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Verna Huffman Splane: Our gentle giant - “Look up, look waaaay up”, by Michael Villeneuve, RN

Verna Marie Huffman Splane OC, Diploma in Nursing (Nicholls Hosp, Peterborough), Diploma in Public Health Nursing (Toronto), BSc (Columbia), MPH (Michigan), LLD (Hon, Queen’s), LLD (Hon, St. Francis Xavier), LLD (Hon, UBC), DSc (Hon, Toronto), Fellow of the American Public Health Assoc.

November 23, 1914 — January 10, 2015

WHO 1965

The word giant has been tossed around by many of us this past week in reference to the life, career and persona of our colleague, teacher, mentor and friend, Verna Huffman Splane. First setting eyes on Verna, the word giant might, in the most literal sense, seem to have missed the mark; she was, after all, a petite woman of small physical stature. But to anyone who spent even a few moments with her, it was clear that one was in the presence of greatness, and indeed of a giant sprit and intellect. She was tiny but she was mighty in every sense of that word — and she was utterly unforgettable.

Verna had the bearing of a respected, elder statesman. If she set her eyes on you, they looked deeply into yours and stayed there. You were being checked out. They were heavy with wisdom and experience, but never world-weary. She sparkled with curiosity, engagement and interest in everything right to the end of her life.

When Verna entered a room, attention was paid. At the Carter Center in 2001, she and her beloved Richard were jointly awarded prizes by the Lillian Carter Center for International Nursing Award by Emory University “for their groundbreaking work to document the role of chief nursing officers worldwide.” Even President Carter and his friend, Archbishop Tutu — who was receiving a humanitarian award from the center — accorded her a respectful berth. They made a formidable collection of wise ones that sunny Atlanta day.

But there was little of Verna in the way of pretense, and she was dismissive of much fuss. She was gracious, charming, inclusive, impeccably mannered, well schooled in tact, and completely comfortable with the diversity of humanity. She was, quite simply, one of the most distinctive individuals who ever rose through the ranks of nursing to soar comfortably in the company of our greatest Canadians.

Officer of the Order of Canada, 1996

Verna’s importance to the nation was acknowledged with her appointment to Officer rank in the Order of Canada. On her appointment it was noted that she had “played a major role in raising the status of the nursing profession both nationally and internationally” and that her expertise had led to “improved health care in different parts of the world.”

For her life of public service she was presented with both Queen Elizabeth II Silver (1977) and Golden (2002) Jubilee medals by the Governor General, and the Canadian Red Cross Distinguished Service Award. She held the highest honour in Canadian nursing, the Jeanne Mance Award, and received a Centennial award from CNA in 2008. From academia she was conferred honorary doctoral degrees by Queen’s, St. FX, UBC and U of T — and she was named one of the Notable Ninety graduates of the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing on the school’s 90th anniversary in 2010.

After many years working with our federal government and the World Health Organization, in 1968 Verna famously took on the role as our first federal chief nurse, landing her in the midst of the country’s most senior health policy decision makers. She leapt from that role to an eight-year voluntary stint as a vice president of the International Council of Nurses, further cementing her stellar career and presence in global nursing and public health. And of course the 50-country study of government chief nurses she conducted with Dick is now the stuff of legend.

So yes, she was amazingly accomplished. And yes, in many ways, she was truly a giant; the examples here just hint at the impact of a massive, global career. And let’s not forget that she took on another 30 years of mentoring, networking, researching and teaching starting in 1985, after she retired.

But celebrated as she was, Verna was of course a real, ordinary and extraordinary human being.

She was fun and funny. Her humour could be subtle and as dry as dust — but she could also giggle like a girl. Her laugh forced her eyes closed and her face could turn from deep concern to jumping joy in an instant.

She had mastered the Spock eyebrow raise of concern or surprise.

She defined the notion of twinkle in the eye — and it could be hard to tell sometimes if that twinkle was inquisitive, teasing or laughing. She had a highly mischievous look about her at times.

Verna was generous with her time, intellect, energy and money, and she received generosity back with love, thanks and real appreciation.

She gave praise with sincerity. When she said, “Dick and I are just so proud of…” the recipient knew that was real. From them it meant something.

She was educated, articulate, hard working, principled and incredibly politically astute.

Verna was quiet and discreet — but she took no prisoners and she really respected intelligent, thoughtful people. She didn’t have a lot of time for silliness or disrespect.

Verna was infuriated with the dismantling of the former RNABC, and not afraid to say so or to ask tough questions in public ways. She put her name and money on the line in the fight to maintain a professional association in British Columbia. And while she supported the importance of the family of nursing organizations that support nurses, she was clear that, first and foremost, strong professional nursing advocacy and representation must be housed in strong professional nursing associations. End of story.

She hosted amazing cocktail parties and dinners at which she always included any nurses visiting Vancouver, not to mention a dazzling array of Canadian and global celebrities from many fields over the years. More correctly, she and Dick hosted those events together, because rarely did any sentence she uttered start without three important words: “Dick and I.”

Verna and Dick, 2014

During her WHO work as a nurse leader in the Caribbean, Verna befriended another famous nurse who studied at the University of Toronto — Dame Nita Barrow, who went on to be the first woman candidate for the presidency of the United Nations and later served as Governor General of her home country of Barbados. Verna travelled in some lofty circles. But the most novice student nurse was greeted with the same loving welcome at the Splane’s front door as the celebrated Dame Nita or the political elite here in Canada.

“Dick and I thought we’d have a little drinks party,” she’d offer. In the warm surroundings of their beautiful home at UBC, Verna greeted admirers and kept conversations going; Dick always wore a shirt and jacket, mixed great drinks and was her thoughtful co-investigator, asking probing questions about every topic. They were masterful tag-team referees of deep conversations tackling the implications of all strategic options for moving forward to ensure optimal success on any policy initiative.

Few gatherings were purely social; there would always be a professional opportunity for time with an important leader that “Dick and I thought you should meet.” She was a marvelous networker and connector. And in even the most social get-together, Verna might say “there are two or three things on my agenda I wanted to ask you about.”

“Dick and I thought we’d have lunch outside,” she would say at the cottage in Eastern Ontario, where they also invited nurses and other intimate and professional friends on the regional, national and global scene. A “casual lunch outside” with the Splanes could mean a roasted chicken on china plates, with a white tablecloth gentle flapping in the afternoon breeze under shade trees by the water. Not exactly the typical cottage hotdog set!

A dinner inside was just as wonderful: “Dick and I thought we’d have some tapas and open some good wine.” What 90-year-old white lady says that?! Verna Splane did, standing casually before the framed Orders of Canada and other honours mounted over the fireplace as the loons called out across the lake.

Verna was masterful at the leadership game and she knew just how to work a room. She had a fierce awareness of herself developed over many decades. But as she moved past 90, she was also living with some failing body parts, including her eyes and ears. But no mind; she handled her early sensory losses beautifully so no one would even know. She could be totally disarming, even to the point of seating herself dead centre on a small coffee table, framed by the fireplace behind it, wearing a completely black outfit and a perfect set of pearls, putting her hands down flat on the table on either side of her body, and with the intoxicating subtlety of Bacall seducing Bogie, leaning forward to look directly at a guest and say slowly, with that voice none of us will ever forget, “So tell me, how are you?”

She was radiant. And she was casually in total control of herself and the room in the most restrained way. It was delicious to witness, as her admirers can attest. And many visits were master classes in leadership, if not just decorum and diplomacy. She was in her 90s then, and she was brilliant. And of course beyond being able to charm the snow off a snowman, she could see and hear better because she was closer to her visitors sitting in that central position.

2012 Garden Party

Verna loved being around nurses, especially novices, but in truth anyone who expressed an interest in nursing, health care, humanity at large, and above all, in public policy, was invited into the fold. For decades she mentored groups of loyal younger nurses working around the world who would gather for conversation, story telling and advice at the university or at the Splane home.

When Dick and Verna hosted a huge and elegant outdoor cocktail party on Allison Road in June 2012 for the board of the Canadian Nurses Association and the chairs and members of the National Expert Commission, her older friends and colleagues stood by like an honour guard of watchful sisters. They were there to bolster her and they did. Others surrounded Dick and kept him company so she could hold court. But not for long; soon he was beside her like always.

Students and young nurses lined up anxiously to have their pictures taken with Dick and Verna like they were with rock stars.

And those of us somewhere in middle age looked on with pride and gratitude just to enjoy a tiny part of those special lives and the whole scene. What a privilege.

That night, Verna said quietly, “this is it, there will be no more public events,” explaining that at 97 she was feeling tired and wanted to turn over those duties to those of us a generation or more behind. There was to be no major speech that warm June evening, but deliver one she did, sharing gracious, loving, and humorous comments that, as ever, championed nurses, the CNA, and her beloved professional association in British Columbia — then rising as the new ARNBC. And whether intentional or not, she bade a public farewell to nurses and to what she said had been “a wonderful life and a wonderful career full of these events.”

ARNBC Lifetime Membership 2013

In the end there would be one final public celebration at the house, in April 2013, for ARNBC leaders and members after they awarded Verna with a life membership on her 98th birthday — a quarter century after receiving the RNABC Award of Merit (1987). She was deeply honoured by that gesture, and to the end last week, was a fierce defender of the importance of professional associations to nursing in British Columbia and Canada at large.

Verna embodied the sort of gracious and mannered style that in some ways seemed out of step with the frenzied career and world around her. She was relentlessly busy, but carried herself with a grace and pace that felt relaxed, caring and considerate of those around her. A timeless lesson perhaps in the incalculable currency of a great education, a good set of pearls, the love of a great glass of wine, a terrific partner, and a keen, observant mind.

Today in Vancouver, prayers will be offered and tears shed said for Verna — and for her great love, Dick. And rightly so: She was a tremendous ambassador for nursing within her beloved British Columbia (home for 40 years), across Canada, and around the world. And she was a great wife, neighbour, friend, and honourary mother to many.

She was especially attached to UBC and her network of friends, contemporaries, colleagues and students there. She was so, so proud of the UBC School of Nursing and of British Columbia nurses. She was a powerful inspiration and beacon in Vancouver and our British Columbia colleagues will especially mourn her loss today.

In conjunction with CNA’s annual general meeting in Ottawa in June, as a larger profession and a country we will gather to grieve and say goodbye to a great woman who embodied leadership in all she did across some 70 years of nursing.

It will no doubt be said that, “she will always be with us.” Fair enough, but many of us will really miss her gentle physical presence. Great love and great people deserve great grieving, and for all those who were privileged to experience her unforgettable personal touch, integrating the reality of this loss will take a little time.

For all sorts of reasons, we will not see her like again. She was a class act and of a certain time, and she never went out of style. What a gift to British Columbia, to UBC, to Canada and the world.

Verna was indeed our gentle giant. She insisted that while we always have our eyes on those we serve, we must also look up and out at the larger world around us. So look up – look waaaay up. She will be there, like always, watching, smiling, and expecting nothing less than the best from us all.


Michael Villeneuve is a lecturer in the Master of Nursing, Health Systems Leadership and Administration program at the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing, University of Toronto. Sincere thanks to Dr. Sally Thorne, professor at the University of British Columbia School of Nursing for her loving contributions to this reflection.

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Julie Fraser

This blog and the stories shared by many others today at Verna's memorial, reflect a remarkable life. It was a privilege to meet Verna and present her with membership in the ARNBC. The lasting memory of that afternoon was of course her support for the work of nursing associations - globally, nationally and provincially - but even more so, I will remember her fierce logic and discussion on the critical health and nursing issues of the day. Thank you Mike for your beautiful tribute to this nursing leader... yes truly a giant. Julie Fraser, President ARNBC.

Nora Whyte

Friends, neighbours and colleagues of many generations gathered yesterday to remember Verna’s remarkable life. Mike’s beautiful tribute here was echoed by other close friends, including Sally Thorne, who spoke at the service about Verna’s strength of character, keen sense of social justice, immense contribution to the nursing profession, stylish presence and outstanding social skills. The parties hosted by Verna and Dick were legendary: together they helped to build and sustain community in their neighbourhood, within their church congregation, for many students and for new arrivals at the university. They warmly welcomed international visitors from their wide circle and, on many occasions, opened their home to host gatherings of the national and international nursing community.

Verna holds a special place in our memories as a great mentor and friend. I will always remember her interest in the world around her, her probing questions to help find solutions and her diplomacy. I valued opportunities during the past 25 years to learn from and be guided by her vast experience in Canada and internationally. She lived the life of a true nursing leader grounded in her early experience as a public health nurse who went on to assume roles on the international stage.

It is quite fitting that the suggested memorial donations for those who wish to honour her legacy reflect Verna’s interests and affiliations: The BC History of Nursing Society, UBC School of Nursing (or the School of Nursing of your choice) and the United Nations Association in Canada. Her memory will live on through these organizations and through all she did to nurture generations of Canadian and global citizens.

Nora Whyte, RN
Friend and colleague of Verna Huffman Splane

Paddy Rodney

I am reflecting on Verna's incredible visionary leadership as I participate in one of my last ARNBC Board meetings (as a soon to be outgoing Director at Large). Verna's wisdom and support when we were in the crucial early stages of the formation of the ARNBC were inspiring. I am looking forward to our next ARNBC Annual General Meeting on May 28th where we will continue to build on her legacy....

Elizabeth Carolyn Sams

Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Michael, for the amazing tribute to an individual who truly did stand above others as a 'gentle giant' with all of her 5 1/4 ' on tiptoes! I had the pleasure of sharing many tables with Verna Huffman Splane over the years...at RNABC, at CNA events, at the 75th anniversary of RNABC which my New Westminster Chapter (those were the days!) organized in great splendour. Very early on, even as I was a relatively young nurse, Verna had an impact on my nursing career in terms of the pursuit of excellence and the strength of humility. Her accomplishments were simply a part of who she was as a nurse and as a human being. Although she was very proud of what she was able to do, those accomplishments did not change her outlook. She welcomed everyone with open arms. She shared her own lived experiences so others could learn. She led from behind the scenes. She will truly be missed as an active part of the nursing world but she will always remain a very important part of our tapestry.

Carolyn - grateful colleague of a great leader


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