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Erma Overby: Her life as a nurse and her legacy in Barnes County

June 8, 2012

“Do you know if Erma is home?” Sandy Hall recalls a time when she was at a local business and overheard a woman ask another that question. The woman was referring to Hall’s mother, the school and county nurse, and just about everybody’s friend.

“No one had to say Erma Overby,” Hall explained, “Most everyone knew her by her first name.”

Erma Overby was a nurse in Barnes County who spent much of her career working as the school and county nurse. Overby was also instrumental in starting many of the healthcare organizations that exist today in Valley City.

Originally from St. Paul, Minn., Overby moved to a farm near Kathryn when she was 6-years-old and graduated from Kathryn High School in 1943. While in Kathryn, Overby took a Latin course through correspondence in preparation for becoming a nurse.

“Her teacher told her she was a natural-born Latin student, and she always let us know that he said that,” said Duane Schultz, friend and brother-in-law to Overby.

After high school, Overby attended Union College in Lincoln, Neb. for a year, and then went on to attend Valley City State Teacher’s College, with her sister, Jessie Schultz. The sisters obtained teaching certificates and taught at country schools not far from one another near the Kathryn and Fort Ransom area.

Jessie said people called them the “eight week wonders” because it only took eight weeks to receive a teaching certificate back then.

Although most of Overby’s family were teachers, the main reason Overby received her teaching certificate was to work to save funds for her goal of becoming a registered nurse.

In a 2004 article Overby told the Times-Record that although she enjoyed her short teaching stint, nursing was the right career for her.

Jessie said that their cousin, who was a nurse in the U.S. Navy during World War II, inspired Overby to become a nurse.

Well on her way to achieving her dream, in 1948 Overby received a nursing diploma from Hinsdale Hospital in Chicago and later a bachelor’s degree in nursing from the University of Minnesota in 1958.

In between her time in Chicago and Minnesota, Overby started as Valley City’s city nurse and school nurse in 1952. Her office was in the basement of Valley City High School.

“My son said there probably aren’t very many people who haven’t gotten a shot from her,” Jessie said, referring to Overby’s influence as the school nurse.

Overby became director of the City-County Health Department in 1978 when the two departments combined. In 1982, City-County Health started their home health care services.

She continued to do this until her retirement in 1989, when she turned 65.

Retirement didn’t stop Overby, though. She started working as an RN for Hospice after retiring.

Overby worked diligently on getting Hospice into Valley City, said Eileen Maresh, who was a lab technician for CCHD and worked with Overby for many years.

She was also instrumental in getting the WIC program started in Valley City as well as implementing the Open Door Center and senior center in Valley City.

“She was very active in advocating for handicapped accessibility before it was common,” Hall said.

Moreover, Overby “did a lot with the family planning program when we had that,” Maresh said, and she delivered Meals on Wheels for many years.
Overby also spent 12 years in the Army Reserves as a nurse and worked with the Anne Carlsen Center in Jamestown.

“She generally just took care of a lot of people,” Maresh said.

Overby’s volunteerism also included traveling across the county, installing lifelines in surrounding towns, which she did until she was in her 80s.

Hall said that when she was a new resident of the nursing home, she still wanted to be a nurse.

“They had to give her little tasks to do because she still wanted to help,” Hall said.

While Overby spent a lot of time as a caretaker for her job and volunteer work, she also took care of and looked out for her friends and family.

Duane recalls that when he couldn’t make it home to his dad’s funeral because of military duties, Overby attended the funeral and talked to Duane’s mom, “which she didn’t have to do,” he said.

“Every time we were going to see Erma, my kids would ask, ‘do we have to have shots this time?’” Jessie said, because Overby gave them their vaccinations.

Overby’s work has not gone unrecognized. She has been recognized at the state level and received the Outstanding Service Award in Public Health in 2004.

“She loved nursing and every aspect of public heath,” said Theresa Will, current director of CCHD.

Will said that Overby left behind legacy at CCHD of a hard working attitude and willingness to go the extra mile, which all of the nurses who work at CCHD still have.

To honor the memory of Overby, the CCHD will close their offices Monday afternoon during Overby’s funeral.

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