An Unbreakable Bond
Delores Keefer Seward ’56N and Jane Strother Hill ’56N have always been more alike than different.
They both grew up in small towns and spent significant periods of their lives on family-owned farms southwest of Rochester. Spurred by an innate desire to help others, they enrolled in 1953 at the University of Rochester School of Nursing, where they first met and later became roommates. They both graduated, married, got jobs, moved away, raised children and grandchildren, returned to their hometowns, and experienced the unspeakable grief of losing a child. Through all the highs and lows, their friendship has endured for nearly 70 years.
It was a friendship that almost wasn’t to be.
Reminiscing with Seward in the fall of 2021 at her home in Rochester, Hill said she was initially denied admission to the UR nursing program.
“I just got a letter saying I was not accepted. I thought no more of it until I ran into my guidance counselor and he said that there were four of us who applied from Avon and the other three were accepted,” said Hill. “He couldn’t figure it out because, academically, I was higher in my class.”
Hill said the letter did not provide a reason for the denial, but she believes it was because of her race.
Hill was a decorated student who was a member of the National Honor Society and a cheerleader at Avon High School. When she decided to pursue a career in nursing, she chose the University of Rochester because she thought it had the best nursing program around. Hill recalls her mother being warned by a neighbor at the time that she was making a mistake because the school did not accept Black students.
“I had a wonderful life growing up and had very strong parents,” Hill said. “My dad was a farmer and my mom didn’t want to ever hear that I can’t do something. She said, ‘If that’s where you want to go, that’s where you’re going to apply.’”
A short time after getting her initial letter, Hill was invited back to campus where she was subsequently admitted. Unbeknownst to her at the time, Hill’s counselor, Mr. Billies, had gone to see the school’s director of nursing, Ruth Miller Brody.
“He went to see her in person. I have no idea what the conversation was. All I know is they asked me to come in for another interview after he intervened,” Hill said.
"As far as I know I was the first African-American to be admitted. I never checked it out, but I was told I was the first one."
Decades after the fact, it’s difficult to say definitively which students have achieved some of the school’s historical “firsts,” since many people and records from the time have been lost to history. Clearly, Hill was one of the first, if not the first, Black student to enroll in the nursing program. And just as apparent was that Hill had an overwhelmingly positive experience at the school. She said she felt like people were rooting for her to succeed.
“Once I was there I don’t remember having any negative experiences,” she recalled. “I never experienced any kind of racial issues that I can think of. It was really a wonderful experience.”
Approximately 120 students were enrolled in the Class of ’56 nursing program, of whom about 75 graduated. They were a tight-knit group as students, bonding over their shared living quarters under the strict watchful eye of a house mother in Helen Wood Hall, and memorable moments in their education, such as the time they were called in to provide care for sick patients at Strong Hospital during a bad snowstorm. Many stayed close after graduation. Round robin letters circulated among classmates for more than 60 years, and dozens would occasionally gather for group vacations.
Hill and Seward were among that group, but also shared their own bond.
“We gravitated to each other,” said Seward.
Like Hill, Seward grew up in a small community outside of Rochester, where her father started his teaching career in a one-room country school. When she identified nursing as her calling, she applied to the University of Rochester. “It was the best school that I knew of. I wanted to go there,” she said.
By their third year, Seward and Hill decided they would share a suite together. After graduating, when Hill worked at Strong and Seward was head nurse in pediatrics at Batavia Hospital, they became roommates again, sharing a house on Linden Street with a half dozen other classmates. Everyone took turns cooking, cleaning, and grocery shopping.
Then life began in earnest, and one by one, the roommates went their separate ways. Seward, who married her husband Gordon just seven days after completing her educational requirements, followed him to Cornell, where she worked in the infirmary then in Tompkins County Hospital. When Gordon completed his degree, the couple moved back to Bergen and the Seward family dairy farm.
Hill, meanwhile, fielded a phone call one morning for another housemate who was out and the caller at the other end of the line asked if she was a nurse, too. When she said yes, he offered her a spot as a nurse at a boys camp in Maine for the summer. Hill took a leave of absence to work at the camp and never returned to Strong.
On the way back from Maine, she stopped in Connecticut to interview for a job in pediatrics at Stamford Hospital, where she met her husband, Sidney. They were married in 1959 and stayed in Connecticut until 1974, when Hill returned to Avon and joined the Livingston County Skilled Nursing facility. She served as the director of nursing services from 1981 until her retirement in 1993.
“I never had any trouble getting a job,” Hill said, noting that the University of Rochester name often carried great weight among hiring managers. “When I went in for an interview it was like, ‘When can you start? Yesterday? Can you start yesterday?’”
Seward worked part time for several years at Batavia Hospital until the responsibilities of the family and farm called her away.
“Even though my time spent employed as a nurse was short, it was invaluable in my life,” Seward said. “I’m glad I had that.”
As they juggled married life and burgeoning careers, both Hill and Seward started raising children of their own. Seward had three girls; Hill had a boy and girl. Both suffered the heartbreaking loss of a child in their early adult years. Hill’s son was 24 when he died. Seward’s youngest daughter had just completed her sophomore year at Cornell.
“We share a terrible grief,” Seward said. “But our friendship helped us. I think our experiences that we went through carried a heavy responsibility, and we encouraged and helped each other.”
Now in their mid-80s, Hill and Seward remain close. They catch up on the lives of children, some of whom are now nearing retirement of their own, and their cherished grandchildren. They reminisce about old classmates, bad dates, and days spent together with their families on the Seward farm. And they think back fondly on their days at the University of Rochester, where they felt blessed to have received a great education and built so many important lasting relationships.
“Our friendships are very important to us,” said Seward. “We didn’t think about our differences then or now. We just loved each other.”