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Ora M. DeJesus

University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

Elders and their caregivers had a dedicated advocate in geriatric nurse practitioner Ora M. DeJesus (1927-2000). Ora was a compassionate clinician, skilled nursing facility manager, university professor, and first executive director of The Gerontology Center at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth (UMD). In honor of her leadership in the field of gerontology, UMD renamed the Center as The Ora M. DeJesus Gerontology Center in 2001.

Elders and their caregivers had a dedicated advocate in geriatric nurse practitioner Ora M. DeJesus (1927-2000). With 40 years of experience in the field of gerontology, Ora was a compassionate clinician, skilled nursing facility manager, university professor, and first executive director of The Gerontology Center at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

Ora was born in Lakeville on January 10, 1927, the first child of Howell DeMoranville and Ora Mae Gabrey DeMoranville. Her father’s French Huguenot DeMoranville ancestors had settled in the Lakeville area by the early 18th century, with eight ancestors serving in the American Revolutionary War. Howell and Ora Mae had five children in their first and only home on Precinct Street in Lakeville, next door to Howell’s parents. Daughter Ora attended Lakeville public schools up through freshman year of high school, when she was forced to drop out at age 15 after marrying Henry DeJesus, whom she had met at South Middleboro Grange Hall dances. Initially planning to run away upon finding out that Ora was pregnant, both families accepted the young marriage. Ora and Henry first lived with Henry’s parents on their Middleboro farm, then rented a small cottage in Lakeville. In 1943, at age 16, Ora’s first child was stillborn. Ora and Henry would have three children, all born in a cottage built by Henry on Crooked Lane in Lakeville. Ora’s parents had taught her the importance of family, hard work, respect, and sacrifice. Her extended Lakeville family had instilled in Ora a love of reading, music, and dancing. Despite the death of their first child, educational setbacks and financial constraints, Ora and Henry were determined to make things work.

In 1954, after the birth of her second child, Ora began her career in nursing as a nurse’s aide at Green Pastures nursing home in Middleboro. By the end of 1955, she took on a second job as a nurse’s aide at Fair Haven Rest Home, also in Middleboro. After her third child was born, Ora and Henry’s Lakeville home on Crooked Lane, now expanded and called Meadowview, was licensed as a 6-bed nursing home. As a requirement to run the nursing home, Ora completed the 15-month licensed practical nursing (LPN) program at Morton Hospital in Taunton and finished first on the state board exam for LPN licensure. In 1960, Ora completed a nursing home administrators’ course at the University of Maine at Orono. By that same year, Meadowview became a 26-bed nursing home, fulfilling Ora and Henry’s plan to develop and run an expanded elder care facility. Ora served as either the director of nursing or the administrator of their Meadowview nursing home. She and Henry made sure that Meadowview was an environment where human dignity was paramount for both their patients and their staff. From 1958 until 1961, Meadowview was also home to Ora and her family. In 1961, Ora and Henry moved their family to a Victorian house on Main Street in Lakeville.

When the state required the registered nurse (RN) license to operate nursing homes in 1963, Ora realized that she needed to continue her education. First, she needed to complete her high school education, graduating from Apponequet High School at the age of 37 in 1964. Next, she entered the nursing program at Newton Junior College, where she earned an associate degree in nursing and her RN license. From 1975 through 1978, Ora attended the nurse practitioner program at Boston University, where she completed the certificate in advanced practice in geriatric nursing (GNP). Throughout her nursing education, Ora expanded her clinical and nursing management skills at Meadowview and even taught in the nursing aide program at an area vocational high school.

In 1981, Ora was appointed Assistant Professor of Community Nursing at Southeastern Massachusetts University (SMU), now the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth (UMD). At the university level, Ora’s mission was to strengthen the emphasis on care of elders in the nursing curriculum. Under Ora’s direction, SMU’s College of Nursing established a distinct senior course in Nursing Leadership in Long Term Care Nursing. She taught Community Nursing and became a core member of the multidisciplinary University Faculty Gerontology Committee (UFGC), a group that established a gerontology minor as well as a gerontology certificate program. In 1991, as SMU merged to become UMD, Ora was promoted to Associate Professor. She helped to develop a gerontology option in UMD’s College of Nursing master’s program, with one of the tracks to be Leadership in Gerontological Nursing. Ora also worked to establish collaborative educational networks, including an outreach program for elders through councils on aging that involved nursing students. Heather Bolger, one of Ora’s last undergraduate students, described Ora’s passion for the elderly, “She was the one person who made everyone look at aging as a wonderful thing. She made you feel like you couldn’t wait to be 75 or 80 or 90.”

Ora led efforts to establish The Gerontology Center at UMD in 1996. She, along with UFGC members Don Mulcare and Shaleen Barnes, authored the Center proposal. Once The Gerontology Center was approved, Ora became its first executive director. Under Ora’s leadership, the Center began its work of developing curriculum, encouraging research, promoting gerontology across the curriculum, increasing visibility, and continuing community connections. She networked, built coalitions, and secured funding with the help of colleague Lois Spirlet. Through this period, Ora continued to participate in the gerontology minor and certificate programs and was a frequent speaker at national conferences. Her vision now included UMD becoming a leader in the field of gerontology. In honor of her commitment, UMD renamed the Center as The Ora M. DeJesus Gerontology Center in 2001.

Throughout the 1990s, Ora received regional, state and national appointments not usually granted to professionals from southeastern Massachusetts. In 1992, she was appointed by Governor William Weld to the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Nursing, where she served for eight years. On that Board, Ora was on the Nursing Education Committee, a group that reviewed and approved new or revised curricula for nursing education programs within the state. She made sure that the needs of elders were addressed by both content and clinical experience within nursing programs. In 1994, Ora was appointed to the Massachusetts White House Conference on Aging, and in 1995 she was named to the President’s White House Conference on Aging in Washington, D.C. In 1997, Ora was made advisor on elder affairs in southeastern Massachusetts by the Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs. She was named a Fellow in the Association of Gerontology in Higher Education in 1997.

Ora used innovative programming to advocate for the elderly. Two of her most successful innovations were Books on the Porch and The Aging Game. Books on the Porch was a book discussion group that featured books on aging and was offered through UMD’s Division of Continuing Education. Held at her seaside home at Burgess Point in Wareham, her husband Henry, who had ventured into the crumpet business, served warm crumpets and his homemade jam to participants. Books on the Porch introduced group members to various aspects of gerontology. Ora also hosted The Aging Game, an interview show on local cable television that featured programs of The Gerontology Center as well as such topics as estate planning and long term care insurance.

Ora fell in October 1999 and lost mobility. She died on July 1, 2000, just ten days after meeting with the Board of Registration in Nursing for a retreat at her Burgess Point home. On August 12, 2000, the Celebration of the Life of Ora M. DeJesus was held at her home and Governor Paul A. Cellucci proclaimed the day as Ora Mae DeJesus Day in Massachusetts.

Ann O’Leary

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