Brandon psych nurse graduates still close 55 years later

1963 and 1964 graduates of the Brandon Hospital for Mental Diseases' (Brandon Mental Health Centre) School of Nursing continue to get together decades after becoming psych nurses. About two dozen gathered at a reunion in the city on Aug. 17.

An individual’s college experience can lead to life-long friendships, but the bond developed by a group of psychiatric nurses educated at the Brandon School of Nursing in the early 1960s is peculiar in the breadth of people who seem to have maintained contact with each other.

More than a half-century after completing their education, the school’s graduating classes of 1963 and 1964 met at the Victoria Inn in Brandon on Aug. 17. Now in their 70s and 80s, the Brandon Hospital for Mental Diseases (Brandon Mental Health Centre) School of Nursing classmates are spread across the country, but have held the connections they developed for decades. The 1963 class contained 26 graduates out of the 43 students who started the year. The next year, 27 out of 34 students reached graduation. 

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Fifty-four years later, roughly half the members of the two classes attended the recent reunion, the fifth in a series of gatherings they have held since the 1990s. A total of 26 students, their spouses and teacher Terry Gibson were in the city for the event from as far away as Montreal, Qué. and White Rock, B.C.

“I haven’t missed any of them (reunions),” said nursing graduate Helen Fawcett, who now lives on a farm near Moosomin, Sask. “It’s just nice to get together with them all and reminisce and the rest of that kind of stuff.” 

Fawcett could not explain why the group has been so tight knit through the years. With the distractions of career and family, most high school or college classmates lose touch with each other, only connecting on a small-chance encounter.

However, this group of nursing students seems to have bonded in a way that withstands time and distance. Fawcett was a resident of the women’s living accommodations provided at the school. She said this strengthened her relationships with her classmates, being that it was her first experience being independent after leaving her childhood home. 

“With the different reunions we’ve had, that bond has kind of increased and made us appreciate each other more,” said Fawcett. “We’ve known each other about 57 years now and that’s a long time to keep in touch. I think there just must have been some special bonding that happened between us.”

In some cases, their shared experience led to marriage. Brandon residents Larry Couling (Class of 64) and Jean Couling (Class of 63) were one of six couples formed from their experience at the Brandon School of Nursing. 

“It really was a tight knit group, but I don’t know why,” Larry Couling said. “Everybody seems to be in the same age group and we all got along. There are a few of us still living around Brandon and we are still good friends who visit back and forth.”

Like Fawcett, Couling loves the reunions for their opportunity to bring up memories. 

“Everybody has their own lives and are interested in what’s happening to each other, but I guess the memories tie us together and we’re quite tight knit, so we’ll just sit and chat and talk and have a bunch of laughs,” Couling said. “We ask, ‘Can you remember this?’ or ‘Can you remember that?’ It was kind of a unique place, too, because 43 of us started. Some lasted one day while others lasted a week or two, but only 26 graduated. Not everybody could just walk in and work there.”

“It really was a tight knit group, but I don’t know why. Everybody seems to be in the same age group and we all got along. There are a few of us still living around Brandon and we are still good friends who visit back and forth.” – Larry Couling, Class of '64

The Brandon School of Nursing

Although the Brandon Hospital for Mental Diseases has a history that stretches back to 1890 when it was established as a reformatory for boys, the institution’s School of Nursing was founded in 1921 and began offering courses the following year. The first students in the graduating class of 1923 are considered the first to obtain a diploma in Mental Nursing in Western Canada.

The diploma course was lengthened to three-years in 1930. This continued until 1986, when community-based care caused the phasing out of many services provided by the facility. At this time, the Brandon School of Nursing was incorporated into the Brandon University’s School of Nursing, where a two-year Post-Diploma Degree in Nursing and Mental Health was offered. 

The hospital became the Brandon Mental Health Centre in 1972, which was closed entirely 27 years later. Today, the Assiniboine Community College uses the facility’s infrastructure. The former nurses’ residence contains the college’s Manitoba Institute for Culinary Arts and other buildings are also being utilized for other educational programming.

The Brandon School of Nursing’s Class of 63 and 64 reunion included a tour of the former Brandon Mental Health Centre, where Fawcett, Couling and their classmates walked around the grounds, the hospital and an area set aside as a museum for the historic institution. 

“I retired in 1994 and Jean retired in 1997. We don’t miss it because we had other things to do, but I really enjoyed my time when I worked there,” said Couling, who began his education in 1960, but fell back to the 1961 class after he experienced an accident.

“I enjoyed the patients and had some very good friends. My wife feels the same way. She quit and raised the family at different times, but she worked a lot of part-time hours the last 18 years.” 

Couling noted that a younger graduating class from the School of Nursing held a 10-year reunion. Three students attended, putting an exclamation point on the exceptional relationships created within the Classes of ’63 and ’64.

“We were all so close,” he said.

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