Clara Peck obit




                “The Samaritan of Elm Street” is the title Gerald W. Johnson gave to Mrs. Clara Thornton Peck.  “A bolder heart doesn’t beat,” the noted historian and journalist continued.  “There has yet to appear a disease so loathsome or so malignant that Mrs. Peck is afraid to grapple with it.  There is yet to come the night so dark or so bitter that she will not rise from her bed at any hour to answer a call.  There has yet to spring up the slum so vicious that Mrs. Peck will not invade it…if her duty lies there.”

                This remarkable woman was born in Stoud, Gloucestershire, England, on March 1, 1862.  Her father, John Thornton, came to the United States of America in 1872 and soon thereafter his wife, Jane Thornton, and their five children joined him.  The Thornton family first settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Here young Clara Jane attended the public schools and later graduated in voice from the Pershing School of Music.  For several years she was a member of the choir and soloist at St. Peter’s Protestant Episcopal Church.

                During early womanhood she met and on September 19, 1883, marred Delbert Stephen Peck of Cleveland, Ohio, and they became the parents of two daughters.  In 1898 this happy little family moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, in order to be near Mrs. Peck’s parents who had moved to this place from Pittsburgh, in the hope that a change of climate would restore John Thornton’s declining health.  But the father died in 1899, and soon thereafter Delbert S. Peck died of pneumonia. 

                Heroically facing the loss of both father and husband, Clara Thornton Peck considered possible ways of supporting herself and her two little children.  Having a natural instinct for providing care in times of sickness and physical misfortune, she began to apply her talents to those in need of help.  There was no nursing school in the vicinity of Greensboro.  Therefore, in rendering service for those in need, Mrs. Peck had to rely upon her own common sense and her ability to follow directions from physicians or interested friends.

                Typical of calls for her assistance was one which came from a miserable hovel outside the city limits.  A man lay dying of typhoid fever.  Upon arrival at his poverty-stricken home, Mrs. Peck saw that death was only a few hours away.  She knelt on the side of his pallet and tried to relieve the sick man’s suffering.  At two o’clock in the morning he died in her arms.  Then alone, at that hour of the night, she returned to the city.  So filth was the place in which she had found the sick man, and so contagious was his disease, that it was necessary for her to destroy a part of her clothing before she entered her own home.  She did not cease from her labors until she had been assured that the patient would have a decent burial.

                In 1901 some local physicians decided to erect The Greensboro Hospital, a building with twelve rooms located in the second block of South Greene Street.  Eager for professional training, Mrs. Peck entered the hospital to study nursing and was soon made the institution’s first matron.  Promising as the outlook had seemed, this establishment was no success as a business venture, and was forced to close its doors in 1906.

                According to Greensboro’s Dr. J.P. Turner, Mrs. Peck came to The Greensboro Hospital in 1903.  She had not been with this institution long before out of a desire to help sick patients she began to visit them in their rooms.  Indeed, she volunteered to do a part of the nursing, thereby becoming indispensable both as matron and nurse.  Dr. Turner further reported that during her connection with Greensboro Hospital and after it closed, “Mrs. Peck began specializing in nursing obstetrical cases, and her patients liked her motherly, cheerful, quiet smiles and ways.  The demand for her services far exceeded the number of cases she could attend.”

She was also called upon by Greensboro physicians whenever they needed professional care of unusual illnesses.  Those whom she attended seemed not to be able to praise her enough for the able and healing care she administered.  One of Greensboro’s leading physicians, Dr. William P. Beall, in the early 1900’s wrote of her:


A competent nurse, this was only one of her many useful accomplishments.  Her ready sympathy, her gentleness, her wonderful tact, combined to make her one among thousands.  When she entered a home as nurse, she became at once a friend, advisor, and helper in any emergency.  Was the mother sick, Mrs. Peck slipped the children away to her own home, fed them and brought back a well-prepared meal for the remainder of the family.  Little ones were “mothered,” older ones  [were] comforted by her cheerful, sunny ways, and every physician who was fortunate enough to secure her services, felt assured that his efforts in behalf of his case would be ably seconded by Mrs. Peck.  Nurses, like poets, are born, not made, and Mrs. Peck was a shining example of this truth.


When Dr. Beall mentioned that Mrs. Peck was more than a nurse, he undoubtedly had in mind her volunteer services as a social worker.  She first began such duties before professional welfare work was known in her community.  A movement in this direction was officially started by a group of public spirited ladies, who had become interested in Mrs. Peck’s attention to the needy.  According to Cora Peck, Mrs. Peck’s daughter, these ladies were: Mrs. Edgar D. Broadhurst, Mrs. Caesar Cone Sr., Mrs. C.J. Tinsley, Mrs. J.P. Turner, and Mrs. Clem Wright.  About 1909 they organized the District Nurse and Relief Association, generously volunteered their assistance, contributed financial support to the movement, and through the organization employed Mrs. Peck as the first district nurse of Greensboro.

As this social program expanded, other organizations offered their services.  The Elks Club of Greensboro and the Mission Study Class of the Young Women’s Christian Association of the city have been mentioned as having been especially helpful.  Through a united effort, public subscriptions were secured to pay Mrs. Peck’s salary of $75.00 per month.  It is interesting to know the monthly contributors to this undertaking and the amount of their donations:


City of Greensboro




Masons, Chorazin   lodge


Masons, Corinthian   lodge


Woman’s Club


First Presbyterian Church


Holy Trinity Church


Emma Trey Missionary   Society


Ladies’ Aid, Westminster   Church


Centenary Philatheas


Junior Order


Friends’ Meeting


Church of the   Covenant


First Baptist Church


Saint Andrew’s guild


Knights of Columbus





















Knights of Pythias, $10 a year; North Carolina Public Service Company, free transportation over their car lines for the nurse; also donations, amount not specified, from the following fraternal organizations: Knights Templar, Masonic Lodge No. 76, and Traveler’s Protective Association.



                When “Mother Peck,” as she was affectionately called, had served as district nurse for about three years, she was able to report that 7,750 times she had answered the calls of distress, and with nearly every call there had been a pathetic story.  Of all these visits, 4,686 were made without charge; for the others she collected 25 cents per visit and turned the money over to the District Nurse and Relief Association.

                While Mother Peck was taking care of those in need of attention, Gerald W. Johnson, at that time on the staff of the Greensboro Daily News, wrote a vivid and detailed description of her tireless efforts.  Two experiences especially stand out.

                One late afternoon, according to Johnson, a medical doctor met Mrs. Peck coming out of an alley which was known as a hangout of bad characters.  Shocked at seeing her, he stormed: “Mrs. Peck, where on earth have you been? or do you know where you are?”

                “Oh,” Mrs. Peck replied with composure, “I was called to visit a patient down here about four o’clock this morning, and I’ve just been down to see how he’s getting along.”

                “What!” the frightened physician shouted.  “Don’t you know that policemen risk their lives when they come down here alone even in the daytime?  Do you mean to tell me that you came down here by yourself at four o’clock in the morning?”

                “Well, Doctor,” the nurse answered with no fear whatsoever, “I came down here on the Master’s business, and if He doesn’t think my life is worth protecting, I reckon it isn’t.”

                Upon another occasion, as Johnson reported, Mrs. Peck entered a home where there were three cases of diphtheria.  The mother and two children were seriously ill and the father was unable to work.  The people of the thickly settled neighborhood in which the sick family lived usually helped each other when in distress, but in this instance there was great fear of spreading the dangerous disease.  No one had dared to enter the house of their ailing friends.  “Conditions within the dwelling of the afflicted household had become deplorable,” Johnson continued.  “Mrs. Peck went in alone, and single-handed cleaned up the place burned the mattress, and even clothing of the patients, and collected beds, bed-clothing and other necessaries herself.”

                When she had obtained all available donated articles, she found that she was short one item-a blouse for the mother.  All the money she had collected for the case had been spent and she felt she could not ask for more.  She therefore purchases a blouse at her own expense.  When the District Nurses and Relief Association discovered what she had done, her money was promptly refunded.

                It was in her work as district nurse that Mother Peck discovered an alarming number of people suffering from tuberculosis.  They were not always from homes of the poor.  In some instances the most worthy families of the city had been practically destroyed by this disease.  A small group of Greensboro women had become interested in establishing an institution where tubercular patients could be treated, and possibly cured.  Adding the names of Mrs. Julian Price, Mrs. W.C.A. Hammel, and Mrs. V.B. White to the original founders of the District Nurse and Relief Association, on July 1, 1919, these concerned ladies organized the Greensboro District Nurse and Relief Committee to work for the care and treatment of needy tuberculosis patients.  A report of this committee’s work was published in a pamphlet, which was issued by the Greensboro Tuberculosis Association in April, 1959.


                The committee opened a six-room cottage on Glenwood Avenue near Lee Street in May, 1920, with accommodations for three or four patients.  These beds were filed and more room was needed, so porches were enclosed to provide more bed space.  Mrs. Clara J. Peck was in charge of the little hospital as nurse and general manager.  A Greensboro Record dispatched of November 16, 1940, said of her, “She visited in homes all over the city to minister to the sick ones who could not go to the hospital.  She visited in the city schools as a health nurse and lecturer.  By precept and example she instilled into the minds of the people the gospel of the urgent demand for a tax-supported public health department and sanatorium for tubercular patients.”. . . . Mrs. E.D. Broadhurst, chairman of the District Nurse and Relief Committee, said of Mrs. Peck: “Mother Peck was an inspired Florence Nightingale who gave her life without stint in the cause of public health in Greensboro through her ministries as nurse in the homes of the poor and needy, in the schools of the city, and in the little tubercular hospital.


                The District Nurse and Relief Committee directed tuberculosis control in Greensboro for several years, but this work soon revealed the need to extend activities to the entire county.  Mother Peck was chosen to carry forward the plans.  She went to Montrose Sanatorium, at Sanatorium, North Carolina, and took special training in tubercular care.  Thereafter she led an impressive and convincing campaign for the erection of a Guilford County Sanatorium where tuberculosis could be fought by the best-known remedy.  And when the hospital was completed, she became its superintendent for about six years.  Dr. Joseph L. Spruill, who followed her, wrote that “she brought more patients who were in the early stages of the disease, for examination, than any other one person in the county, and by this means placed them in the hospital at the curable stage.”


                In 1918 and again in 1902, Greensboro citizens suffered from terrible influenza epidemics.  At these times, the District Nurse and Relief Association generously offered its nursing staff to the disaster relief organization of the Greensboro Chapter of the Red Cross, and Mother Peck – regardless of long hours and fatigue – included in her already full schedule the relief of any stricken family within her territory and often beyond its limits.  Eli M. Oettinger, chairman of the Greensboro Chapter of the American Red Cross, wrote, “In helping the Red Cross in its program of service to humanity, Mother Peck has done honor to the chapter and won the forever grateful appreciation of Red Cross co-workers.”

                In many instances, Mother Peck found the parents of a family either ill or otherwise handicapped and unable to take care of their small children over long periods of time.  In such cases she took the little ones to her own home and kept them until they could be returned to their people.  Under these circumstances her daughters became her able assistants.  In 1969 her daughter Cora Peck recalled that once, for her mother, she was taking care of two little girls and one boy and that she loved them as if they had been her own.  The girls openly responded to her affection, but the boy remained aloof.  He was rebelling against being required to take baths.  One day Miss Peck said to him, “My girls love me, but you don’t.”  “No, I don’t love you,” came the boy’s quick reply, “but you sure are a good cook.”

                For about 25 years Mother Peck gave aid and counsel to the rich and the poor, the sick and the fallen.  When she reached the time in life when she felt she should retire from public service, the Tuberculosis Christmas Seal Council presented her a silver service as a token of appreciation for her exemplary life in the Greensboro community.

                Death came suddenly to Mother Peck on June 15, 1926.  Funeral services were held at her home, and were attended by a throng of people from all walks of life.  With a tribute of love and respect for a nurse who for many years had linked herself with human kindness and health efforts of Greensboro and Guilford County, she was laid to rest in the Green Hill Cemetery of her city.

                Wallie E. Young, secretary of the Greensboro Board of Public Welfare, has written a fitting summary of her life:


                We, of the Greensboro board of welfare staff . . . always found [Mrs. Peck] willing and ready to help us.  She had keen insight and remarkable memory, which often served us in various situations.  She was not only a nurse but a friend, and as a friend no task was too difficult to undertake.  She made possible the keeping of families together by supplying milk, food and clothing and often assisted in paying taxes to help a family in a crisis.  On several occasions with her help the construction of a house was made possible, usually as a home for a widow with small children.

                In our daily round of visits we hear retold the many never-to-be-forgotten services she rendered to those in need.  Wherever her name is spoken someone can recall an effective service rendered.  It can truthfully be said that she went about doing good.