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State Highway 92 across Wolf Ridge, in far western McCreary County, is not a welcoming road to motorists who drive across it when cold fronts throw sheets of snow across the Cumberland Plateau. The narrow divide between the heads of Wolf and Alum creeks is especially dangerous with its sheer precipices on either side of the road and scenic vistas that tend to distract drivers. Guard rails lend a measure of security and safety today, but on November 2, 1951, they were not in place. Perhaps, that might explain how, on that date, the life of one of McCreary County’s unsung heroes came to an end.
In a commentary, following passing of May Adams Upton, Charles Whitman Hume said this of her: “As the first mean little snowflake of the season fell Friday afternoon, the life of McCreary County’s Angel of Mercy, County Health Nurse, was snuffed out. Death claimed her life while she was happy, her spirit invigorated by the first sign of winter, riding with her darling grandson, Richard II, her thoughts about her people whom she had served with loving care for the past fourteen years. As so often it does, when life is sweet and one’s heart is bursting with the joy of living, the Eternal Sleep fell gently upon her and she was no more. Perhaps, she would have had it that way, reluctant but unafraid.”
Few people remain alive who remember May Adams Upton, but those who do would be hard pressed to describe her as an Angel of Mercy. To the boys and girls attending public schools in McCreary County in the 1940’s, she could be more accurately called the Mistress of Misery. For that is what “Miss Upton” was to them. Yet, had it not been for this dedicated public servant, who was apt to appear out of nowhere in her white uniform and navy blue cloak, carrying a black valise full of shiny needles, alcohol swabs, and vials of vaccines, many of those same boys and girls would have, long ago, occupied places of honor in family cemeteries, the victims of a plethora of childhood diseases. It is because of her that most of them did not fall victim to measles, whooping cough, diphtheria, smallpox, and scarlet fever. It is because of her that many of them are still here.
May Upton was born in Omaha, Nebraska on October 23, 1889. She was educated there and, eventually, became a Registered Nurse. Employment at various hospitals in the Mid-West followed and she developed a reputation for dependability and selfless sacrifice in pursuit of the noblest ideals of her profession. Those ideals were put to the test when the United States declared war on Germany in1917. Within months, American dough boys were on their way to Europe to assist American allies in the war effort. Knowing that soldiers would need medical care, May Upton resigned from her job and joined the American Red Cross. That she did so as a volunteer, with no prospect of remuneration, was of little concern to her. The boys in uniform needed help and she would be there to help them. She was assigned to a field hospital in France.
Old soldiers who have experienced combat sometimes say they have seen the elephant. In France, although she never wore a military uniform or fired a weapon, May Upton saw the elephant. When the war ended on November 11, 1918, she returned home, weary from long hours spent in olive drab tents that reeked of blood, vomit, gangrene and camphor. She had treated wounds that, at the time, seemed untreatable. She had listened to the whispers of dying soldiers who just wanted someone to hold their hand. She had written letters on stationery stained with blood for young boys who could not hold a pencil. She had heard their cries for pain relievers and their prayers for forgiveness. Her time spent on the battlefields of France had changed her. She was not the same woman she had been when she “went over.” Nor would she ever be again.
May tried to resume the life she had led before the war. She found employment in hospitals and physician’s offices and tried to start her own family, all to no avail. She was on the staff of St. Louis City Hospital when she learned that the Kentucky State Board of Health had developed a plan to place a Public Health Nurse in every county in the Commonwealth. Preventable diseases like tuberculosis, smallpox, diphtheria, yellow fever, malaria, and the many childhood diseases were taking a toll on rural Kentuckians and crippling the economy. Something had to be done to alleviate the sorrow and save lives. When she fully understood Kentucky’s need for proper medical care in places that had no access to such, May jumped at the opportunity to serve. In 1931, she accepted an offer to become a Public Health Nurse in Knott County. Six years later, she was transferred to McCreary County, where she would serve until her untimely death.
The job of Public Health Nurse in Eastern Kentucky was not one for the timid or the weak. Only the bold and the strong could succeed. Neither Knott County nor McCreary County was an inviting place in which to begin a new chapter in one’s life. Yet, it was within the dark ravines and forested hills of those places that May Upton found the renewal of spirit that had eluded her for so many years. The difficulties of access to people in need of education and treatment challenged her, but they did not frighten her. On the contrary, she embraced them with determination and fortitude. If she had to walk ten miles to reach a sick mother in need of pre-natal care, so be it. She would make the journey. If the boys and girls frowned when they saw her walking across the schoolyard, it was just too bad. They did not realize that she was adding years to their lives. If a teacher became upset when she explained the need of his students to avoid drinking from the same communal dipper, that was his problem, not hers. If a farmer became red in the face when she told him to build a springhouse so squirrels and raccoons could not contaminate his family’s source of drinking water, he would just have to get over it. She had a job to do and making friends was not in the job description.
Yet, make friends is what she did. Before her fourteen years of service to McCreary Countians was over, she had become what Hume had called her in his eulogy, an Angel of Mercy. As she had done in France, she had held the hands of dozens of dying men and women whom she had cared for in their last hours. She had been present at the birth of hundreds of babies and had washed the blood from them and cradled them in her arms before handing them over to their mothers. She had visited homes in every part of the county and shared their humble meals of pinto beans, fried potatoes, and cornbread. She had haggled with politicians and community leaders over steak, baked potatoes, and yeast rolls in upscale restaurants. She had become a force to be taken into consideration when decisions impacting the poor were being made.
When Kinne-Slaven Post 115 of the American Legion in Stearns learned of what she had done in France during World War I, May Upton was declared an honorary member of the American Legion. She was not a soldier, but the Legionnaires knew she was one of them. This act by the Legionnaires epitomized the emotion felt by all McCreary Countians, for May Upton, belonged to them, too.
When “Miss Upton” got into her Jeep on that fateful day in 1951, to answer a plea that had come from someone needing help in the Slavens community, she had not hesitated. She had ventured forth, unafraid and undeterred, in the face of inclement weather and over a dangerous road. Someone had called for her. That was all she needed to know.