Remembering Grayce Sills

It is with great sadness that I share the news of the death of Grayce Sills, a true nursing giant by any standard of measure. Grayce was a founding Editor, in 1995, of the Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association (JAPNA) along with Nikki Polis.  She served in the capacity as Editor of the journal until 2005. Her dedication to nursing, to her graycefriends and family, and to her many communities, was unrelenting. For everyone who knew her, or who simply heard her speak at one of many public appearances, Grayce left a lasting impression because of her humor, her sparkling blue eyes lit up with enthusiasm, and her unique ways of getting her messages across.

Grayce was born on April 18, 1926.  She decided to become a nurse after spending a summer at Rockland State Mental Hospital in New York, and graduated from Rockland State Hospital School of Nursing in 1950. She then attended Teachers College, Columbia University from 1950-51, before obtaining her bachelor’s degree from the University of Dayton, and a master’s and doctorate in sociology from The Ohio State University. Grayce assumed her faculty role at the Ohio State University School of Nursing in 1964 and remained of the faculty for the remainder of her academic career, retiring with Professor Emeritus status in 1993. While at OSU, she developed the graduate level clinical nurse specialist program in psychiatry; helped develop the doctoral program in nursing; was Director of the Advanced Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing Program; Chair of the Department of Family and Community Nursing; Director of Graduate Studies; and, Acting Dean. She also helped the School of Nursing achieve independent status as a college within the university – an achievement of which she was particularly proud.

But retirement was only a transition for Grayce! Not only did she co-found the American Psychiatric Nurses Association (with Karen Babich, Judith Maurin, and Shirley Smoyak), she founded and Edited the Association’s journal and continued her prominent leadership role in the American Academy of Nursing as the organizer and leader of orientation activities for new Academy Fellows.  She was honored as a Living Legend by the Academy in 1999.  She continued her work as an international consultant for community-based mental health nursing, served as a visiting professor at Case Western Reserve University, Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, and Fairfield University School of Nursing (Connecticut). A past chair of the OSU Hospitals Board of Trustees, she was instrumental in gaining board support for magnet hospital status, achieved in 2005. She has had the rare distinction of receiving three awards from OSU: a Distinguished Teaching Award, a Distinguished Service Award and an honorary doctorate in public service (2005), as well as honorary doctorates from Indiana University and Fairfield University in Connecticut.

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L to R: Danny Willis, Grayce Sills, Sandra Talley, Linda Beeber, Teena McGuiness

Her most lasting influence, in my view, is the legacy of friendship and love that she offered freely to so many of us who knew her, whether as a friend or colleague on a regular basis, or in occasional encounters at professional events. I invited her close friend, Linda Beeber, to share a message of remembrance, which reflects so beautifully the experience of knowing Grayce in any capacity:

While she is associated with psychiatric nursing, Grace Sills set a high bar for the entire profession of nursing. She saw the power of nursing as enacting theory through practice intelligence, or the capacity to connect with people meaningfully in every encounter and transform the moment into one of mutual growth. Grayce embodied that connectivity in her ability to instantly read a room full of nurses and know exactly what to say and how to say it such that every nurse felt as if Grayce were talking to them.  Similar to the “infobite”, Grayce’s “Grayceisms” were compact, bits of practice theory that nurses could take to heart, elaborate and use to guide their practice. She touched so many nurses; at conferences, those of us privileged to transport her from place to place had to calculate extra time for her stop, talk, touch, laugh and extend a pearl of wisdom to the crowds of colleagues surrounding her. Moving Grayce was akin to moving a great dignitary. Grayce was engaged in the work of nursing up to the last days of her life, consulting with many of us, reminding us of the “bar” and how much further we need to travel to reach the dream that she believed professional nursing can be. Grayce left us with much work to do! In the midst of our deep sadness at not having her with us, imagine those twinkling blue eyes and impish smile lighting up with every act we do to make nursing the powerful profession that she envisioned.

I (Peggy) recall many times when I had the pleasure of spending time with Grayce. Always, she was intent on building connections, helping me and others develop professional relationships and build bridges to advance the best ideals of nursing.  I remember hearing her speak in New Orleans to a group of nurse practitioners, admonishing us to re-structure our language to create new and egalitarian relationships with our physician colleagues.  She recommended, for example, ending the use of the phrase “doctor’s orders” and replace it with “physician prescriptions.” Alongside those, she urged us to record “nurse prescriptions” to guide coordinated and comprehensive care.  When I was contemplating once again changing my academic affiliation, she observed that, “Some of us are ‘stayers’ (like I myself have been)” she said, “and some of us are ‘leavers’ – and both are just fine.”

One of my most memorable times with Grayce was when Charlene and I (as a fledgling publishing effort we named Margaretdaughters) photographed Grayce for our first “Everyday Sheroes” calendar.  We featured Grayce for the month of her birth – April, 1987.  The photo shown here is from the calendar, taken at the time of her service as Acting Dean of the OSU College of Nursing.

Grayce in 1987, at the time of her role as Acting Dean, College of Nursing, OSU

Grayce in 1987, at the time of her role as Acting Dean, College of Nursing, OSU

Here is the message she prepared for the calendar:

To create a viable future we must:
     – nurture and care for the rich differences among us
     – listen to one another
     – be open to the visions of the very young and the memories of the very old

Grayce, your spirit lives on, and may we honor you as we continue your legacy of creataing this kind of future.

One thought on “Remembering Grayce Sills

  1. Grayce was truly a mentor to be treasured. Also I was intrigued to learn that she became a millionaire in Las Vegas in her later years. Always wondered if or how that changed her.

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