Johanna Powals Clark

Date in History: 1878 – 1969

She was small in size but large in everything that mattered. She was quiet in manner but commanding as an advocate for children. She was modest in character but at her death the Jefferson County Union’s editorial page called on our local school board to name a future school building in her honor. She was Johanna Powals Clark, beloved school nurse and public health advocate whose compassion for people in times of sickness and need was the central tenet of her life.

Johanna Powals was born in Fort Atkinson in 1878. After graduating from high school, she enrolled at the Nursing School of Marquette University. When Johanna arrived on campus, the program director saw only her small 4’ 8″ frame and encouraged her to quit since she’d never be able to move a patient. But Johanna excelled at her studies and graduated as the salutatorian of the class of 1900.

Her first job was at the National Soldiers Home in Milwaukee where she cared for Civil War and Spanish-American War veterans. In 1903 she married David Clark and spent the next two decades focused on her growing family. When her husband died in 1921 at age 46, she became the sole support for her three surviving children David 15, Betsy 12, and Robert 5. Interest and necessity had conspired to plunge her back into nursing.

This time she trained with the Wisconsin Anti-Tuberculosis Association (WATA) in Milwaukee before taking a job with the board of health, travelling the backroads of the state on a bus checking on the health of rural children. But the children she cared about most were back in Fort Atkinson so when the school nurse position opened up Johanna took the job. And the office of school nurse would never be the same.

When she started in 1923 she immediately noticed that there were a number of children with crippling injuries who received no attention. She contacted county officials and her efforts resulted in an all-day, countywide Orthopedic Clinic for these children. Speech clinics and eye clinics soon followed. Johanna established programs for corrective dental work for poor children, helped motherless families with budgets and menus, and supervised children in foster care. She could be found teaching infant care and first aid in the schools during the day and mothers’ classes in the evenings.

Concerned with the lighting in the schools, she had electrical engineers from Marquette University inspect the buildings and make improvements. Likewise she used her WATA contacts to get their physicians here to hold the first school screening for tuberculosis. She financed many of these activities by cajoling local doctors and dentists to donate their services and appealing to other local organizations like the women’s club which turned over the proceeds of their annual rummage sale to Johanna’s use. Of course it helped that she was also Home Services Chairman of the local Red Cross chapter and had been since 1917, the leader of the local Salvation Army, and chairman of the local Public Health Association.

But more memorable than the breadth of her activities was her enduring compassion and kindness, traits which were later noted in every tribute and remembrance. Upon her retirement in 1952 the community feted her for her many years of service. The Lion’s Club bestowed their Distinguished Service Award on her noting that her “many acts of kindness in times of sickness and need are locked in the hearts of countless community residents.” Articles, honors, and a special municipal dinner acknowledged her accomplishments, but perhaps the most meaningful tribute was from the students themselves, who dedicated the 1952 yearbook to “the one woman we will never forget.”

Johanna continued her volunteer activities after retiring, with caring for others never from her mind. Indeed even as she got older, she told friends that she hoped she could live in a church nursing home “on a working basis.” Johanna Clark died in 1969 at the age of 91. A memorial written by her children reflected a busy life of work. “She liked houses that looked lived in, shoes and clothing that looked worn, hands that showed accomplishment . . . doing not folding.”

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