Their love story began at the Allegheny Valley School of Nursing
More than a thousand young women came of age and had courtships in the building that once housed the Allegheny Valley Hospital School of Nursing in Harrison.
Reba Weltner Blackburn was one of them.
The women not only studied there, they also lived in the brick building along Carlisle Street. In July 1967, Blackburn had three dates with her future husband, Wayne Blackburn, in the school’s “date rooms,” which were closely watched by a housemother.
After returning from service with the Air Force in Thailand in May 1968, he proposed to her in the “great room,” which now houses the hospital’s human resources offices. They married on Aug. 23, 1969 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Freeport, five days after her graduation.
“He is still the love of my life,” said Blackburn, 70.
The couple have two daughters, two grandchildren and will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this year. They’ve made their home in Buffalo Township for the last 40 years.
But the building where their romance bloomed is set to be demolished this year.
Blackburn was dismayed when she learned of the building’s fate through a story in the Tribune-Review. She reached out to the paper to share her story, and the special significance the building holds for her and so many others.
She recently visited the building, which now houses the hospital’s administrative offices, for the first time in about a decade. She last visited in 2009, when she went to human resources upon retiring from the hospital.
“It’s a closure for me,” she said of the visit.
The demolition could happen in the summer, Allegheny Health Network spokeswoman Stephanie Waite said. The land will be used for parking.
The nurse’s school building and residence was built next to the hospital in 1928. Waite said the network decided that tearing it down was the best option because it would cost too much to renovate to meet standards for comfort and accessibility for the hospital’s employees.
The building would need an updated heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, an elevator, modifications for handicapped accessibility and extensive general renovations, Waite said.
Space is being prepared within the hospital to house the administrative offices.
“To me it’s not an administration building,” she said. “It’s the School of Nursing building.”
The nursing school began in 1910, and closed in 1976.
Blackburn started the three-year, year-round program in September 1966, after graduating from Freeport Area Senior High School. When she was little, she had told her father she wanted to be a nurse and “he wouldn’t let me forget it.”
As the second of six siblings, and helping care for the younger ones, nurturing was embedded into her.
“I wanted to help people,” she said. “I wanted to make them feel better.”
But it didn’t go easily. She found herself wanting to quit, but her parents talked her into staying more than once. She finished the schooling, in part, because in case she didn’t get married she’d be able to make a good living.
“I was going to finish nursing school, join the Navy and see the world,” she said.
Everything changed in her second year of school. One of Reba’s friends was dating one of Wayne Blackburn’s friends, and wouldn’t go out with him unless another couple came along.
It was the first, and the last, blind date that Reba Blackburn ever went on. It was the Fourth of July, 1967, and they went to the fireworks in Springdale.
She said she was drawn to Wayne as soon as she met him.
“I did like his eyes,” Reba said. “He has deep-set eyes. He was thin, he was tall, he was blonde. As the evening went on I realized what manners he had. At the end of the evening we did not kiss. We shook hands and said goodnight at the door.
“He asked if he could see me again and I said yes.”
They had three more dates in the week after before Wayne Blackburn’s duties in the Air Force took him to Thailand, where he did payroll on a B-52 base. They dated in the school’s “date rooms” because men were not allowed upstairs — not even Reba Blackburn’s father was allowed up there.
The date rooms were places where couples could talk, watch TV and, yes, “smooch,” Blackburn said.
“It was so much more controlled,” Reba said. “You didn’t just go and see a guy or go out with a guy. We were supervised. We had to tell the housemother when we were coming and going from the building. You didn’t just have the freedom of doing what you wanted to do.”
Wayne asked Reba if she’d write to him in Thailand. She said she would, if he wrote to her first.
He wrote his first letter on the plane over.
The couple exchanged letters and sent tape recordings to each other.
“The letters were flirtatious,” she said.
It was in a letter in February 1968 that Wayne Blackburn first proposed marriage, asking, “If a certain guy asked a certain girl to marry him, what do you think she would say?”
“It was overwhelming. I couldn’t believe it. He wants to marry me,” she remembered. “I’m running through the halls.”
He did that after asking Reba’s parents for permission in a letter to them. In a December 1967 letter to Wayne, Reba’s mother, Lillian Weltner, told Wayne that if he asked Reba to marry him, she’d say yes.
She doesn’t remember exactly what she said when she wrote back. But, basically, she did say yes.
After Walter’s mother fell ill, he came back in May 1968, much to Reba’s surprise when he came to the school to see her. When her room was buzzed and she came downstairs, she was expecting her mother, not Wayne.
Shortly after his return from Thailand, Wayne Blackburn repeated his proposal, this time in the nursing school’s great room.
She used her married name on her diploma.
“A lot of the girls got married right out of school,” Blackburn said. “They were dating the love of their life, also.”
Asked about the longevity of her marriage, Reba pointed to her own parents and their relationship.
“They didn’t give up on marriage because they had an argument or two,” she said. “If you really love the person, you really love the person. You’re going to stay with them and work through it. And we do.”
In her senior yearbook, “The White Cap,” Reba wrote her class will: “I, Reba, will the happiness of getting letters to those with an empty mailbox.”
Brian Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, [email protected] or via Twitter @BCRittmeyer.