Hawxhurst could justly feel satisfied with her work and with the growth of Indiana Hospital of which she had been so much a part.  At her retirement dinner in 1965, four hundred guests came to honor her.  In recognition of her fifty years of service to the hospital, the Board of Directors established a yearly Adeline Hawxhurst Award for a graduating student nurse.  But perhaps nothing was so illustrative of the demanding office she had filled so well as the theme chosen by the toastmaster, Richard Seifert.  Himself a hospital administrator at Lee Hospital in Johnstown, he came to the lectern carrying a basketful of occupational hats – hard-hat, fireman, cook, workman, and even a nurse’s cap.  He reminded the audience that a fine hospital administrator must wear many hats to get the job done.  It was obvious to all that Adeline Hawxhurst, the young girl from the small farm across the road, had worn many hats during her half-century career, and she had worn them well.

Miss Hawxhurst passed away on July 6, 1982 at the age of 85 and was laid to rest in the Greenwood Cemetery, Indiana, PA, which is located near the Hospital where she worked and devoted her career.