Upstate and the Bacons in the 1960s: two careers, one marriage and a baby girl who wants to be a doctor

Donell and Shirley Bacon are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, the same year that Upstate University Hospital celebrates its 50th anniversary. At left is Donell working in the lab at Upstate; at right is Shirley working as a nurse.

Donell and Shirley Bacon (center) are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary the same year that Upstate University Hospital celebrates its 50th anniversary. At left is Donell working in the lab at Upstate in the 1960s; at right is Shirley working as a registered nurse in the 1980s.

In the early 1960s, Shirley Graves was a hospital nurse in Greensboro, North Carolina. She responded to an ad in the American Journal of Nursing recruiting RNs to apply to Syracuse’s Good Shepherd Hospital to “fulfill your educational goals, broaden your skills and expand your horizons.”

“I was a diploma nurse,” explains Shirley, “and I wanted a baccalaureate degree.”

She and a friend decided to move to Syracuse — for one year — to work and earn their BS-RN degrees.

The two women got jobs in the general medicine unit of Good Shepherd Hospital (predecessor to Upstate University Hospital) and studied at Syracuse University.

Shirley and her friend were among the first African American registered nurses in Syracuse.

She describes the environment in the early 1960s: “We didn’t have any trouble integrating into the nursing community, but we had trouble finding a place to live in Syracuse. When we responded to vacancy listings, landlords told us the apartments were already rented, or they just wouldn’t open the door to us.”

Good Shepherd Hospital stepped in and provided Shirley and her friend with temporary housing.

At that time —1961— Donell Bacon was a high school chemistry and biology teacher in Homerville, Georgia. His move to SUNY Upstate was unplanned, but welcomed.

“It was summer and I was visiting my sister, Inez,” explains Donell. “She worked in a lab in the state office building on Water Street and introduced me to some people at Upstate.”

Cardiopulmonary surgeons John Neville and John Meyer learned of his background — Donell was a Korean War veteran and a graduate of Savanna State College — and asked him meet with them at Upstate.

“I had the job before I walked out the door,” remembers Donell. He was hired as a laboratory technician in the department of cardiopulmonary surgery, working in the lab and assisting in the operating room.

In Georgia, degrees in biology and chemistry put Donell at the head of the classroom, but a degree in medicine proved out of reach. “Medical schools in my home state wouldn’t accept me,” he explained. “It’s just the way things were.”

But, this offer from Upstate put him in the operating room, where he’d long dreamed of working.

Donell Bacon worked on this  electronic console in the operating room. Pictured is his colleague,  Larry George. Syracuse Newspapers, 9/5/65.

Donell Bacon worked on this electronic console in the operating room. Pictured is his colleague, Larry George. Syracuse Newspapers, 9/5/65.

The work proved varied, and interesting. Donell ran the heart-lung and monitoring machines during operations and ran experiments on blood acids in the cardiopulmonary laboratory. He designed a unit that controlled and regulated the temperature of exhaled gasses for analysis during surgery.

Shirley and Donell developed friendships in the same social circle and saw each frequently at events. Shirley smiles at her husband as she describes those days, “Sometimes it takes a while to find just the right dance partner.”

Donell and Shirley married in North Carolina on August 22, 1964, one month after the opening of the outpatient clinic at Upstate University Hospital. Their wedding photo hangs in their living room.

A year later, their daughter, Donna, was born. By the time she was 3 years old, she told her parents she planned to be a doctor and a teacher.

“She never wavered,” explained her father.

Donna Bacon Moore MD '93

Donna Bacon Moore MD ’93

Donna graduated from Corcoran High School in Syracuse, did her undergraduate work at Hobart and William Smith, and attended Upstate Medical University, where she earned her MD degree in 1993. Today, Donna Bacon Moore MD is an associate professor of pediatrics at Georgia Regents University in Augusta.

Donna has fond memories of Upstate, a place where she found like-minded people, and of two professors in particular: Barry Berg PhD, who taught the summer anatomy course, and Gregory Threatte MD ’73, whom she describes as “an awesome support person.”

What about the career goals that Donna set at the tender age of 3? “I am a doctor,” chuckles Donna, “and I teach every day…medical students, residents, families, patients.”

And, she is proud to note that Georgia Regents University opened its Children’s Hospital of Georgia in 1998, much like Upstate opened the Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital  in 2009.

The Bacon family has come full circle. Donell Bacon left Georgia for Upstate in 1961. His daughter left Upstate for Georgia in 1993.

What does it mean to Donell to see his daughter, the doctor, working in Georgia?

“My parents have always been very supportive,” Donna replies. “Dad would have been behind me 100 percent no matter what choices I made.

“But,” she pauses. “I guess it means more than I’ve really thought about.”

 (Ada Prettyman was the first African American registered nurse in Syracuse. She was hired at Good Shepherd Hospital in 1944 and became a head nurse and clinical instructor at Upstate. Ruby Brangman, mother of Sharon Brangman MD, began working at Upstate in 1967, and became one of the first nurse practitioners in 1973.  Shirley Bacon’s friend, Shirley Alton Edge, was a nurse manager at Upstate University Hospital for 25 years.

Left to right: Ada Prettyman was the first African American registered nurse in Syracuse. She was hired at Good Shepherd Hospital in 1944 and became a head nurse and clinical instructor at Upstate. Ruby Brangman, mother of Sharon Brangman MD ’81, began working at Upstate in 1967, and became one of the first nurse practitioners in 1973. Shirley Bacon’s friend, Shirley Alton Edge, was a nurse manager at Upstate University Hospital for 25 years.

Donell and Shirley Bacon are the proud parents of two children. Their son, Byron, is an information technology development manager in Charlotte, North Carolina.

About susankeeter

Occasional contributor Upstate’s Susan Keeter has written about and painted Upstate’s Dr. Sarah Loguen, one of the first African American women physicians. Keeter created the horse sculpture in front of the Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital and illustrated a children’s book on autism, “Waiting for Benjamin.” She’s written for Physician Practice, Upstate Alumni Journal, Cancer Care and Upstate Health magazines. Reach her by email at keeters@upstate.edu or by phone at 315-464-4834.
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One Response to Upstate and the Bacons in the 1960s: two careers, one marriage and a baby girl who wants to be a doctor

  1. This would make an awesome African-American history report. Unfortunately, the dominant society in American see successful black people as invisible. Whites (and other ethnic groups) should stop judging black people by their worst. That’s totally unfair. Should blacks and other PoC judge white people by their inhumane past (Land Theft (Native Americans land), American Slavery, Jim Crow, lawful lynching of black people, the American Indian Wars, the Indian Removal Act of 1930, the Trail of Tears, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Philippine-American War, Vietnam War, CIA Involvement in the importation of cocaine of the 1980s (US-guerilla Contra alliance), etc.? Thanks for posting the interesting article.

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