Judy Waters: A grieving father's gift to nursing, Pittsfield

FITCHBURG — During its history Pittsfield clearly stood up for compassion.

Henry Walker Bishop (1829-1913) was a native of Lenox, son of a Lenox judge. He studied at Amherst, practiced law in Chicago, keeping a home in Pittsfield.

Bishop's son, Henry W. Bishop III, was a senior at Williams College when he became ill with typhoid fever and died at age 21. One biography described the father as "idolizing" his son; the loss was immeasurable.

Bishop did not waiver: to honor the compassionate nursing care that had comforted his son, he would give to the nurses of the Berkshires training and new facilities — a nursing school in his son's name, a gift that would ripple out with local benefits, including "scientific training for women." (hathitrust.org)

The Henry W Bishop, III, Memorial Nurses Training School was established by 1889. The stately building stands today, on Pittsfield's upper North Street, across from Berkshire Medical Center's Warriner Building. Bishop's gift was a shot in the arm for the House of Mercy, doubling capacity of Pittsfield's first hospital, but it was also a vaccination against pessimism. Poverty, homelessness, a growing population pushed against fewer beds and nurses.

Of stone and red brick, the three story school had seven new rooms for patients, a sunny kitchen, a bright solarium. The "Lenox Room" offered free beds; nurses slept in quiet rooms on the top floor. One visitor said that outward views of western hills alone could help someone heal.

Dr. Jenkins from First Church opened the school's dedication. Henry Bishop's letter was read, addressed to Mrs. Thomas Plunkett at the House of Mercy, citing a minimum donation of $25,000. Clerk Mary Hinsdale and trustees acknowledged the gift respectfully.

'Peace and consolation'

The tone that consequential day was set in the words of the speakers:

"Berkshire will feel a just pride and an increasing personal responsibility. You will see successive classes of self-supporting women go forth, a growing mutual relationship." A son was remembered as "a man who did not live out his life, that came to an early end," and a father's "peace and consolation" would likely come of his generosity to "this delightful Berkshire of ours, where we stand side by side and shoulder to shoulder in our common work." (hathitrust.org)

It was decided. A memorial school to train those practicing compassion would help a father heal, be a prescription for health of a community and boon to women's economic stability. But upon dedication, Henry Bishop also confided to Mrs. Plunkett something about the art of giving: that in a rural region where the giver knows the receiver, donations would be met with greater trust and meaning, avoiding "unguarded channels," perhaps a principle that guided future giving to the city.

Would Bishop's memorial school realize his intentions? By 1915, three years before the county's historic influenza outbreak, historian Edward Boltwood cited 389 nursing students had graduated from the Henry Bishop Training School. Graduation ceremonies through the mid 20th century, some held at the former North Junior High and Pittsfield High School, brought 1,449 graduates by the 1968 school closing (berkshirehealthsystems.org) Generations of Pittsfield men and women benefited. Bishop had been ahead of his time.

With recent warm days giving way to a late Berkshire fall, traffic whisks along upper North Street past a quiet building engraved with the name Henry Bishop III, an early symbol of optimism. Though in a different context, a father shared something in common with Berkshire parents today. Too many have known loss of a child at the cusp of adulthood, before a life can be lived out.

In 2017, from eastern to western corners of Massachusetts, daughters and sons just starting their adult life have been lost to a generational epidemic of the 21st century. Few cities or towns have been untouched, as opioid addiction starts to be approached with more openness and compassion. Perhaps memorial to those lost can help heal communities. wipe away stigmas and lead to new treatments so urgently needed.

Henry Bishop had married Pittsfield's Jessica A. Pomeroy. He kept a peaceful summer estate in Pittsfield called "Wiaka" (from an indigenous dialect meaning "little house"), the area later to become Bishop and Concord Parkways. Bishop died in 1913, in New Jersey. He lived long enough to see his gift come to fruition; he outlived his son by 28 years. He was buried in Pittsfield, not far from the school he founded, within the Berkshires he loved.

Judy Waters is a Pittsfield native and former Richmond resident.


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