Life Stories: Catherine O’Foghludha followed tradition of service from Dublin to Durham

CorrespondentDecember 8, 2013 

  • Catherine Gowing O'Foghludha

    Born: Nov. 15, 1924, in Ireland

    Family: Born one of 10 children in rural Ireland, she marries Dr. Fearghus O’Foghludha in 1956, and has two children, son Michael and daughter Ria. They immigrate from Ireland to America in 1963, and settle in Durham in 1970. She is widowed in 2012, and has two grandchildren.

    Career: Serves as a nurse in London during World War II, after which she returns to Dublin and works as a nurse until she is married in 1956. She begins working at the Nearly New Shoppe first as a volunteer, then as manager, in the early 1970s, and continues until around 2008.

    Dies: Oct. 30 in Durham

As a nurse, Catherine O’Foghludha helped many of the victims of the V-1 and V-2 bomb raids that fell on London near the end of World War II. As a trained midwife, she saw the highest highs, and lowest lows that life had to bring. When she moved to the United States, the wife of a doctor, she no longer practiced nursing – but that did not keep her from helping others.

O’Foghludha spent the next 40 years finding ways to take care of her community, whether raising money for medical school scholarships, or taking care of her husband as he lingered in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease. She died last month at 88.

Her family says she was always there – and amazingly energetic. She famously rode a camel on a trip to Egypt with her daughter well into her 70s.

“She was kind of like the Energizer bunny,” said her son Michael O’Foghludha, superior court judge of the 14th district of North Carolina.

Making a home in Durham

O’Foghludha was raised on a farm in Ireland, one of 10 children, and well into the 1960s the family had no electricity or indoor plumbing, her son recalls. Nursing was a field open to women, a way to independence. She willingly chose to leave neutral Ireland and put herself in harm’s way by moving to London.

During her brief, intense nursing career, she worked as a midwife, surgical nurse, and ultimately as an oncology nurse. She met her husband, a physicist on the forefront of using radiation as medicine, at St. Luke’s Hospital in Dublin, one of the first oncology-focused hospitals of its kind.

When she immigrated to the U.S., she had two young children, a thick brogue, and a dificult-to-pronounce last name (OH-fa-loo). When they settled in Durham, her husband became a member of the Duke University Medical School staff, and she wasted no time diving into the local culture.

“Given that my mom didn't arrive in Durham until she was almost 46, she really made a lot of connections to the city in circles that didn't always connect for lots of folks,” said her daughter, Ria O’Foghludha.

“She had a large circle of friends and acquaintances through the church, its school, the university, the medical school and the hospital, the Shoppe, and through her volunteer work with the city. This meant that she really knew all kinds of people from many walks of life and she really enjoyed that.”

The Shoppe was the Nearly New Shoppe, opened in 1968 as a project of the Duke University Medical Faculty Wives, a group O’Foghludha led at times as president. The Shoppe’s goal was to raise scholarship funds for Duke medical students, and later , for nursing students, all the while connecting with the local community by providing affordable clothing and home goods.

She first worked there as a volunteer, later as one of the few paid employees as a manager. To date, the group has raised $8 million in scholarships by contributing to the Wives’ endowment. O’Foghludha was a presence until her husband became ill in 2008.

“She was a very, very, very dedicated supporter of the shop, and the reason why the shop existed. She was totally committed to the idea of Duke medical school scholarships,” said Ginny Lang, current Shoppe president.

“She loved efficiency. She was very good at gently prodding volunteers to get their work done and not visit quite so much with each other.”

“The perfect companion”

O’Foghludha, who went by Kit, made time for pleasure as well, however, and was just at home abroad as she was in Durham. She and her husband kept a home they bought early in their marriage in Dublin. It was important for her children to know their Irish relatives.

“My mother and I traveled widely together. Among her favorite places were the cities of Istanbul, Palermo, and Berlin,” said Ria O’Foghludha, now a professor of art history at Whittier College in California. “She was the perfect companion who was tireless in looking at art, who was willing to travel any distance and stand in lines for hours – and she was always ready to go.”

She really only slowed down when her husband became ill. The first few years of his illness she cared for him herself, but he spent the last two years of his illness at a nursing home.

“She was totally devoted to him,” Michael O’Foghludha said. “She would go home to sleep, but other than that she was there with my dad.”

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