Meet Our 2016 Nursing Legend

As a key part of expanding the nursing program at Wesley College, Lucille Gambardella won the school national attention and improved the careers of hundreds of nurses.

Lucille Gambardella holds a photo of her daughters, Gina and Andrea Gambardella.
(All photos by Maria DeForrest)

Click here to see our 2016 Top Nurses list.

Lucille Gambardella’s interest in teapots began by watching her mother gather around the kitchen table with her sisters, talking over Italian cakes and teas that had been brewed in the beautiful vessels her father’s family had given her. 

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Gambardella grew up thinking teapots were so precious and beautiful that now she collects them from all over the world. The compulsion rubbed off on her daughters, who, whenever they take vacations, roll their eyes, then keep them peeled for an interesting teapot for Mom. 

The other passion Gambardella picked up from her mother was nursing. Her mother wasn’t a nurse because, as Gambardella says, “In those days you didn’t always get a chance to do that.” Especially if you were a woman. Especially if you lived in Nesquehoning, Pa., a 21-square-mile borough in the center of the state, on Pa. 209.

But Gambardella and her mom talked about the profession, and those discussions sparked something. Gambardella would eventually become one of the most respected educators and nursing professionals in the state and, in the annual Delaware Today poll of top nurses, this year’s Nursing Legend. 

Now retired, Gambardella and her two sisters were raised to believe that education was essential, and that it was important for them to be independent and self-reliant. Part of that, Gambardella says, stems from her father’s immigrant past. When he left his life in Italy for a new one in America at age 16, he knew he had to master his own fate. 

While hers wasn’t a trans-Atlantic voyage, Gambardella’s journey to Villanova University was as great a culture shock. The population of her hometown was 2,300. Her high school class was 36. She grew up sheltered, her every move prescribed by parents with very clear ideas about what daughters should and should not do. 

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But Gambardella quickly adjusted to college life, in part because of the school’s Catholic influence. Her educational and personal passions quickly flourished. Gambardella became interested in mental health. When a professor submitted her for a fellowship program with the federal government, Gambardella was accepted, and in 1966, the recent graduate shipped off to Lexington, Ky., to work with military personnel with mental health issues and drug and-or alcohol addictions. At the time, the facility was the only one east of the Mississippi with such a program. 

The time was right. While Gambardella was at Villanova, President John F. Kennedy Jr. signed the Community Mental Health Act of 1963, which drastically altered mental health care in the United States. “The country decided mental health patients shouldn’t be locked away in large institutions, but treated in communities with their families,” Gambardella says.

As a result of her work in Lexington, Gambardella was granted a full traineeship to Boston University to get a master’s degree in psychiatric-mental health nursing. 

In Boston, she soon met Bob, the man she would marry. “It was a typical comedy plot: girl falls in love with roommate’s brother,” she laughs. 

Lucille met Bob Gambardella while pursuing
her master’s in psychiatric-mental health
nursing at Boston University.

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With the ink still wet on Gambardella’s master’s, the newlyweds ended up moving to Connecticut, and it was there that she broke into education. Her first teaching job was at Quinnipiac University in Hamden. 

“That set the ball rolling,” Gambardella says. “I got to not only use my skills as a psych-mental health clinician, but to teach students to work with the mentally ill. It was the best of both worlds.” 

After several years at Quinnipiac, Bob’s job took them to Pennsylvania, where Gambardella began a stint at Bloomsburg University in 1976. At Bloomsburg Gambardella got her first taste of running a department of nursing faculty when she took over as chair. 

Bloomsburg’s baccalaureate program in nursing was one of the first in the area. Many nurse training programs offered only associate degrees or diplomas. “Part of my job was introducing a BSN to the community.” Gambardella’s work was part of a national trend to prepare nurses at the baccalaureate level in the hopes of leveling the playing field they shared with other medical professions. 

Her work at Bloomsburg wasn’t without challenges. The college was in a rural community, and there was a strong, popular diploma program just down the road. Gambardella wanted to make sure she didn’t seem disrespectful to those nurses, nor did she want to alienate Bloomsburg from its neighbor’s facilities, which its students used for clinical training. 

Gambardella navigated the challenge with aplomb. By the time she left Bloomsburg in 1983, she realized that going into nursing education was a good decision.

When she first moved to Dover, her children were young, so she took a year off to help them adjust to their new home. One of Bob’s co-workers was married to Julie Boozer, then chair of nursing at Wesley College. After learning of Gambardella’s accomplishments, Boozer told her that whenever she was ready to go back to work, there would be a job for her at Wesley. 

Gambardella instantly loved Boozer. “She was the kind of person you knew you wanted to work for.” In the 1984 academic year, Gambardella joined the Wesley faculty. 

She at first saw the job as a stepping stone to a position in nursing education elsewhere in Delaware. “I thought I’d give it a shot, do three to five years, and see what else there was.”

But Wesley ended up being a great fit. She loved Boozer, her boss and mentor, and she loved the personal, family feeling of the tight-knit campus. “Being in a large university would have been a mistake. At Wesley, you knew the students by name across the campus.” 

Gambardella earned her doctorate in organizational leadership in 1988. Eight years later, she was promoted to department chair when Boozer retired. She remained in that post until her retirement. The students affectionately called her Dr. G. 

Shortly before Boozer left, she and Gambardella had discussed how they could improve educational mobility for area nurses. They did some digging, and became fascinated with a bridge program at Vanderbilt University that let students track from a bachelor’s straight through to a master’s.

Gambardella believed a program like that was right for Wesley. She and her colleagues found that most nurses in Delaware were diploma- or associate’s-prepared. Gambardella realized there was a nationwide need for nurses prepared at the master’s level. 

Under Gambardella’s guidance, Wesley put together its own bridge program. Her higher-ups didn’t at first understand the bridge concept, she says, so they had to review the proposal several times before approving it. 

When Wesley accepted its first students for the program in 1996, it took off like wildfire. “Nurses were very excited that they could earn their MSN in a three-year period of time.” 

Because the program focused on community health, it attracted many nurses who emphasized wellness over illness, Gambardella says. “Nurses have always been at the forefront of looking at the healthy side of patients. Our master’s program allowed them to do that more fully.”

Before her retirement, U.S. News & World Report named Wesley’s nursing program one of the top 50 in the country. “Here we are, little Wesley—not a huge program, usually about 80 to 90 students altogether—and we get this fabulous reward,” Gambardella says, “not only for the students, but for myself and the nursing faculty who started the program.” 

What makes her accomplishments even more remarkable is the fact that she balanced her career in nursing education with her own practice as a clinical specialist. She treated patients at MeadowWood Behavioral Health and A Center for Human Development, both in Dover, though she gradually reduced her involvement as her role at Wesley grew. 

Gambardella’s clinical work focused mostly on women with depression and couples whose relationships were affected by military deployment. “I worked with a lot of military wives who had difficulty when their husbands were deployed,” she says—and when they returned. “Someone had to take over resuming a role that was left for them, and these women got very comfortable in coordinating those roles. So what happens when they return?” 

Gambardella’s career has spanned massive changes in nursing, mental health and education. For one thing, technology has remade the world, she says. She can recall, as a student nurse, manually counting intravenous drips. “We didn’t have a fancy little machine that told you exactly how much fluid was going in, so you would stand there watching the glass bottle, and it wasn’t one of these wonderful plastic bottles we have now, and you would stand there and you counted drips.” 

She has all kinds of stories like this. They’re quirky and they’re touching and they remind you that the world is full of good people. That’s probably why many of her students visit her and Bob at their house in Lewes. (They celebrated their 46th anniversary last month.) He might be fishing. She probably won’t be, but there’s plenty else for her to enjoy at the beach. She loves hunting for antiques and reading Mary Higgins Clark and James Patterson. Both of her daughters live close enough that they can “do the Italian family thing on Sunday where everyone catches up.”

So what does she hope to be remembered for? 

“My passion about nursing as a profession.”

“A lot of times when I was doing interviews for admissions, someone would come in and start a sentence with, ‘I’m just a nurse but…’ And I’d always stop them. ‘I’m just a nurse?’ No one is just a nurse. A nurse is a critical piece of helping patients get well and stay well.” 

Gambardella instilled that ethic into the nurses she mentored, but she is concerned for the next generation. Faculty are becoming older. According to a 2013 report from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, “the average age of a doctorally prepared nursing faculty member ranges from 51.5 (assistant professor) to 61.3 (full professor).”

There’s a critical shortage, most likely because nursing education is not as lucrative as nursing itself or other clinical tracks. “When we think about the need to prepare students to become nurses, we need to think about where we’re going to find faculty,” Gambardella says.

That’s why she’s still consulting, to make sure the profession she has devoted her life to continues to thrive.

“Nursing has been good to me, and I hope I can contribute to the profession for years to come.”

Click here to see our 2016 Top Nurses list.

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