Irene Willey had a gift for selfless gestures. Whether it was a supportive word for one of the dozens of nurses she supervised in her four decades at Salem Hospital, a handmade doll for a friend’s daughter or a home-cooked meal for a new neighbor, Willey’s gentle touch made others feel cared for. “The hospital was Irene’s life,” recalls Judy Quinlivan, who worked for Willey in the late 1960s and lived next door to her for nearly 40 years. “She loved being a nurse and knew firsthand what North Shore Medical Center means to our community.”
Born in 1912 in Gorham, NH, Willey graduated from Danvers High School in 1929 and the Salem Hospital School of Nursing in 1935. After beginning her career in pediatric nursing, she later became a night supervisor at Salem Hospital. In addition to her work as a nurse, she was active with the Wesley United Methodist Church and was an avid doll maker and collector.
Several of those dolls—including 14 antique figures in period clothing that represent famous nurses from throughout history—now are housed at the NSMC Salem Hospital Library, along with a scrapbook of hospital-related news clippings Willey compiled throughout her career. “Irene’s collection is remarkable,” says NSMC Director of Medical Libraries Deborah Almquist. “She took great interest and care in compiling it, and it offers a uniquely personal view into her life and the history of the hospital.”
So, when Willey, who retired from Salem Hospital in 1974, left North Shore Medical Center a bequest of $95,000 following her death in 2009 at the age of 96, those who knew her well weren’t surprised to learn of her generosity. The attention her gifts have received would be a surprise to the unassuming and private Willey, says Quinlivan. “Irene always thought of others,” says her longtime friend. “That’s just the kind of person she was.”