Leslie Nivens will always consider herself a student – even now as she just completed her nursing degree at the age of 84.
“I have led an interesting life and it's still going on that way,” she said, at her home in Carthage.
Dec. 12, 2012 was a special day for Leslie. Not only was it her birthday, but it was just two days from her graduation day at Cox College. The very same institution she earned her nurses training in 1954, and now the same institution she earned her RN-BSN and delivered the graduation address.
While on a tour last year, Dr. Anne Brett, president of Cox College, offered an honorary degree to Leslie due to her life experiences and education.
“I told them I didn't want an honorary degree – I wanted to earn it,” Leslie said.
After an evaluation of Leslie's years of education, it was found she only lacked two 12-week courses.
She finished them in 10 days.
“I like to study and I don't have anything in my way,” she said. “I've been blessed.”
Before speaking before her graduating class on Friday, Leslie said she wasn't nervous at all.
“I just don't believe in the word nervous,” she said.
That statement alone could describe Leslie, but there is more to her story.
Originally from Diggins, Mo., which is 30 miles from Springfield, Leslie's parents owned a store. She said their store was in the same building as another shop once operated by Sam Walton.
“We didn't do as good as he did,” Leslie said.
In the time of the Great Depression, Leslie's family lost everything. In 1938, they moved to this area, and she graduated with the Mt. Vernon High School class of 1946. She went on to Missouri State Teachers College, now known as Missouri State University, and earned her teaching certificate. She taught for a year at Hoberg, Mo., in a one-room school house for grades one through eight.
Leslie also worked in book stores, and a shoe factory in Sarcoxie, but she quit work because of a young man. However, she had already quit work in preparation for her marriage when she found out her financé was dating someone else.
“I thought he would put up more of a fight,” she said, “I remember I just sat there in my Model A Ford and told him I would go to nurses training and he said 'that was fine' and I drove off.”
A year and a half later in Mt. Vernon, she literally ran into him on the sidewalk.
“He said 'can I come see you on your birthday?' and I said OK,” she said.
Page 2 of 2 - That young fella was Hugh Nivens, and they ended up getting married in 1953. Leslie graduated from Burge School of Nursing the following year, but it wasn't easy.
She was a student in one of the first classes at Burge after the war. She paid $150 for her first year of tuition, and she said the nursing world was completely different from the way it is now.
“They owned us,” she said. “We couldn't do anything, even on our vacations, if it wasn't approved.”
Leslie says she remembers attending the hospital's 50th birthday. (And a few years ago she attended the 100th.) Until 1981 she worked at what is currently known as Missouri Rehab Hospital in Mt. Vernon.
After a number of years without children, Leslie said a trip to visit to a children's home in St. Louis inspired her to adopt. The Nivens adopted a baby boy, and then two years later they were blessed with a baby girl.
“And that's all God sent us,” she said. “Now I have nine grandchildren and one great-grandchild.”
Leslie and Hugh shared a happy life together for 37 years. When he passed away in 1990, she moved to Carthage.
In the past few years, she has been on mission trips to India, written and published four books (and working on more).
“I have friends all over the world from just talking to people,” she said, mentioning her neighbor down Scott Street to another friend in Africa.
“I'm not old sometimes my white hair just gets in the way,” she says. “My friends say 'Leslie tells it like it is – you never have to guess where you stand with her.'”
Leslie leaves the spotlight with this final message to “anyone who reads it.”
“Don't ever stop learning,” she said. “You will learn accidently from your mistakes, but make the effort to learn. Your IQ and facts, though, are not as important as the type of person you are. You can be in the genius level of thinking, but if you have not learned emotional control you can ruin your life … I think Shakespeare said it well in Hamlet, when Polonius says to Laertes, 'to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.'
“I want to live true to myself, to people I meet and my heavenly father. I want to be able to say as Peter said, 'I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith … I don't think there's any better quotes than those.”