Chicago's Nurse Parade

Nursing Book Club

Chicago's Nurse Parade

For 10 years, the Windy City honored nurses with their own parade

By Carolyn H. Smeltzer, Frances R. Vlasses and Connie R. Robinson
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Reviewed By Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN

Ever feel like you’ve just been so good, so over the top, that someone should throw you a parade? You could march in it or, better yet, wave from the float, blowing kisses to the crowd. The bands would play, the cheerleaders would strut, and even the mayor would show up to honor you.

Chicago Nurse Parade nursingWell, at one time, in Chicago, that’s exactly what happened. For a period of 10 years, the city threw an annual nurse parade. The inaugural event boasted two floats and four bands. At its peak in 1958, more than 100 floats, 30 bands and 4,000 nurses paraded along a route that was touted as the world’s largest and shortest — six blocks.

The organizers, primarily Friar Clarence Brissette, knew nurses worked long hours and walked miles of hospital corridors. He didn’t want to tire them more than necessary, hence the short parade route. And that’s not all. At the end of the parade, still with capes, caps and all, the nurses rested with soft drinks and danced the night away. They had to save energy for that, too.

The parade had strong religious overtones — a quite natural development since the originator was a priest — but hospitals from all over Chicago, of every religious affiliation and none, sent floats to honor their nurses and students. During a candlelight ceremony at the end, Catholic nurses recited their nursing vows and then joined in the dancing.

Why a parade? To Fr. Brissette, nurses were a critical force within the community, and the community should show its gratitude by giving them a day of glory. The post-war era suffered from a nursing shortage similar to the one now, and the parade was a unique recruitment tool. Hospitals and their schools of nursing used their entries as mobile ads, just like today’s Rose Parade, where most of the floats salute their sponsoring companies.

The annual event touted innovative services and different hospitals celebrated milestone anniversaries by leading the parade. Adding to the excitement and anticipation of the evening, plans for the floats were a well-kept secret. Of all Chicago’s parade-goers, the crowds for the nurse parade were the most demonstrative, whistling and cheering as the community favorites passed by. In 1958, over 100,000 people showed their appreciation.

Today not many nurses who marched during the 10 years of the parade can still march, but they still remember. This book is a wonderful tribute to them and a unique pictorial account of a delightful chapter in nursing history. It is also a tribute to a great city that valued members of a profession that was then, as it is now, “undermanned, noble and caring.”

Elizabeth Hanink, RN, BSN, PHN, is a freelance writer with extensive hospital and community-based nursing experience.

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