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Bessie Raper

Bessie Raper first walked through the halls of Duke Medical Center in 1959, when she began work as a surgical nurse. Forty-six years later, she still moves with quick efficiency through the hospital’s corridors, these days as a volunteer in the Duke Eye Center.

At age 94, she leaves younger staff and volunteers struggling to keep up.

“I may be the oldest volunteer at Duke,” Raper said. “As long as I can do the work, I will.”

Almost every Friday since 1989, the petite and prim Raper reports to the Eye Center volunteer office by 8 a.m. and begins brewing coffee. Usually she rides in from the Forest at Duke with Hildur Blake, a neighbor and longtime volunteer who is also a former nurse at Duke. Sometimes, if Blake can’t come in or her husband needs the car, Raper drives.

“She’s a very prompt, decisive person,” Blake said. “She’s ready to go at 8 o’clock every day we work. She has quite a sense of humor, and she’s very orderly. She loves to make the coffee and has everything packed on the cart just so.”

Raper worked as a private duty nurse before she was married, then raised her two children. After her husband died in 1958, she returned to nursing. Even after she retired in 1975, she filled in when other nurses were on vacation.

But she was looking for more. Raper was doing volunteer work in downtown Durham when the director of the Eye Center volunteer program recruited her in 1989.

In the late 1990s, she took a hiatus from volunteer work to recover from injuries sustained in a car accident. Her desire to be active and to help others meant that hiatus wouldn’t last.

About five years ago, Blake urged her to return to volunteering at the Eye Center. Working together on coffee cart duty, they have become close friends, taking turns bringing in Nabs for their own mid-morning coffee break and laughing over stories about the antics of Raper’s great-grandson.

Robin Woods, who until recently managed the volunteer program, calls Raper and Blake “my dream team.” She recalls watching them hold hands while pushing the coffee cart through the clinic. When someone asked for coffee, Blake would pour and Raper would hand the cup to the person.

“These ladies know what it’s all about: teamwork, helping each other. They’re so kind-spirited,” Woods said. “Bessie is very high-energy. It amazes me. I think patients would be shocked if they knew her age.

“It’s interesting that she has continued her role of caring for patients -- from nursing in her early career to serving coffee to patients in the Eye Center waiting room at 94 years old.”

Once, when both elevators were out and Raper and Blake couldn’t bring the cart from the coffee room to the main floor, they filled up a couple of thermoses and walked through the clinic serving coffee waitress-style.

“I’m still doing everything I’ve ever done,” Raper said. “It just takes me longer.”

By the time the Eye Center volunteer program celebrates its 20th anniversary at a luncheon in November, Raper will have logged upwards of 3,000 volunteer hours. Renee Wallace, who recently succeeded Woods as the volunteer coordinator, said staff and patients alike respond wonderfully to Raper and the other 18 volunteers.

“My father-in-law comes to Duke from out of state for his eye care,” Wallace said. “He can’t remember the name of his doctor, but he knows all the volunteers by their first name.”

Raper said the patients and staff keep her coming back. “I just enjoy people,” she said, her blue eyes twinkling.

At home, Raper still grows vegetables and flowers, sharing the bounty of her garden with neighbors. And she loves to cook. Her chocolate cake is renowned at Sunday night socials at the Forest at Duke.

Raper doesn’t attribute her longevity to any set philosophy or lifestyle. “I’m just thankful each day I can get up and go,” she said. “I’m just thankful for each day that is a good day.”

by Nancy Oates