“I’m from a little tiny town. You drive through it from off the highway, and then you’re out of it.” Mary Pankey is from Hardinsburg, Indiana. As of the most recent census, the population was 248 people, 96 households, and 61 families in the town. But from that tiny town grew a great love of nursing.
Now celebrating her 10-year anniversary with CarDon & Associates and serving as the organization’s director of clinical operations, Pankey got started in nursing when she was just 15 years old.
“There were 10 children in our family, and I am the second oldest, just 14 months younger than my older sister. When she was 16, she had just gotten her driver’s license. I threw a fit because she was taking the station wagon every day that summer to take nurse’s aide classes. So my mother told me I could either go with her and learn to be a nurse’s aide or I could stay home and garden and do laundry and watch eight kids. Guess what I decided to do?”
Although she didn’t care for it at first, that might have just been one of the best decisions of Mary’s life.
“From that summer working as a nurse’s aide at Norton Hospital in Louisville, I just fell in love with nursing,” she said. “I worked there as a nurse’s aide until I got out of high school, and I graduated from the University of Louisville with my nursing diploma in 1973 at the age of 19.”
During her first year as a nurse, Mary’s high school sweetheart, Dennis, was still finishing up his last year of high school.
“We were kids who grew up together,” she said. “He lived five miles away in Fredericksburg, and we met in art class. I was a junior and he was a sophomore, and he started walking me to class. At the time, he had long hair and was kind of a hippie so I really just tried to avoid him. But the more I got to know him, I started to like him.”
Like turned to love, and the pair went everywhere together. When Dennis turned 18, he proposed.
“In Hardinsburg, there’s a steep hill, and at the top of the hill is a landfill where people took their trash, and he took me up on top of the ‘Dump Road Hill’ and proposed. Well, it was a nice view at night when the lights were all on, but that’s where he asked me to marry him,” she laughed.
Married in a Catholic church in Paoli on a fall day in September 1973, the couple had a small reception behind the church and headed down to Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C., on their wedding day. That was where Dennis, who had joined the Army, was stationed.
“My poor dad. He tried to talk me out of getting married because Dennis had joined the Army, and he didn’t think we would last because we were such opposites.” That was 43 years ago.
“We started out with hardly any money at all,” Pankey said. “When I think of how we got by, it’s just amazing. We moved everything we owned to South Carolina in a MG Midgit. Then Dennis ended up buying a motorcycle, and I rode on the back of his motorcycle in my white nurse’s uniform with my cap flopping on my back. That’s all we had for transportation — a little motorcycle and a MG Midgit.”
Mary and Dennis spent their first three years together in South Carolina. That’s where Mary first started working as an ICU nurse at the South Carolina Baptist Hospital in Columbia. And they had their first baby at Moncrief Army Community Hospital at Fort Jackson.
“We thought she was going to be born in December or January, but she ended up coming on Valentine’s Day.”
A blessing born on a day all about love. Jessica Marie, the first of four children, was born on February 14, 1976. Not wanting to miss out on being born a holiday, their other three children all decided to do the same.
“Jennifer Eve was born on Christmas Eve in 1977,” Mary said. “Then Jon Patrick was born on St. Patrick’s Day in 1983, and Jacob Willis Eugene was born on Labor Day in 1985.”
In 1989, Mary began working for CarDon at Paoli Health & Living Community, after an interview with CarDon founders Carroll and Donna Moore. She was hired as the community’s director of nursing. Shortly after, she went back to school for her administrator’s license and then served as a regional nurse and regional operator for other organizations, which required a lot of travel on Mary’s part.
“Then, nine years ago in July, Connie Brewer with CarDon called me,” Pankey said. “She knew I was tired of traveling and wanted to spend more time with my kids and grandkids. She said she could get me off the road by being a regional director of operations for CarDon’s southern region only. I knew Connie, and I trusted her, and she’s the main reason I came back.” It’s true you can never take the nursing out of a nurse.
“I feel part of my mission is being a resource to help others,” Pankey said. “You never forget your nursing skills, and there’s a little bit of nursing in everything I do, whether it’s operations for CarDon or in my family life.”
Mary’s family life is a full one. She and Dennis have four kids and 12 grandkids — and cows and peacocks.
“We still live out in the country, and we’ve had all kinds of critters, from donkeys and mules to turkeys, sheep, goats, pigs and horses,” she said. “We live about a mile away from a little town that only has three houses, and no one really knows where it is.”
And that’s just the way Mary Pankey likes it.