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By Nathan Coker
In Bayou Icon
Nov 1st, 2023

photography by KELLY MOORE CLARK

While Florencetta Gibson was attending nursing school, a teacher asked her a question concerning a patient. The question required the recitation of certain facts, but Gibson hesitated before answering. She certainly knew the “textbook” facts, but she also knew what she had learned from her own personal assessment of the patient. She shared these with her teacher and was rewarded for giving not just a “factual” assessment but also an “honest” one. With that, Gibson was well on her way to becoming the outstanding medical professional she is today. 

Curtis Hayes and Ruby Hayes (they had the same last names!) met during World War II at Camp Livingston in Alexandria, Louisiana. Curtis had grown up on a rural farm near Canton, Mississippi, and was serving his country in wartime. During his younger years, Curtis had enjoyed having much of his family living nearby. No doubt being in the service meant that he was having to adjust to the loneliness that servicemen often experience. He never forgot Ruby, nor did she ever forget him.

Ruby had been born in Alexandria but spent her early years growing up in the big city of Chicago, Illinois, with relatives. She returned to Alexandria as a young teenager. During her Chicago years, Ruby had learned to do her very best at whatever task she was given. That lesson was to serve her well.

When WWII was over, the two married and began their life together. Both shared a love for the outdoors and family. Curtis worked at first for the Missouri Pacific Railroad. Later on, he opened “Hayes Local Dredge” — his own trucking company in Alexandria. “My dad loved to route freight,” Gibson explains proudly. “He ran a tight ship for his drivers as they delivered to companies all over the city. He was not only able to delegate to his employees, but also worked with them to ensure success and good service to his customers.”

After her marriage, Ruby settled in comfortably to the role of housewife and mother. She would not work outside of their home until Florencetta was in high school. Ruby enjoyed teaching her daughter homemaking skills including cooking and sewing. She often made clothes for her daughter’s Barbie doll during the day while Florencetta was attending school. Those clothes are treasures, and Florencetta still has some of them even today. Florencetta’s mother was not the only family member who taught her important lessons and shared with her as much of their time as they could. Florencetta’s maternal grandmother Olivia would visit with Florencetta early each Sunday morning while they were waiting for church services to begin. These visits – and many others – meant that Florencetta learned firsthand about her grandmother’s life and struggles as she listened to stories about the Great Depression and the hard times that it brought. Florencetta also enjoyed learning how to make many of her grandmother’s favorite dishes.

Florencetta held a special place in her paternal grandparents’ lives, too. She was Isiah and Florence’s only grandchild! They lived in Mississippi, so there were happy celebrations when Florencetta came to visit. “My paternal grandparents and aunts showered me with gifts. I still remember those holiday boxes filled with surprises!” Florencetta remembers. While visiting, Florencetta was taken to visit their friends and often spent late nights sitting on the front porch listening to the night sounds of the rural countryside. “My grandparents were known for their giving natures and for inviting all who stopped by to visit to stay and share a meal,” Florencetta says. “I have the breakfast table that my grandmother fed people on for more than 80 years. It is in my own breakfast area now, and I hope to pass it on to my children when the time comes.”

Even though Florencetta lived in the heart of a city, she still enjoyed the benefits of her father’s country experiences. Being inside of Alexandria’s city limits did not “limit” her father. Curtis had a wonderful garden where he grew okra, tomatoes, beans, and peppers. He tried his hand at poultry, but quickly had to give that up because both his wife and daughter couldn’t stand to have them killed.

Florencetta enjoyed a traditional childhood, surrounded by comforting surroundings, good neighbors, and more than a few pets. Her dad would go to work while her mom managed the home. Florencetta learned much from each of them as she was experiencing a happy childhood. “My life lessons were kindness from my father who always said that it’s nice to be nice, and from my mother who always said that I must do my best,” says Florencetta.

Florencetta remembers taking turns on her swing in a pecan tree and on another on the front porch of their home. “I loved mowing the lawn with my dad,” she explains. “That manual push mower and the smell of freshly cut St. Augustine grass is something I’ll never forget!” She also loved going barefoot in the early morning dew, allowing the grass clippings to attach to her feet. There was a reassuring familiarity to her life as she visited the neighbors she had always known – most of them living in the same houses they had always lived in. There the neighbors watched out for each other and the children in their community. Florencetta did not leave until she went off to college.

Florencetta loves learning, and she learns from everyone and every experience that life presents. Early mentors were her school teachers who did all they could to ensure Florencetta’s success. Also important during these early years were friendships that began then. She attended a Lutheran kindergarten where she met the Baldwin girls – twins who became her friends for life. When the girls were young, the two mothers often sewed identical dresses for the three so that Florencetta could be a triplet. They went through high school and college together as closest of friends, and remain so today. 

When Florencetta won a scholarship to the University of Louisiana Monroe, she was “on her way” to learning even more! She arrived on campus with a 26” bicycle her paternal grandparents had given her when she was 6. Only during her final semester did she get a car – a 1968 VW Beetle.

Her first semester was cut short when her father had a health crisis. Florencetta resigned and returned home to help her mother with the business until he recovered. Her mother had worked in the business as the receptionist, but now would have to run it for a while. Florencetta did not realize that by resigning, she had forfeited her scholarship. When she resumed her college work, Florencetta became a student worker (working as a student typist and as a residence hall assistant) for the remainder of her undergraduate years.  

Work was no stranger to Florencetta. During her school years she worked on the yearbook staff, was a school radio news reporter, joined the Girl Scouts, the Future Business Leaders club, and the Future Nurses Association. She also volunteered as a Candy Striper. Her dad would drive her early on Saturday mornings to the VA hospital in Alexandria where she quickly realized that the veterans needed conversation and care beyond the physical. Florencetta and her sister Candy Strippers enjoyed providing the veterans with distraction, a listening ear, and time. When she was a senior at Peabody High School, Florencetta worked at the Huey P. Long Hospital as an admission clerk.    

One might think that Florencetta chose nursing as a career because of her work as a Candy Striper. She doesn’t think so. “My paternal great-grandmother Emma lived to be 110! She used herbs and home remedies as a way to heal illnesses and injuries in her family. Perhaps this was the real origin of my desire to be a health care provider,” Florencetta says.    

As she took classes at ULM, Florencetta encountered a number of women who instilled in her that nursing required both knowledge and patience. “They were unsung heroines – Mary Rowden, Norma Steffenson, Elizabeth Bell, and Bernadine Adams. They valued the profession and settled for nothing less than ideal,” Florencetta explains. “They gave themselves fully to teaching me the things that I needed to know to become successful.”

Along with her undergraduate studies, something – or someone – else was taking her time. Toney Gibson was also an undergraduate. The two were introduced to each other at church by a special friend. They dated for several years and married right after graduation on a very rainy day filled with lifelong friends. “Our dates consisted of walking around on campus and going to the Baptist Student Union for a soda,” Florencetta remembers. “Toney allowed me to practice my assessment skills on him!”

The couple have two daughters in whom they are well pleased. The older daughter Tonessa chose a career similar to her mothers and has obtained a doctorate in counseling education. She has provided mental health services for 14+ years to individuals in a variety of clinical settings. Their younger daughter Franchesca enjoys patho-physiology and anatomy and loves caring for patients through nutritional support. She holds a B.S. in Culinary Arts and an M.B.A. Florencetta believes that she will mesh her two degrees together for a unique career path.

Toney, a ULM graduate, enjoyed a successful 30-year career in banking before retiring from the City of Monroe as the buyer for the City. The two have supported one another’s careers all throughout the marriage. Florencetta admits that the greatest challenges she has faced during her career have been finding the right work/life balance, and dealing with the economic decisions in our country that make many necessary medications and treatments unattainable for many who need them the most. She says that Toney thoroughly enjoyed his career, but seems to be enjoying his retirement ever more. Florencetta says that she does occasionally think about retirement, but the time isn’t quite right yet. Still, the two have recently renewed their passports. A trip to Ireland may be on their horizon.

A quick look at Florencetta’s vita reveals a career that has grown exponentially over the decades since her Candy Stripper days. Each step along the way, Florencetta has gained invaluable experience in virtually every segment of health care. When she became a public health nurse, the role was a combination of home health, health education, and disease prevention. While she worked, she visited many homes and saw many life-styles. “I learned that health needs to transcend race and income,” Florencetta explains. “I learned that promoting good health in any home allows for better health in the entire community.”

When she became Director of ULM’s Kitty DeGree School of Nursing, Florencetta was able to help shape the excellence of the nursing profession. She sought ways for her nursing graduates to interact with students from throughout Louisiana, the United States, and from other countries. “This interaction has allowed health care knowledge gained at ULM to influence the entire world,” Florencetta explains. “Our graduates are serving in military, international, faith-based, rural, and urban communities in which they are furthering excellence in health care because of their work here.”

Also while director, Florencetta worked with local workforce development leaders in Monroe to allow ULM to have one of the first accelerated nursing programs in the region. This became even more important as a critical shortage in health care workers became more significant. Even in the best of times, that shortage needs attention. When natural disasters or pandemics strike, such a shortage becomes even more critical and must be addressed. Florencetta has participated in finding housing and providing health care for hurricane evacuees. She – like so many – adjusted her work and family responsibilities to accommodate the unwelcome presence of COVID. “My role as a mental health professional allowed me to help others find their strength and focus on what they could control,” Florencetta explains. “I taught them individual coping skills to help them feel secure in their ability to be successful.”

When she is asked by an aspiring young person why he or she should consider a career such as her own, Florencetta is quick to respond. “A career similar to mine would ensure a lifetime of giving, of course. But it would also ensure a lifetime of receiving much more than you give from the people you meet and how they allow you to share their lives.”

While Florencetta admits that the thought of sitting outdoors sipping a glass of iced tea while she thumbs through home decorating magazines is a mighty temptation, the truth is that much of her “spare time” is spent volunteering. Whether it is an independent community activity, or working with her sorority – the Monroe Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. – Florencetta enjoys the “inside view” of agencies and departments that volunteering allows. “I get to see how they really work, because what we see on the surface is just a smooth machine helping the community,” she explains. “But the untold story is really about the hard work, finding funds and services where none exist, and still meeting the needs of the community. That is at the center of what is really happening.”

Florencetta enjoys participating in The Witness Project of Northeast Louisiana. This breast and cervical health education initiative teaches women about general breast health and breast cancer survivorship. Florencetta serves as co-director of this very important project. “Volunteerism allows each individual to be influential in areas of the community where he or she sees a need for improvement,” Florencetta says.

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) was a British nurse and social reformer who is best known as the founder of modern nursing.  She once wrote, “The best nurses have the essential qualifications before they go to school.” When one looks back over the life and career of Dr. Florencetta Gibson, it is easy to see proof of the truth in Nightingale’s statement.