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The story of Eleanor Eft

The year was 1945. As a part of many patients’ treatment plans, a nurse would give them an alcohol and powder back rub in the evening. This night was no different, and as a nursing student in her senior year, therapeutic massage was a part of the job. Just weeks from graduation, the routine now felt familiar. As she worked, she scanned the ward. With things well in-hand, it would be a quiet evening—or so she thought.  

She heard the commotion first—shouts of hurrah and cries of excitement. Then, the echo of footsteps rushing down the hall, closer and closer. Ears perked, heart racing, she spun when the door to room 31 burst open. As she spun, her apron snagged on a knob—it tore, just like that. 

Eleanor Eft

The doctor, bedecked in white, exclaimed, “The war has ended!” 

World War II had ended. She couldn’t believe it.

A life dedicated to community and care

Eleanor Eft was born on October 7, 1923, in a farmhouse near Gridley, but she never milked a cow. She left that to her brother. Ninety-five years later, that very same farm is still in her family. 

As a small child, she and her brother attended a one-room schoolhouse. Today, she still recalls the names of the team of black horses her parents would use to pick them up from school early if a blizzard was on the way: Rox and Diamond.  She fondly remembers walking to Gridley High. She does not think they had a mascot back then, but concedes that may be one of the things she has now forgotten. 

Eleanor chose to attend Mennonite School of Nursing (now Illinois State’s Mennonite College of Nursing) because her hometown doctor told her, “If you get a pin from there, you can get a job anywhere.” 

Eleanor chose to attend Mennonite School of Nursing (now Illinois State’s Mennonite College of Nursing) because her hometown doctor told her, “If you get a pin from there, you can get a job anywhere.” 

Back then, the Mennonite students traveled to Riley Children’s Hospital in Indiana for their pediatrics clinical rotation. Eleanor speaks wistfully of her time at Riley and the little blond boy she cared for there. “We knew he wasn’t going to make it. (His care) had to fall to someone, and so it fell to me. I forget what he had—some kind of rare thing. He had lovely parents. I can still see that little blonde face. He was my favorite.”

It was before immunizations, before throwaways, back when we sterilized everything. It was back when tuition was around $85, when nursing students worked in the hospital from dawn until dusk and wore caps they sewed themselves.

Eleanor remembers seeing penicillin for the first time. “I remember the nurse bringing it to the ward. ‘This is penicillin,’ she said. Back then, you had to give it to the patient every two hours. I always felt bad having to stick someone that often.” 

Eleanor remembers seeing penicillin for the first time. “I remember the nurse bringing it to the ward. ‘This is penicillin,’ she said. Back then, you had to give it to the patient every two hours. I always felt bad having to stick someone that often.”

Students attended devotions in the chapel in the morning, then worked alongside physicians and nurses at Mennonite Hospital. Shifts were 12 hours long. Troyer Hal —the college’s first-ever student housing—was still being constructed, and so most of Eleanor’s tenure was spent living in one of the three college houses. Hers was Chestnut House on Chestnut Street. Curfew was 11 o’clock, and that meant you were in bed and the lights were out. 

Eleanor met her husband, Sheldon Eft, while sitting on the porch. He was a Purple Heart Army veteran just home from the war and lived across the street. Born in the El Paso area, he lost his mother when he was 6 and spent much of his childhood at a Christian orphanage in St. Louis. 

Eleanor speaks of their romance in a shy and pragmatic way, as if their love story was a cherished secret with an inevitable conclusion. “Well, one day he asked if I wanted to go for a walk, and so we walked down the street, turned around, and came back.” 

She tells it as if it were as simple as that—a moment on the porch opening up a lifetime of memories.

She tells it as if it were as simple as that—a moment on the porch opening up a lifetime of memories. Eleanor smiles softly as she tells stories of time spent picnicking and swimming with friends at Lake Bloomington. She describes the proposal in the same quiet way. 

“He didn’t get on one knee. He grabbed my hand, hugged me, and asked, ‘Will you marry me?’ I thought about it a minute and then said, ‘Yes.’” 

After Eleanor graduated, she and Sheldon had a big-time wedding—complete with a fancy dress from Peoria—at Second Presbyterian Church in Bloomington. This was the same church Eleanor first began attending as a student at Mennonite.  Second Presbyterian was central to Eleanor’s story for much of her life: racing to make it to 10:30 service as a student, her wedding, Sunday service with family, and volunteering in the kitchen every Friday. This was just one of many spaces where she cared for others in her community.

Eleanor worked at Mennonite Hospital after graduation on the OB floor—“the happy floor,” she calls it—but stepped away when her first child was born. She remembers Sheldon saying, “Eleanor, let’s do with a little less so you don’t have to work. I never knew what it was to come home for cookies, or anything like that. Let’s give our children that presence and care.” 

Her kids did come home for cookies, and they brought their friends. 

Even when she was not practicing, Eleanor Eft was a proud nurse through and through.

Even when she was not practicing, Eleanor Eft was a proud nurse through and through. Her daughter laughs thinking back on it: “Every kid in the neighborhood came to her for Band-Aids, but even if we were hurt, her response was always, ‘It’s a long way from your heart.’”

She took care of her neighbor Linda for weeks when Linda dropped a kettle lifting it off the stove and badly burned herself. She administered polio vaccinations at the school when they first came out, and she administered TB tests. In the late 1950s, she spent some time working one-on-one with clients as a private duty nurse part-time. 

And, perhaps most evidently, Eleanor kept her nursing license active well into her 90s.  In her 80s, she would get phone calls from recruiters with job offers and signing bonuses. One call was for a job as a traveling nurse, and she thought, if I was single, that would be fun. 

A proud Mennonite alum, Eleanor and her classmates would get together every year for the nurses’ banquet. Her daughter laughs when telling the story about how she selected her wedding date.

“I looked at Mom and said, ‘How about this date?’ Mom replied, ‘Let me check and see when my nurses’ banquet is.’”

When asked the secret to long life, Eleanor shrugged. “My grandmother lived to 103. I remember when I was 16, I caught her looking at my legs. ‘Nice legs,’ she said. I was just getting ready to say, ‘Thanks,’ when my grandmother continued, ‘They look strong. They can work hard.’”

She laughs, a twinkle in her eye. “So maybe that’s the secret: hard work.”

Eleanor Eft with students modeling her uniforms in the 2018 homecoming parade.

Eleanor Eft with students modeling her uniforms in the 2018 homecoming parade.

Eleanor Eft passed away on May 1, 2019just three days shy of MCN’s 100th Anniversary Gala. The apron she tore the night World War II ended lives in the Dean’s Suite on the third floor of Edwards Hall—Mennonite College of Nursing’s home at Illinois State University. She was a woman of faith who lived for her family and grandchildren. A proud graduate of Mennonite School of Nursing, Eleanor was a lifelong nurse who cared about her community and exemplified the values of MCN. 

She is loved. She is missed. 

This story was originally printed as part of MCN’s 2019 Commemorative Flame MagazineTo view the full magazine, visit the Mennonite College of Nursing website.


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