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Dr. Fran- A Favorite Camp Doctor Reminisces
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“I spent about 20 summers at camp over a 50-year span, and I had the great honor to serve with each of Camp Nakanawa’s Directors.”
Frances (Pierce) Lankford (Staff 1946-1989) Interview

What brought you to Camp Nakanawa?

I was just about to graduate from the University of Texas at Austin in 1945 and I was working in the UT Intramurals department. One of the teachers that I worked for and who I admired very much began telling me about this summer camp where she was a counselor and how much she enjoyed going there. She knew that I liked tennis because I had won the ladies’ intramural competition at UT that year and she asked me if I would like to spend a summer in Tennessee. I thought, “sure why not, I haven’t been to Tennessee before.” Back in those days you had to be a college graduate before you could be a counselor so I was eligible.

What was your camping experience like?

I didn’t really know anything about Camp Nakanawa other than it was a girl’s camp in Tennessee and that it was going to be 8 weeks long and that Colonel Rice had written me a letter saying I would either be a water front counselor or a tennis counselor. I was going to be entering Medical School the following semester so I needed to go some place quiet and peaceful where I would be able to read all of the pre-med books for the courses needed in medical school. I hadn’t planned on attending medical school when I entered UT so I did not have all of the pre-med courses that other entering med students had already taken. I thought that a summer in the great outdoors would involve peace and quiet and plenty of time to read…perfect. So with a suitcase full of biology and pre-med books I headed to the train station in Austin for the 24 hour trek to Mayland, Tennessee.

The train trip was an adventure all its own. I didn’t know anyone on the train so I stayed in my compartment and launched into my books. At each train stop the noise on board the train seemed to grow and grow and there was a steadily increasing amount of laughing and singing. When we arrived at the Mayland train station there were wagons pulled by mules waiting to take us and our baggage into camp. We all piled into a wagon for the short ride into camp. Much singing also ensued. I remember being awed by the smell of pine trees, the songs of the nearby birds and the serenity of the woods around us. The conversation of the girls held a note of anticipation and wonder.

Once we arrived at camp we met other girls that had arrived in earlier trains and the greetings were quite lively. Because of the war, both junior and senior camps were combined that summer so there were lots of girls; both very young and in high school or older. I found out what cabin I had been assigned to, the names of my six bunkies and that I was going to be a tennis counselor (thank goodness). I then looked for a quiet place to read.

After finding no quiet place immediately available I decided to borrow a row boat and visit the opposite side of the lake. Once on the other side of the lake I settled myself comfortably into the bottom of the boat, propped my feet up on the gunnels and dove into my book. Sometime later, not sure how long, I began to hear a sort of frantic commotion coming from the direction of camp. I sat up quickly to see what the crisis might be and saw four canoes churning my way. Who knew that going off by yourself in a boat across the lake was a big Nakanawa “no no”. This was my first meeting with the head counselor who was named Elizabeth Mitchell or “Mitch”.

After that I got my camp feet on the ground and I don’t remember any other missteps on my part. But I don’t think that any of my books got opened the rest of that summer. I do remember that Colonel Rice liked to fish…a lot. I was selected to be his pilot whenever he went fishing. For some reason he thought that I really liked being in a boat.

My second summer was 1947 and I returned to Camp Nakanawa as a veteran counselor. The new director of camp was Mitch. She was someone that I greatly admired and respected. She was a good woman and was very sure of herself. Twenty years later when I returned to camp to serve as camp doctor we often played tennis together and were good friends.

Describe your journey after your first camp years.

I graduated from the University of Texas medical school in Galveston in 1949 and in 1950 after passing my exams to be a doctor I married Eugene Lankford, a graduate engineer also from the University of Texas. Gene was also a committed tennis player. We moved to New Orleans that same year where I did my internship at Charity Hospital and Gene drove an ambulance. He put his engineering career on hold until I had completed my internship. Upon completion of my internship we moved to Grand Prairie, Texas where Gene had secured an engineering position and I hung out my sign and opened a medical practice. The headline of the local paper read “Cute Blond Opens Practice”.

From the beginning of my practice I knew that I wanted to treat children and pursue a residency in pediatrics. We moved to Arlington in 1954 and convinced a banker to loan the money needed to build a clinic. The next few years I juggled being a new mom (Patty was born in 1953 and I saw 40 patients the day she was born), running my practice and driving from Arlington to Dallas for my pediatrics residency training. By 1957 I had my pediatrics certification and I have been told that I became the first female pediatrician in the Fort Worth-Dallas Metroplex.

Back then, the practice of medicine was quite different than it is today. It was common for doctors to practice solo and house calls were not that unusual. If a patient was in need of a doctor after hours, the doctor would get a call in the night and would meet the patient either at the clinic or at the emergency room. I remember that there were many nights when I would be up most of the night. It was tiring and stressful work but I never resented it for a single second. I only had to look at a sick or injured child and my heart would go out to that little one and to the worried parents nearby.

After a few years my practice had grown enough that I needed to find other doctors to join my practice (also the family had grown with son Chuck in 1959 and daughter Lynda in 1960). Eventually we built a new, larger clinic and there were four of us specializing in pediatrics. The work became more manageable and we shared the nights when one of us was “on-call.” Also my partners and I helped to get a hospital built in Arlington. Once the Arlington hospital was open we no longer had to drive to Dallas or Fort Worth just to do rounds and that allowed us more time for the patients and less time on the highway. The four of us practiced together at the clinic in Arlington for our entire careers from the late 1950s until I retired in 1996.

Tell us about your experience at Camp Nakanawa as camp doctor.

In the summer of 1964 Gene and I took a family vacation from Texas to Washington DC. We decided to stop in central Tennessee to see if the summer camp was still there. After asking directions and inquiring at the little store in Mayland we were delighted to learn that the camp was still operating. We drove up the road past the Camp Nakanawa sign and the barn to the house. Camp was apparently not in session as we did not immediately see anyone. We stopped at the house and a very familiar and distinguished grey haired lady emerged out the front door. It was Mitch. I couldn’t believe it but I think she actually recognized me.
I introduced the family to her and she gave us a tour around camp. Camp looked exactly like I remembered it except that there was a brand new building opposite the barn which we learned was the new library. Mitch must have been extremely busy because I think camp was getting ready to start, but she walked us around as if it was the most important thing she had to do that day. I told her how happy I was that camp was still in existence and that I had thought that if it was I would let Patty come the next summer. I think Patty’s first impression was good as she lobbied me for the next 200 miles of our trip to let her come to Nakanawa that summer and not wait to the following summer.

So in 1965 I sent my oldest daughter, Patty, to junior camp. At the end of that summer we came to camp to pick up Patty and Mitch asked if I would consider coming back to camp as the camp doctor. I was thrilled and honored to be asked by Mitch, so of course I accepted.

My first summer as camp doctor was 1966 but I only came for one week. It was customary for the camp doctors to come for one week at a time. Later I came for up to three weeks at a time if Mitch didn’t have enough doctors and Lynda and Chuck would both come with me. Gene would come sometimes for a week and would get some tennis in. The first year as camp doctor Lynda and Chuck were too young to be campers (Mitch would let the boys come with their families until they were 12 years old). Both kids did some camp activities and fell in love with Nakanawa. Once he was old enough Chuck actually wore blues and whites and went to all of the camp classes. He learned all of the camp songs and wanted to know if he could be a Valkyrie like his sisters. I think the girls made him an honorary Valkyrie. Lynda started coming to camp the first year that she could. She says she was in junior camp for 7 years; 5 years as a camper and two years with me before that.

Were there any events that stand out in your memory from your years as camp doctor?

I remember my first year as camp doctor it was the beginning of camp. All of the campers were examined by the doctor and everyone had to get weighed. We were very busy and trying to get the girls through the process and it was like herding cats. We finally got everyone checked off of the list except for one camper who we had to go looking for. A counselor finally found her in Egypt and she was feeling really sick. I examined her and determined that that she had a high fever and was quite sick. We put her in the infirmary right of way. The camper’s name was Ann Mitchell. Ann didn’t want to miss any of camp but unfortunately she had to miss a few days.

Most of the time being the camp doctor was just routine. The campers might get a sprain or a rash but camp was a very safe and healthy place to be. Occasionally we might keep someone overnight with an illness. Sometimes we didn’t have anyone in the infirmary. Sometimes counselors would wear themselves out and end up in the infirmary for a few days. I do remember one occasion when one of the men that took care of the garden was overcome by the spray he was using on some of the fruit trees. He had a close call that day but we were able to stabilize him and get him sent to the hospital in Crossville.

Another summer I remember that while I was looking over some of the medical records of the campers, I noticed that a few of them listed an allergy to bee stings. I started worrying about the kids going off on free day trips and being too far away from camp if they had an allergic reaction. I went to Mitch and suggested that we might want to assemble some first aid kits to carry on free day trips and that we should train the counselors to be able to give a shot of adrenaline if there was ever an emergency. Mitch gave us the ok to put the training in motion and she took the list of requested supplies and we put together enough first aid kits for both camps. The counselors were very agreeable and practiced giving shots by shooting an orange. A week or so after the program was implemented a young lady was stung by a bee at the Cove. She was extremely allergic and the counselor that administered the shot of adrenaline probably saved her life. Nothing like that had ever happened on a free day trip before.

I really enjoyed all of the summers that I was able to go to Nakanawa but especially the summers when I could stay for three weeks. I was able to feel like I was part of the counselor staff and I got to know the campers and counselors much better. One summer during a time when Casey Fischer was Head Counselor in Junior Camp she asked me to help out with some counselor duties after a couple of her counselors had to leave early. It was a blast.

How many summers were you camp doctor?

I came every summer that Lynda and Patty were in camp plus every summer that Lynda and Patty were counselors. Then Mitch asked me to return even after the girls were no longer able to come when she needed a doctor to fill in. I think my last summer with Mitch was 1980. Ann Mitchell Peron and Pepe Peron were the camp directors for my last three summers. I think the last summer that I came as camp doctor was 1989. I retired from my practice in Arlington in 1996. Unless I miscounted it has been about 20 summers over a 50 year span and I had the great honor to serve with each of Camp Nakanawa’s Directors.

What words of wisdom would you have for our readers?

For Nakanawa readers I would say enjoy every minute that you have. There is no other place quite like it anywhere. The sports and activities are wonderful but they are merely a means to an end. It’s not the outcome that is important but the journey. For young ladies thinking about a future career, set goals for yourself and don’t be afraid to set them high. Don’t let anyone tell you can’t do something if it is something that you really want to accomplish. However, don’t fall into the trap of losing perspective on your life or taking yourself too seriously just to chase your career to the exclusion of family and friends. Look for ways to give back and make the world a better place even if it is only a kind word or one smile at a time.


Dr. Fran at a recent Service Weekend at Nakanawa.

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