A Trailblazer, An Inspiration and a Role Model for Generations of Nurse Leaders Retires

    • September 27, 2012

One of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s (RWJF’s) most prestigious programs experienced a major transition in September when nursing legend Shirley Chater stepped down as its national advisory committee chair.  Northeastern University’s Terry Fulmer, PhD, RN, FAAN, professor and dean of the Bouve College of Health Sciences, is the new chair of the Executive Nurse Fellows program.

“Nobody replaces Shirley Chater,” Fulmer said. “She is iconic and has created a program that will have an indelible impact on the future of nursing and the history of nursing.”

Some 15 years ago, Chater, PhD, RN, FAAN, helped develop the RWJF Executive Nurse Fellows program, working side-by-side with RWJF leaders and serving, until now, as its first and only national advisory committee chair. Before that, she served as commissioner of the United States Social Security Administration under President Bill Clinton, heading a federal agency with 65,000 employees that touches the lives of nearly all Americans.

Chater is a former president of Texas Woman’s University, and vice chancellor of academic affairs at the University of California, San Francisco. When she received her doctorate, Chater was one of just 64 nurses in the country to hold that degree. The American Academy of Nursing honored her as a “Living Legend” in 2000. Today, Chater holds 13 honorary doctoral degrees.

“Shirley, you made the kind of career for yourself that few little girls of your era could have imagined," said RWJF President and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, via video during a gala tribute to Chater. “You blazed trails, broke barriers, and rewrote the book on the type of career a nurse of your generation could have.  What we love most about you is that, every step along the way, you stopped to offer a hand so that other nurses could do the same… You have inspired generations of nurses to be stronger and better, to speak out for their patients and their profession, to trust in themselves and each other. You helped countless nurses become leaders in their health systems, in their communities, and in our country.”

“This event should be a celebration of our 15-year program,” Chater said at the event, which brought together fellows and nurse and health leaders from across the country. “The Executive Nurse Fellows program has always been the jewel in the [Robert Wood Johnson] Foundation’s crown. It’s been a wonderful, wonderful experience for me.”

Since it started in 1998, more than 200 nurse leaders have participated in the RWJF Executive Nurse Fellows program—a three-year, world-class program that strengthens the leadership capacity of nurses who aspire to shape health care locally and nationally. Fellows receive coaching, education, and other support to strengthen their ability to lead teams and organizations that are improving health and health care. Many have gone on to high-level leadership posts.

2009 Cohort Graduation

The meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina featured the graduation of the program’s 2009 cohort.  Chater congratulated the group and urged them to “go out and change our country’s health care delivery system.”

Many of the graduating fellows said the program has prepared them to do just that.  “I am not the same person I was when I entered the program,” said  Cindy Reistroffer, MBA, BSN, RN, NE-BC. “I will take a lot more risks.  I will fall and pick myself up.  I will push and challenge myself and others.”

“This program helps you take risks,” agreed Janie Canty-Mitchell, PhD, RN. “It took me out of my comfort zone.” Canty-Mitchell has recently taken a new job in a different state.

The Executive Nurse Fellows program “enabled us to find our true selves in a very complicated world,” said Stephen Cavanagh, PhD, MS, MPA, RN.  “You learn to build new communities.  It’s a transformative experience.  It adds value to your professional career and also to the people you serve.”

RWJF’s Senior Adviser for Nursing, Susan B. Hassmiller, PhD, RN, FAAN, told the graduates:  “You have inspired me. Now go out and inspire others.”

The Executive Nurse Fellows program is located at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL).  It is co-directed by Linda Cronenwett, PhD, RN, FAAN, the Beerstecher Blackwell Term Professor and former dean of the School of Nursing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and David Altman, PhD, executive vice president of Research, Innovation and Product Development at CCL.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has named Chater one of the “Force Multipliers” it is saluting in this, its 40th year, for being a trailblazer in the nursing profession and a pioneering nurse of the future.

Watch a a heartfelt and personal video tribute from RWJF President Risa Lavizzo-Mourey to nursing legend Shirley Chater.

Read more about the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Executive Nurse Fellows program.

For an overview of RWJF scholar and fellow opportunities, visit www.RWJFLeaders.org.


Shirley Chater and the 2011 cohort of RWJF Executive Nurse Fellows


Chater looking at memorabilia assembled for her tribute


2009 RWJF Executive Nurse Fellow Stephen Cavanagh with Chater