1916 - 1988

Photo courtesy of Eva Willamson

Cleny Renfroe's grave in Memory Hill Gardens Cemetery , Tuscaloosa, Alabama
by Eva A. Williamson 

Cleny Dell Hartley was born in Akron, Alabama in 1916 to farming parents. One of eight children and a twin, she was a 1939 graduate of Bryce Hospital School of Nursing in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Cleny Hartley joined the Army Nursing Corps as a Lieutenant after graduation.

She was stationed at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia, where she met Hugh Renfroe, a Sergeant in the medical corp. They married in 1941. Constantly on the move with her Army career husband she worked as Charge Nurse, Head Nurse, Private Duty Nurse, Office Nurse, Supervisor and Director of Nursing. in Georgia at Fort McPherson Army Base, at hospitals in Alabama, and Washington State, owned her own nursing home and lived in Tokyo, Japan.

She was an energetic compassionate take-charge kind of person. She had a remarkable, but not nationally renowned, career in nursing. She never wrote a book or obtained advanced degrees, but she always worked and learned and cared. Her advance education came from the many people she met, the various jobs she had, and her employment in different parts of the United States and the Far East.

She revered her job; it was her life's work. The thought of retiring from nursing never entered her mind. After her husband's retirement from the Army, she settled into what she loved best, caring for older people and making their lives worthwhile. In 1961, she bought land and built a home for her and her husband and added six large bedrooms to the plans. She accepted six elderly couples into her "extended family nursing home" that would otherwise have to go to a traditional nursing home and be separated from each other. She felt strongly about keeping the couples together. If a mate died the remaining spouse could still remain at her home.

At her nursing home her husband took the men fishing and they planted gardens and harvested fresh tomatoes, okra, corn, butter beans, peas, string beans, cantaloupes, and watermelons. They sat under large oak trees on spacious grounds and shelled peas and butter beans, silked corn and reminisced and felt good about themselves and their accomplishments. They did old fashion canning of vegetables in fruit jars; they made homemade pickles and relish from their cucumbers and peppers. She bought two trailers to place on the property because two more couples wanted to live in her nursing home. She would have taken everyone in that asked if she were allowed, but she could only have so many residents in her care.

As she got older she felt she could do more as Director of a nursing home. This position she held from 1967 until her death in 1988. She not only directed client care, but also continued her hands on care.

"I Care" is the attitude she had in response to the many negative feelings often expressed about nursing home care. She setup and opened several nursing homes in Alabama. She wanted a more homelike atmosphere to become the lifestyle in nursing homes and she created a home for her residents. During her tenure as Director of a nursing home, the state of Alabama was ranked number one in nursing home care in the United States. Her affect on her 152 nursing home residents and what affects them, affected the average of five people in their families, making a total of 900 people she touched in just this one setting but multiplied by 21 years.

In 1988, she worked Valentines Day in the Head Nurse's place so the Head nurse could be home with her family. She carried a client's chart out to the patio of the nursing home to get fresh air while she charted, as she felt a little queasy. She ended up charting her own time of death. The entry read "11:00 AM "and a line that trailed down the page from the top left hand corner to the bottom right hand corner. She was found slumped in the chair dead from a massive coronary at the age of 71. For forty-nine years she had a tremendous impact on the recipients of her care as well as those who worked with her.

Her love of nursing inspired and motivated five nieces and ten grandnieces/nephews to become nurses. Other family members have entered health related fields to become pharmacist, nutritionist and occupational therapist. These family members have in turn impacted those in their care as a result of their role model, Cleny Renfroe.

She was passionate and dedicated to her profession and continues to be a viable influence in the future of nursing with The Cleny H. Renfroe Nursing Scholarship given yearly.