The Indominitable Miss Cav
Neil A. Grauer
Date: March 2, 2010
After 57 years of working and volunteering, Louise Cavagnaro is finally stepping down.
Retiring in any sense is not a word easily applied to Louise Cavagnaro.
Dubbed “a leader of mice and men” by Mabel Smith, administrator for academic affairs in pathology and a friend of Cavagnaro’s for nearly four decades, “Cavi” or “Miss Cav” (as she is almost universally known) spent 32 years as an indefatigable, imaginative and forceful Hopkins Hospital administrator and member of the School of Nursing faculty before retiring as an assistant vice president of the hospital in 1985.
Cavagnaro, then 65, immediately began volunteering at the Alan Mason Chesney Medical Archives, where she has spent the past quarter century as “a wonderful mentor and devoted friend to archives staff and graduate students,” says head archivist Nancy McCall.
“Her vast knowledge of institutional history and subject expertise in the health fields has helped in immeasurable ways to guide the archival program,” McCall continues.
Now 90, the snow white-haired Cavagnaro has decided to retire—again. Yet she has left an even more permanent mark on the archives by donating 11 cubic feet of personal papers, chronicling her career as a U.S. Army and public hospital nurse, hospital administrator, and guardian of the legacies of Hopkins medicine and nursing.
“Cavi will never ‘retire’ as my advisor,” says Karen Haller, vice president of nursing and patient care services at Hopkins Hospital. “She has been whispering in my ear and sending me notes with gentle advice, for my entire tenure at Hopkins.”
Among the accomplishments of which Cavagnaro is most proud is her role in ending racial segregation at the Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s and early ‘60s. By being among the hospital administrators who quietly told staff simply to end that offensive but decades-old cultural practice in their respective divisions, she helped ensure that desegregation was accomplished without fanfare because “it was the right thing to do.”
Born in Portland, Ore., Cavagnaro obtained her nursing degree from the University of Oregon in 1943. She began her career as an Army nurse during World War II, serving primarily as an operating room nurse in Utah and then Great Britain, France and Germany. In 1946, she joined the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission as director of nursing in Hiroshima, Japan.
Returning to the United States in 1951, Cavagnaro obtained her master’s degree in hospital administration from Columbia University. She came to Hopkins in 1953 and held administrative positions in the Department of Surgery, medical affairs and patient services. She also was active in establishing transplant organ procurement programs throughout Maryland and the southeast.
In addition, she was a strong advocate of Hopkins’ nursing program. When the School of Nursing was re-established in 1984, she was appointed a clinical associate on the faculty and is an honorary member of the nurses’ alumni association.
Cavagnaro was called the “mother superior” of an informal, 10-person group of fellow administrators and faculty members known as The Lunch Bunch, which gathered regularly in the Hospital cafeteria and other venues. “This group knew more about what was going on than any of the [people at] the formal meetings I attended,” recalls Mabel Smith.
Cavagnaro always “could communicate with all levels—from the lowest positions to the highest. She cares about people,” Smith adds.
Another Lunch Bunch member, the Rev. Clyde Shallenberger, chaplain emeritus of the Hopkins Hospital, also cites her concern for others and the many ways she “quietly helped” people by giving wise, often life-changing advice on personal or professional matters.
“There was no task too small or too large for her,” says Smith.
Rooney Peterson, a former administrative colleague of Cavagnaro and wife of Hopkins Health System and Hospital president Ron Peterson, says she “can recall quite clearly walking with Cavi through one of the tunnels, and she spied a piece of paper on the floor. She stooped right down and scooped up that paper. To this day, if I see trash on campus, I pick it up, and I notice Ron does, too—the highest paid maintenance worker in the system,” thanks to Cavi’s influence.