Decades ago, in one of her first jobs as a registered nurse, Beverly Nilsson was caring for homeless men in an open ward at a Minneapolis safety net hospital.
"The lives of these people made a deep impression on her," said her partner, Janet Labrecque.
That experience also began a lifelong career where Nilsson continued and deepened the nursing profession's commitment to society.
Nilsson died Nov. 10 at the age of 89 at her home from complications of Alzheimer's disease.
"She was a visionary," said Joyce Miller, chairwoman of the nursing department at Augsburg University in Minneapolis.
"She was a legend in our nursing program to be able to see the importance of caring for individuals that are socially marginalized," Miller said.
Nilsson led Augsburg's nursing program for 23 years until her retirement in 2001.
During that time the department received accreditation for its bachelor's degree completion program and launched a master's degree program.
She also expanded instruction to the city of Rochester, which is where Miller first met Nilsson in 1998 as a student.
"She was just a very caring person. She was a very gentle spirit and just always very welcoming," Miller said.
For the master's track, Nilsson emphasized "transcultural" nursing.
"Our nursing program is really focused on helping students understand the importance of social justice issues, caring for individuals from other culture groups and caring for individuals that might be marginalized," Miller said.
Those were the values that Nilsson held when she started her nursing career.
"She was a devout Lutheran who was nurtured by the social gospel of Christianity," Labrecque said.
Thirty years ago she continued her mission, setting up a free clinic for the homeless and others needing care through Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. It still does outreach.
"Her core identity was as a nurse," said Labrecque. "She saw it as a very high calling."
In addition to teaching, she was passionate about cooking, baking, reading and gardening. Diagnosed with Alzheimer's nearly 15 years ago, she nonetheless maintained an intense interest in those she met.
"Even in her diminished capacity, she was constantly reaching out to people," Labrecque said.
The couple also pursued Nilsson's love for singing, joining Giving Voice, a chorus for those with Alzheimer's and their caregivers.
"She just delighted in going there and singing with a whole group of other people who had Alzheimer's," said Labrecque. "The nice thing about this chorus is at some point you didn't know who had Alzheimer's and who didn't."
Daughter Kaara Nilsson will remember the notes of her mother's voice.
"I think about spending my life standing next to Mom singing," she said. "Singing was another way of communicating and reflective of how she engaged students. She listened to the notes and nuances in their stories, and encouraged them to go for the high notes."
In addition to her partner Labrecque and daughter Kaara, Nilsson is survived by sons Thomas and Steven,, as well as six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. She was preceded in death by her former spouse, Harry Nilsson.
A memorial service will be held next spring.
Glenn Howatt • 612-673-7192