Sandwiched between being raised and retired in Meriden are 62 years of working at over 16 different hospitals in eight different countries and yet when asked if she was willing to be interviewed for Meridenite of the Week Roberta Cooke Gibson said,
“Well, if you think I’m interesting enough.”
Name: Roberta Cooke Gibson
How long have you lived in town? I was raised in Meriden and graduated from Meriden Hospital School of Nursing. I returned to Meriden in 2007.
What do you like best about town? Back then I loved the Girl Scouts and going to Camp Kenwood. It cost five cents a day and five cents for milk.
What do you least like about town? I always thought Meriden was pretty nice.
What was your favorite place to eat? Johnny’s Grill on Grove St.
What was your favorite place to go shopping? Uphams and Jepsons Book Store
What was your favorite place to visit? My dad worked for the railroad. I loved taking the train from Meriden to Savin Rock and Colt Park.
What is your fondest memory growing up in Meriden? Going by train with our mother to see the Giants play baseball. Wednesday was ladies day. It cost 25 cents to see a major league baseball game. Also, my dad belonged to the Rifle Association and he would take my two sisters and me shooting at the Meriden gun Club.
Any personal thoughts you'd like to share?
Roberta’s answer to this question was the start of a story that could not go without sharing:
Roberta Cooke Gibson talks about her life as if it is nothing out of the ordinary but there is nothing ordinary about the accomplishments of this woman.
The Beginnings of a Career in Caring
Born in 1924, Gibson attended Meriden schools, graduating from Meriden Hospital School of Nursing in 1945.
From 1945 to 1962 Gibson advanced her nursing career working as a neurosurgical nurse at hospitals across the country; Meriden Hospital, Yale New Haven Hospital, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, Santa Barbara County Hospital and Cottage Hospital in Santa Barbara, California, D.C. General Hospital and the National Institute of Health, Bethesda, Maryland.
“Almost everything I did was to increase my knowledge in neurology and neurosurgery,” explained Gibson. In 1959 she received her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Catholic University, Washington, D.C.
In addition to being an operating room supervisor, working for the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis and assisting 10-hour brain surgeries, Gibson found time to help others in other ways. Upset by the way an African-American nurse was being treated, she began volunteering for the NAACP in New York City. Her reputation as a dedicated volunteer followed her to California where she was asked to start the first chapter of the NAACP in Santa Barbara.
Extending Her Care in the Peace Corps
Gibson's career to this point would impress most but it was just the beginning of a lifetime of caring for others. With the establishment of the Peace Corps under President Kennedy’s administration, Gibson found a new mission.
“Helping others and the excitement of knowing people from different countries appealed to me,” said Gibson.
From 1962 to 1964 she volunteered for the Peace Corps. As a member of the first Urban Community Development Group, she went into impoverished areas of Chile as a visiting nurse as well as being the nurse for the other Peace Corps volunteers. When her two-year commitment ended, Gibson was asked to be a health educator at a Peace Corps Training Center in Puerto Rico.
Marriage, Babies and More Abroad
It was at a coffee shop in Chile that she met Ken, a teacher at the International School. After a few dates, a visit in Puerto Rico and a proposal via telegram, Gibson, with one bag and a wedding dress over her shoulder, flew to Kathmandu, Nepal to be married.
In 1966, Gibson volunteered at the United Mission Hospital in Kathmandu driving a Land Rover into the villages changing dressings in leprosy clinics, holding health care sessions in the village homes and giving classes to students at the hospital on Hospital Housekeeping. It was there that she gave birth to her first child.
Her husband’s work brought them to Jordan during the height of the Arab-Israeli war. Soon after, pregnant with their second child, with her daughter on her back, a bag of diapers, and their dog, she was forced to evacuate, woman and children first, to Greece. Joined by her husband, they tented across Europe until it was safe to return to Jordan, where her second child was born.
With two babies in tow, her husband was sent to teach at the International School in Tanzania. Family vacations were spent in a converted VW bus in the wilds of Kenya and Uganda. Pictures of the family surrounded by elephants, rhinoceros, giraffes and monkeys were as ordinary to Gibson as most families’ pictures at the Bronx Zoo.
In 1982, following a brief return to the states, and the birth of their third child, her husband was asked to work in Saudi Arabia where they lived for the next eight years. Gibson worked in a neurosurgical unit at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Children in Saudi Arabia were not allowed to attend preschool so Gibson started her own preschool, teaching young children from several different countries.
Back to the U.S.
In 1984 Gibson returned to the United States, continuing her nursing practice in Vermont. But her volunteer work was not yet complete. From 1991 through 1993 she volunteered at the Society for Crippled and Disabled Children in Bonaire, Netherlands, Antilles and Cook Islands, South Pacific.
Prior to her return to Meriden, Gibson worked for Hospice, at an Assisted Living Center and as a private duty nurse in Vermont.
At 86-years-old Roberta Gibson is still volunteering her services. An avid reader and writer, Gibson maintains the library at the Bradley Home where she now resides. Each season she decorates the library. At Christmas her personal, 350-volume collection of different printings of The Night Before Christmas are put on display.
As a parting gift from her writing club in Vermont, a book of her short stories was published, Stories by Roberta. It is a delightful collection of her experiences around the world. Gibson is an active member of the Meriden Writer’s Network and hopes to begin her second book about the people who have influenced her life.
When asked if she had a favorite place of work or residence she said, “I liked everything I did and every place I went all for different reasons.”
For a copy of Stories by Roberta contact the Northshire Bookstore Manchester, Vermont at 802-362-2200.