It is with equal measures of sadness, gratitude and appreciation that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation notes the passing of Rheba de Tornyay, EdD, an iconic leader in the field of nursing education, a tireless advocate for care of the elderly, the first woman, and the first nurse to serve on the Foundation’s Board of Trustees. de Tornyay was elected to the RWJF Board in 1991 and served until 2002, when she was named a trustee emeritus.
At de Tornyay’s first Board meeting, the proceedings began with the words, “Gentlemen, let’s come to order,” followed immediately by an apology to her. “I don’t care what you call me,” she graciously replied, “as long as I’m here.”
“Yes. Rheba was the first woman on the Board of Trustees,” said Robert E. Campbell, MBA, former chairman of the RWJF Board and retired vice chairman of Johnson & Johnson. “But her presence was transformational far beyond that recognition. Her experience, intellect and emphatic nature reshaped the perspective of discussion and decision-making on a multitude of levels. Always approachable, always with a smile, Rheba established a standard of excellence for all who would follow. She was truly a wonderful person with whom it was an honor and pleasure to serve.”
Dean emeritus of the School of Nursing at the University of Washington, de Tornyay was nationally recognized as a modern trailblazer in the advancement of nursing education and a passionate promoter of nursing in health policy. Under her leadership as dean from 1975 to 1986, the School of Nursing established a doctoral degree in nursing science and developed the first sleep lab to be housed in a school of nursing in the nation. de Tornyay also believed in the importance of continuing education for nurses and established a separate division of the school devoted exclusively to that purpose. Countless students and colleagues considered her a devoted role model and mentor.
As a member of RWJF’s Board of Trustees, de Tornyay provided valuable first-hand knowledge of the issues facing nurses and nursing across the nation. She enthusiastically backed the Foundation’s work in the field, particularly when it contributed evidence on the critical need for more and better-trained nurses.
“Rheba cared deeply about improving health care for the benefit of patients everywhere and, of course, paid special attention to nurses’ unique role in making that happen,” said RWJF President and CEO Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, MBA. “She combined intellect and empathy to create a force that was unstoppable and unforgettable. RWJF was most fortunate to have had her on our Board of Trustees.”
During de Tornyay’s tenure on the Board, the Foundation helped to create a number of groundbreaking nursing-based programs including, among others, Colleagues in Caring: Regional Collaboratives for Nursing Work Development; the RWJF Executive Nurse Fellows program; and Partnerships for Training: Regional Education Systems for Nurse Practitioners, Certified Nurse-Midwives, and Physician Assistants.
One particularly distinguished program created during her tenure—the Nurse Family Partnership—provides regular home visits by a nurse to teen mothers and their babies until the child turns 2 years old. Since RWJF awarded the program $10 million in 1999, it has expanded to 42 states. In 2010, the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act provided funding to help states expand the program even further.
“I loved her enthusiasm,” said Steven A. Schroeder, MD, former RWJF president and CEO, “and I feel fortunate to have worked with her.”
de Tornyay received her bachelor’s degree in nursing from San Francisco State University in 1951, and a master’s in education from the same institution in 1954. She earned a doctorate in education from Stanford University in 1967. Always passionate about advancing the nursing profession, de Tornyay helped establish the American Academy of Nursing (AAN) and served as its first president from 1973 to 1974. In 1995, the organization declared her one of its Living Legends.
In honor of de Tornyay’s spirited personality and the important leadership role she played within the Foundation, the Board of Trustees passed a resolution in April expressing its “deepest and most profound gratitude” for her service to RWJF and to the health and health care of all Americans. The impact she made will resound for generations to come.