Nurse's Letters Come Full Circle

Correspondence from county health nurse completes a long journey back to Leesburg.

Last week I began the tale of a dozen letters that Miss Bess Ott sent to her teenage niece over a six-year period, beginning in 1937. Miss Ott was living in Leesburg, where she was working as the new Loudoun County Health Department’s first public health nurse.

Miss Ott never imagined that the letters, which provide a glimpse into life in Leesburg and Loudoun County in the middle of the 20th century, would find their way back to Leesburg more than seven decades later.

On February 23, 1941, Miss Ott wrote that her landlady’s sister, Miss Nan McIntosh, had been operated on. She was getting along quite well, but would not be able to go out for some time. Miss Ellen Metzger had been ill in bed with the flu for several days. Miss Ott stayed with her for four days, since she was in the house alone.

Mr. Montgomery, the minister at Leesburg Presbyterian Church, was on vacation, so there would be no services for “these three Sundays.” The previous Sunday, she had invited Mr. and Mrs. Sweeny to dinner, and took them along with Miss Bundy to see some big horse stables near Middleburg and Upperville.

On November 25, 1941, after the creation of the Health Department, she wrote that the new health officer had come on duty.

“I’m not yet sure just where I stand,” she wrote. “He hasn’t been here long enough for anyone to see anything we’ve done. We are quite crowded as he has taken over my office, and I still have my desk here, as well as all of my other equipment – so we really are almost stepping on each other’s toes.” They hoped to move to a new office the next Saturday.

In her last letter sent from Leesburg, on February 13, 1942, Miss Ott wrote that Miss Nan was getting weaker, and her landlady, Mrs. Carr, had spent three days in bed with “a wretched cold.”

She and Dr. Waller had attended a one-day nutrition institute at Fairfax. One of her supervising nurses was visiting, and she had made a lot of visits the previous afternoon and that morning.

Miss Ott resigned from her position with the county less than one month later. She went on to work as a nurse in many different settings, including a stint as the personal nurse to Baroness Maria von Trapp and her family, in Stowe, Vermont. She died in Richmond in 1973 at the age of 82.

Miss Ott’s niece, Louise, finished two years of college at Farmville, then transferred to the College of William and Mary, where she graduated. Shortly after the war, she married a naval officer she had met while in college.

Louise saved the letters she received from her aunt and other family members, and took them with her as she and her husband followed his career around the country. Over the years they had homes in California, Nebraska, Wisconsin, South Dakota and, finally, Illinois, and raised a family of four children.

Last year, Louise passed the letters long to her only son, who, coincidentally, now lives in Leesburg and is a member of the same church his great-aunt attended years ago. He had been hired in 1989 as Loudoun County’s first public information officer, and now writes a weekly column for Patch.

To complete the circle, I recently took a handful of yellowed letters and postcards back to the post office in downtown Leesburg, where my great-aunt had mailed them to my mother, decades earlier.

I reflected on the fact that the downtown facility recently made an appearance on the list of endangered post offices. While it has gotten a temporary reprieve, I suspect that its days are numbered.

I found the cornerstone, dated 1923, and pondered how many millions of letters to loved ones have been sent and received in that building.

And only a handful, I surmised, have taken such a circuitous path, over so many months and miles, to find their way back to Leesburg.

Shellie November 24, 2012 at 12:55 PM
Fantastic! I love Leesburg and it's rich history.
Ralph Lee Smith November 25, 2012 at 05:31 PM
Jim, Wonderful story! Congratulations! Ralph Lee Smith
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