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Adm. Mary J. Nielubowicz, 79; Top Navy Nurse

Rear Adm. Mary J. Nielubowicz directed the Navy Nurse Corps and supervised medical facilities around the world.
Rear Adm. Mary J. Nielubowicz directed the Navy Nurse Corps and supervised medical facilities around the world. (1983 Navy Photo)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 24, 2008

Mary J. Nielubowicz, 79, a retired rear admiral who was the director of the Navy Nurse Corps and who supervised Navy medical facilities around the world, died March 24 of cardiopulmonary arrest at her home in Fairfax County.

Adm. Nielubowicz (pronounced neel-uh-BOH-vitch) led the Nurse Corps from 1983 until her retirement in 1987 and was the sixth woman in Navy history to achieve the rank of admiral.

She had about 2,600 nurses under her command worldwide and supervised an equal number of reserve nurses, whom she sought to bring more fully into the Navy's system. While directing the Nurse Corps, she was also the Navy's deputy commander for personnel and, later, deputy commander for health-care operations.

Adm. Nielubowicz -- often called "Admiral Niel" by her subordinates -- became a beloved figure in the Nurse Corps for defending the corps from budget cuts and reorganization efforts and for championing the role of women in the military. As director, she successfully resisted efforts to reorganize the corps under the Navy's general medical command. She demanded that her nurses receive the same privileges and respect as any other officers.

"She had to fight for the corps," said retired Navy Capt. Anita Sheehan, who was Adm. Nielubowicz's deputy director. "She was very considerate and very compassionate, and was tenacious in her efforts to protect the Navy Nurse Corps."

During her 36-year Navy career, Adm. Nielubowicz served as a nurse and sometimes a personnel officer.

"She was considered a giant among our Navy nurse leaders," said Jan Herman, a historian with the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. "She was truly a nurse in everything she did. She took care of people."

Mary Joan Nielubowicz was born Feb. 5, 1929, in Shenandoah, Pa. Her father was a coal miner who died of black-lung disease.

"From a young age, she always wanted to be a nurse," a niece, Mary Vitale, said.

She received her nursing training at Misericordia Hospital (now Mercy Hospital) in Philadelphia and joined the Navy on a two-year enlistment in 1951.

"After twelve years of Catholic schooling, to follow orders and wearing a uniform was not very difficult," Adm. Nielubowicz said in "In and Out of Harm's Way," a history of the Nurse Corps by Doris M. Sterner.

Early assignments took her to California, Cuba, Annapolis and Philadelphia. She received a bachelor's degree from the University of Colorado in 1961 and a master's degree in nursing from the University of Pennsylvania in 1965.

She was a recruiter during the Vietnam War, then became senior nurse at a hospital in Iwakuni, Japan, where the Marine Corps operates an air station. After serving as chief nurse at naval hospitals in Cherry Point, N.C., Guam and Long Beach, Calif., Adm. Nielubowicz was in Washington from 1975 to 1979 as a personnel officer and deputy director of the Nurse Corps. She then was director of the nursing service at the Naval Regional Medical Center in Portsmouth, Va.

In September 1983, when she was named the 15th director of the Nurse Corps, she became the first and last woman in the Navy promoted to the rank of commodore, which was reclassified as rear admiral lower half in 1985.

In addition to her Nurse Corps duties, Adm. Nielubowicz became deputy commander for Health Care Operations in 1984. As the first non-physician to hold the job, she managed the Navy's 31 hospitals, 11 major medical clinics and 174 branch clinics throughout the world.

Her military decorations included two awards of the Legion of Merit, two Meritorious Service Medals and three Navy Commendation Medals. After her retirement in 1987, Adm. Nielubowicz was chairman of the Veterans Administration's Committee for Women Veterans. She served on the board of directors of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation and helped lead the effort to build a memorial for female veterans, which was dedicated in 1997.

"She was an outstanding leader," said the foundation president, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Wilma L. Vaught. "She was very committed to seeing that women in the military were recognized in some way."

Once, after a speaking engagement at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, she was mobbed by female midshipmen.

"She really was a role model for women in the military," said Paula Barnes, a former Navy commander who was an assistant to the admiral. "We felt lucky to have her."

Adm. Nielubowicz, who had renewed her nursing license in February, will be honored at ceremonies next month commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Navy Nurse Corps.

From the early 1970s, the admiral's mother, Ursula Nielubowicz, lived with her at her various Navy assignments. The two women could often be found in the kitchen, making Polish and Lithuanian dishes and cookies. Adm. Nielubowicz cared for her mother until her death at 93 in 1999.

Adm. Nielubowicz served on the board of directors of Vinson Hall, a military retirement community in McLean, and was a member of St. Leo the Great Catholic Church in Fairfax.

Survivors include two sisters.

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