University of Washington School of Nursing Remembers Dean Emeritus Rheba de Tornyay

 Rheba de Tornyay, EdD, RN, FAAN  

Dean Emeritus, School of Nursing, University of Washington


The distinguished career of a nursing pioneer and UW faculty member came to a close on September 27 with the death of Dean Emeritus Rheba de Tornyay. 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 Tornyay
Rheba’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, co-authored 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.

Rheba has requested that all memorial gifts in her honor be directed to the de Tornyay Center for Healthy Aging fund at the UW School of Nursing to help continue and strengthen this important work. Please call (206) 543-3019 if you have any questions about how to donate, or send your check to the University of Washington School of Nursing, attn. Glory Visario, Box 357260, Seattle, WA 98195.


Thoughts from nursing leaders and friends:

"Rheba and I shared our Aries status in life and often celebrated birthdays each year in April.  It was a pleasure to work with Rheba.  She was always very interested and excited about the research I and colleagues were doing with children and families.  She always facilitated a request for support - some times that meant public recognition of our research and at times it meant supporting with money small projects.  She always created happiness in my mind about our work. I soon realized she liked short and organized presentations.  She sought to understand our work. She was well respected by others in health care, we were always happy to have her support for nursing.  She had many great traits, and one I will remember is confidence. I had the opportunity to live at Mirabella, where she lived and was viewed by her elder peers as not only beautiful, but also approachable; she often held court in the café to listen to her peers. I admired her choices about her life course.  She missed her husband and was pleased to reunite with her husband, Rudy.  In the process of dying she again showed how to face the trials of illness.  I will forever see her as a legend in nursing and in providing an example of leadership." --Kathryn E. Barnard, a grateful colleague for whom Rheba made a difference in my career.

"She was legendary and influenced so many with her knowledge, grace and incredible compassion.   Her impact went so far beyond nursing." -- Doreen Harper

"Rheba was very important in my life, personally and professionally.  She was a woman of grace, and a person who was a wonderful advocate for her faculty and for nursing.  She was one of those who encouraged me, at a very young age, to apply for fellowship in the Academy of Nursing- and she was one who  cheered when I was selected.  This is such a loss." -- Phyllis Arn Zimmer

"Rheba was indeed an amazing woman and nurse.  I had the opportunity to work with her on a couple of committees and she was wise, insightful and very politically savvy.  Her death is a big loss." --Dean Jean Johnson at The George Washington University

"I was so saddened to learn about the death of our beloved Rheba de Tornyay. Rheba was the dean when I was hired as a new assistant professor and I will always remember how welcomed I felt at UW. Much more recently, I visited Rheba at her retirement home and was fortunate to hear many words of wisdom from her before she had to leave to go work out with her trainer. She had a true joie de vivre and embraced all stages of her life, including retirement. Her influence at UW and on nursing and health will live on." -- Ellen F. Olshansky, PhD, RN, FAAN, University of California, Irvine

"Rheba de Tornyay was an outstanding teacher and mentor.  As a friend and colleague, she taught me much over our 40 -plus years of our friendship. Her wit, integrity, and candidness were always a gift that could cut through any topic of discussion. I am grateful for her life, and for her leadership and wisdom. She gave generously and with love to nursing, nursing scholarship and ethics. I will never forget her writings and classroom teaching on teaching and learning." -- Patricia Benner

"I received a UW Alumni Association scholarship in 2008 and Ms. Tornyay was part of the selection committee that chose me as the awardee.  At the time the award was given to me, Ms. de Tornyay made an effort to go out of her way and speak with me, making me feel very comfortable and deserving. I would like her family to know how appreciative I am of that award and how deeply it impacted my life.  Because of this award I have completed a Master of Nursing and a Master in Public Health and currently work in a busy family practice at Country Doctor as a family nurse practitioner and in vaccine research at the Group Health Research Institute.  

"I extend my deepest sympathies to Ms. de Tornyay's family and want them to know that her influence has extended far beyond what she may have considered her direct work.  I will remember her fondly for many years." -- Angel Mathis

"As a UW  graduate of 1982, (BSN Nursing, BA Psychology) I will be forever grateful for the fine education I received. Dean de Tornyay served during the period in which I completed my bachelors, and although she never knew it, had a major influence on my successful completion of my bachelor's at UW and later, my Master in Nursing at Vanderbilt. As a young, first-year nursing student, I vividly recall seeking the dean's assistance regarding a very upsetting and difficult situation, which had several students, myself included, disillusioned and on the verge of switching career paths. I will never forget how compassionately she listened to our concerns, investigated the situation and ultimately intervened to resolve the problem. She provided the support I desperately needed at the time, which restored my hope in the profession and enabled me to successfully complete the program with honors. Along with my mother (also a remarkable woman and nurse), she inspired me to pursue excellence and become the best nurse (and now, nurse practitioner) I could possibly be. Dean de Tornyay, you will be sorely missed by all of us who had the privilege to learn from you. On behalf of the class of 1982, I thank you for all your love and dedication to the students and profession of Nursing. You make me so proud to be a UW graduate!" -- Tamara (Eaton) Thompson, ARNP, MSN, UW School of Nursing, Class of 1982

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Watch our tribute video to Dr. de Tornyay here.