A ‘Pretty Blonde Nurse’ basks in the glow of Florence Nightingale – and rightly so: Dennis McCarthy

Vibeke Clark, formerly Gerkins, tries on a nursing cap given to her during an awards program at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center.
Vibeke Clark, formerly Gerkins, tries on a nursing cap given to her during an awards program at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center. Photo by Andy Holzman, Special to the Los Angeles Daily News

It was the last newspaper clipping in a dusty, discarded scrapbook found in the bottom of an old file cabinet at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Sylmar a few months back.

“Pretty Blonde Nurse Selected as Finalist,” the slightly sexist, but true headline in the old Valley News & Green Sheet read. Vibeke “Veba” Gerkins, 38, was a knockout.

It was August of 1970 and she had been chosen as one of 25 nurses from different area hospitals to vie for the Red Rose Nurse title. The winner would ride on a float in the Rose Parade and make personal appearances during her reign in 1971.

If she ultimately won the contest, no one working at the hospital 46 years later knew because there was no follow-up story on her run for the roses.

So, what happened to Veba Gerkins, and why was she the last story in that huge scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings dating back decades? The answer to that takes us back to Florence Nightingale, and some of the San Fernando Valley’s darkest days.

With a terminally ill husband at home unable to support his family anymore, and two young boys to raise, Veba put on her crisp, white nurse’s uniform with the classic nurse’s cap, and became the breadwinner.

She loved wearing that cap. It was the culmination of her childhood dream to become a nurse and follow in the footsteps of Florence Nightingale, who wanted all nurses to wear the cap as a symbol of one of the noblest professions in the world.

But the challenges were great in her Denmark homeland when you were coming of age during the wrath of Hitler. America welcomed Veba and her parents in 1951, and within a few years she was being awarded her nurse’s cap from St. Luke’s Hospital Nursing School in San Francisco.

And now here she was getting ready for work at 6:01 a.m. on Feb. 9, 1971, when a 6.7 earthquake devastated the north San Fernando Valley where she lived a mile from the hospital.

After making sure her family was safe, Veba rushed to the hospital and began helping care for patients being evacuated to the front lawn for fear the massive building would collapse.

“I asked a policeman if I could go up to the sixth floor and get my uniform and nurse’s cap, and he said absolutely not,” Veba says. “The elevators were not working and the building was condemned.”


Wearing that nurse’s cap was important to her. It was a piece of who she was and signified to the patients she was an RN, a trained professional. Today, everyone wears blue scrubs, so who can tell?

For three days and nights — until every last patient was safely relocated to other hospitals — Veba fulfilled her oath to the profession.

And then she was gone. Without a hospital, most of the staff at Holy Cross was left unemployed. The only record found that Veba Gerkins worked there was that last story in an old scrapbook about a pretty blond nurse.

“Let’s find her,” Anna Chiotti, chief nursing officer at the hospital, told her staff a few weeks ago. And, they did.

She’s Veba Clark now, remarrying after her first husband passed away. She’s 85, living in Orange County, and a widow for the second time. After the Sylmar earthquake, she went to work at USC Medical Center, where she retired in 1989 as an epidemeologist on the USC Health Sciences campus.

And, no, she didn’t win the Red Rose Nurse contest 47 years ago, but she did get a big trophy. If she has any regrets, it’s that she didn’t sneak upstairs to the sixth floor and reclaim her nursing cap from St. Luke’s before they razed the old Holy Cross Hospital.

Last Friday, the first-annual Florence Nightingale Celebration of Nursing was held at the hospital. Veba was invited as one of the guests of honor. What she didn’t know was that nurse Chiotti, who had once worked at St. Luke’s, had a friend there send her one of the original nursing caps from the school.

“After Veba was done giving a heartfelt talk about her life coming over from Denmark, I said her Holy Cross family wanted to give her something,” Chiotti says. “When she saw the cap, her eyes welled up and she began to cry.”

Veba asked for some bobby pins and put her St. Luke’s nursing cap on for the first time in 47 years.

It was 1970 again and she was a pretty, blond nurse feeling like a queen on a Rose Parade float.

Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Friday. He can be reached at dmccarthynews@gmail.com.

Click here to subscribe to Digital & Home Delivery - 50% off