Photo by Crystal Wylie ’05
Mary Lou Salter ’47 had no plans to attend Berea College. And when she arrived she had no intention of staying. A Berea alumnus teaching at her school in North Carolina had persuaded her to take the entrance exam. Soon after, a telegram arrived saying there was a reservation for her in nursing class.
Mary Lou accepted the invitation only because she feared she’d be billed for the reservation.
“I didn’t unpack for a week,” Mary Lou said about her campus arrival. “They asked me when I was going to unpack. I said, ‘I’m not staying.’”
To her surprise, she found nursing classes enjoyable, and with World War II raging overseas, the United States had a need for nurses. She attended Berea only a short time before she answered the call to join the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps and moved to the University of Cincinnati to continue her training.
“I wanted a gun,” she said, “but they gave me a needle. I shot every recruit in Ohio.”
Eventually, Mary Lou was assigned to the theater in the Philippines, but the war ended before she could ship out. Her future husband, Dr. James Salter ’49, whom she met at Berea, was stationed as a combat platoon leader in the Philippines. When he returned to Berea to finish his degree after the war, Mary Lou took a job as operating room supervisor at the nearby Pattie A. Clay Hospital, working for visiting surgeon and Berea graduate Dr. Hugh Mahaffey ’24.
“In the 1940s, nothing was disposable except knife blades and sponges,” she said. “All else had to be sterilized and reused.”
One of only two Berea students to get into medical school in 1949, James, upon the recommendation of his chemistry professor, Dr. Julian Capps, enrolled at the University of Louisville. Mary Lou went with him, serving in the neurosurgery unit of Louisville’s Veterans Administration hospital.
The couple devoted themselves to medicine in Kentucky and Ohio. Mary Lou served as the nurse in James’ family practice in Mt. Sterling, Ky., before he went back to Louisville to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology. Eventually, James took a position at the medical school at Wright State University and Mary Lou taught health education in Fairfield, Ohio. She retired from the Ohio Board of Education after her two children were grown.
In 1978, James and Mary Lou re-settled in Richmond, where James could travel less by serving just one hospital. Mary Lou was appointed to the Foster Care Review Board and introduced scoliosis screening at Madison County Schools.
Mary Lou lost her parents at a young age, giving her a soft spot for children in need. She also adopted two babies, Greg and Cindy. While on the Foster Care Review Board, she reviewed case files to identify children who may have fallen through the cracks.
“I’ve always been interested in helping children,” she said. “I want to give something back to children who need to see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
I want to give something back to children who need to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
The desire to help young people in need extends to Berea’s students. “My favorite part of Berea’s mission is helping those who have potential and don’t have another chance,” she said. “Berea College is very special.”
James died from leukemia in 2012. Mary Lou, a cancer survivor, dedicated the chemistry project lab in the Margaret A. Cargill Natural Sciences and Health building in his honor.
“Berea was a happy time in my life, and James felt like Dr. Capps got him into medical school,” she said. “When God’s been good to us, we have to pass it down the line to somebody else.