Rheba de Tornyay

Rheba de Tornyay, EdD, RN, FAAN

The distin­guished career of a nursing pioneer and UW faculty member came to a close on September 27, 2013 with the death of Dean Emeritus Rheba de Tornyay, EdD, RN, FAAN. She was 87.

Dean, educator, innovator, trail­blazer, mentor, collab­o­ra­tive colleague, friend, inspi­ra­tional leader… all these were facets of a career whose focal point and touch­stone was the Univer­sity of Washington School of Nursing, where she served as dean from 1975 to 1986 and as a faculty member until 1996. 

Rheba de TornyayRheba’s UW tenure encom­passed a dramatic and dynamic phase of the School of Nursing’s growth. Her critical emphasis, not without contro­versy, was upgrading the standards of the nursing profes­sion and nursing faculty to be consis­tent with standards of other learned profes­sions and disci­plines. The Univer­sity of Washington was advancing to national promi­nence as an outstanding research univer­sity, and Rheba ensured the School of Nursing kept pace. Thus, faculty were held to the standard of doctoral prepa­ra­tion and research produc­tivity that would become the norm for appoint­ment, promo­tion and tenure in academia. The School of Nursing estab­lished one of the first programs in the country leading to the PhD in nursing science, despite a lack of funding for the effort during a state finan­cial crisis. She led by collab­o­ra­tion, inspi­ra­tion and example to enact these high standards during her deanship. Her remark­able people skills made her capable of melding disparate viewpoints and differing person­al­i­ties into an effec­tive, highly focused, collab­o­ra­tive team — a team that shared a common goal and created the energy to reach that goal. 

The results were the accom­plish­ments that led the UW School of Nursing to its ranking as the top-rated nursing school in the country, a position it has held contin­u­ously since 1984. The school gained and sustained renown for the quality of its faculty, students, research, and teaching. The School of Nursing became a source of not just nurses, but also distin­guished nurse-researchers, nurse-educa­tors, and profes­sional leaders. Its alumni are both legion and legend. 

Though she was dean for slightly more than a decade, Rheba de Tornyay’s impact and influ­ence extended far beyond her time as dean at the School of Nursing. Her legacy of excel­lence and achieve­ments will continue into a nursing future that she helped to create and shape. Dr. de Tornyay’s accom­plish­ments would be excep­tional in any era; they were extra­or­di­nary in the context of a time and place when nursing was strug­gling to be recog­nized as a profession. 

Rheba’s landmark book, Strate­gies for Teaching Nursing, became the unques­tioned standard in the field and influ­enced the way profes­sionals were educated at nursing schools nation­ally and inter­na­tion­ally. Through three editions and several trans­la­tions over a span of 30 years, it exempli­fied a more collab­o­ra­tive and reflec­tive approach to the teaching and learning process at a time when students were seen as passive recip­i­ents of knowledge. 

Born Rheba Fradkin to a farming family in a rural area of Northern California, de Tornyay garnered from the Depres­sion a compas­sion for others that was to shape her life. She earned a bachelor’s degree in nursing from San Francisco State Univer­sity in 1951, a master’s in educa­tion from San Francisco State Univer­sity in 1954, and a doctorate in educa­tion from Stanford Univer­sity in 1967. Her first faculty position was at the Univer­sity of California, San Francisco. She was the second dean of the UCLA School of Nursing prior to assuming the helm of the UW School of Nursing. 

Rheba de Tornyay had a combi­na­tion of hardi­ness, decisive­ness, deter­mi­na­tion, and personal warmth that made her a high-achieving pioneer profes­sion­ally and a treasured friend and colleague person­ally. Her list of firsts, awards, honors, and profes­sional recog­ni­tion is lengthy. It includes being only the third nurse elected to the Insti­tute of Medicine; a Founding Fellow and the first board presi­dent of the American Academy of Nursing; a director of the presti­gious Robert Wood Johnson Nurse Scholars Program; and the first woman and the first nurse ever elected to the Robert Wood Johnson Founda­tion board of trustees, where she served from 1991 – 2002. She endowed the UW School of Nursing’s Center for Healthy Aging (renamed in honor of de Tornyay and her husband, Rudy), was editor of the Journal of Nursing Educa­tion, and was a member of the American Nurses Association’s Commis­sion on Nursing Education. 

Rheba was a member of the National Advisory Council of the San Francisco Insti­tute on Aging, and served as presi­dent of the UW Retire­ment Associ­a­tion. She was named a Living Legend by the American Academy of Nursing, which in 2011 renamed its annual fund in her honor. 

Rheba’s final publi­ca­tion, in 2001, was the book, Choices: Making a Good Move to a Retire­ment Commu­nity, coauthored with one of the many people she mentored. She continued teaching and learning at UW until her retire­ment in 1996. 

She taught to learn, and from her, many others learned to teach as well as practice, research and lead. Her profes­sion and her chosen school are different and better places for her presence, which will be greatly missed. 

Tribute to Rheba De Tornyay Reprinted with permis­sion from the Univer­sity of Washington School of Nursing