One of the first things Jacque Greenman, Marjorie Van Kooten and Anne Engbers did after arriving in Anchorage, Alaska, in the fall of 1958 was check out the local Christian Reformed church, Trinity CRC. What they found was a work party. “We drove over to where the church was, … and here were all these people pounding nails in the sub-flooring,” Greenman remembered. “That’s my first vision of the church, just putting the sub-flooring in.”
The trio had made sure there was a CRC in Anchorage long before they set out on the nearly 4,000-mile drive to the then-U.S. territory. “We weren’t so brave as to strike out into the wide, wide world, you know,” Van Kooten said. “We wanted a base with a church.”
The three young women, who came to be known as “The Nurses,” originally came to the Alaska territory to work for two years at the Alaska Native Medical Center. They ended up staying on indefinitely.
Back then, there were few roads running through Alaska’s 586,412 square miles, and they were unpaved. The territory’s 200,000-plus residents were primarily native Alaskans or U.S. military personnel.
“We came to Alaska at a time when Alaska itself was just becoming a state, so there were opportunities in every area of our lives,” Van Kooten said.
At the medical center—the hub of seven Indian Health Service hospitals—Greenman, Van Kooten and Engbers soon branched out into different areas of nursing. Engbers worked in supervisory positions on the tuberculosis, surgical and orthopedic units of the hospital. Greenman worked first in the post-op surgical unit, then set up the infant pediatric unit and finally took charge of the Maternal Child Health Program for the Alaskan native population in the State of Alaska. Van Kooten initially focused on pediatrics, but spent most of her career teaching in the Practical Nurse Program at the Anchorage Community College.
“The native medical situation in 1958 … (was) dismal and desperate … ,” Calvin professor of geology, geography and environmental science Gerald Van Kooten wrote about Alaska. “Rates of illness of many sorts were higher than national averages. Native social life was often ripped apart by alcohol and drugs. Native suicide rates are high, and accidental death is common in this remote and harsh climate. The Nurses served these communities throughout their career and brought Christ’s love to the most hurting and needy of people.”
Though The Nurses had divergent careers, they agreed about what kept them in Alaska: “We all enjoyed the Alaska native population and grew to love those people,” Greenman said. “The elders particularly, and the kids, the young kids, they were so loving and spontaneous and appreciative.”
Not long after their arrival, the three women joined the military personnel and their wives, and other church members who were building Trinity CRC. They pounded nails, sawed boards and painted. “We had lots of work parties followed by potlucks. And that was our social life as well,” Van Kooten remembered.
All three attended Bible studies and taught Sunday School. “At one point, I was superintendant of the Sunday School,” Engbers said. They sang in the choir: Greenman: alto and tenor; Marjorie: soprano and alto; Anne: “Always soprano.” They traveled throughout Alaska for their work and as members of the Prospector’s Club. And on March 27, 1964, they lived through the Good Friday Earthquake, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in North America. “I thought it was the end of the world,” said Van Kooten. “I heard the ground cracking, and I just prayed I wouldn’t get swallowed up by it.”
The three women have been gratified by the decline in tuberculosis and infant mortality cases that have coincided with their careers in Alaska. “Things really have improved quite a bit,” Greenman said.
In 1978, the women bought property together in Cooper Landing, 100 miles south of Anchorage. Twenty years later, they retired and moved down—and got involved. They volunteered at the museum and the Seward Seaman’s Mission, a service to cruise ships. The joined the Sexy Senior Dumpster Cleaners, a group that picks up trash along roadsides and transfer sites.
The three also started working to build affordable senior housing in Cooper Landing. They incorporated in 1999 as the Cooper Landing Senior Citizens Corp. , Inc., (CLSCCI), a group of 100-plus members whose mission is “to support and encourage the independence and well-being of all persons fifty (50) years of age and older in the Cooper Landing service area.” The CLSCCI has developed a shuttle service for seniors and has built two six-unit independent residential complexes funded by the CLSCCI, the Alaska Housing Finance Corp., the Kenai Peninsula Borough, the Alaska State Legislature and the Denali Commission. During the construction process, each assumed a leadership role—Anne as chair of fundraising, Jacque as chair of the building committee and Marge as CLSCCI president. The three live in the complex named Ravens View.
“As could be expected, these ladies have made a huge impact on this little town,” Van Kooten (Marjorie’s nephew) wrote in his nomination of The Nurses. Greenman, Van Kooten and Engbers learned that they had been given the award earlier this year.
“When they first called us, I think we were just appalled,” Engbers said. “I don’t think we did that much to be distinguished about, except that we did travel away from the routines of life, and we liked it.”
Asked what has kept them together through the years, the three say it was more than shared interests or the love of a landscape: “The Lord directs our paths,” Greenman answered for all. “That just unfolded I guess … Good friendship and a good life.”
—By Myrna Anderson
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