December 9, 2022

1950s Nurse Hero Finally Remembered With Proper Headstone

1950s Nurse Hero Finally Remembered With Proper Headstone

Image: Newspaper front page after deadly fire / New Gravestone

In recent months there have been countless acts of violence against nurses and in hospitals around the country. Patients bringing guns into hospitals in Nashville. Nurses shot in Dallas. Unfortunately, there haven’t been many “uplifting” stories.

Recently, a former “orphan” nurse that helped patients during a deadly fire was remembered and given a proper burial and gravestone in Florida. Gertrude Warnick, 55, was a nurse, a sister, and an orphan. Unfortunately, she also was forgotten after her death in 1953. Hailed a local hero at the time - her grave remained unmarked and forgotten for decades. 

Until recently. 

Image: New Gravestone

David Barmore, an amateur preservationist and volunteer with the Dunedin History Museum, started to investigate Warnick’s remarkable story. 

Warnick, born in 1896, spent most of her childhood at St. Vincent’s Orphan Asylum in Columbus, Ohio, and eventually moved to Florida with her sister, Susanna, in 1941. Warnick later worked as a nurse at the Littlefield Nursing Home, where she also lived as part of the job.

On  March 30, 1953, there was a deadly fire and Warnick died along with 32 others.

Image: Aftermath of the fire

“A fierce, early morning fire, fanned by a strong breeze, today destroyed the Littlefield Nursing Home south of Largo, killing probably 32 persons. It was the worst tragedy in Pinellas County History,” photojournalist Bob Preston reported in a front-page story for the St. Petersburg Times.

After the fire, there were countless news reports detailing the fire and the heroism of Warnick. 

“A nurse who made repeated rescue trips into the blazing Littlefield Nursing Home perished when she made “one more trip” into the crumbling, smoke-filled building. A mystery heroine, Gertrude Warnick, 55, was one of two nurses on duty in the home. She was one of the first to arouse patients. Ned Moren, son-in-law of the nursing home operator, told how Miss Warnick made trip after trip, leading or carrying sometimes quiet, sometimes wildly fighting patients out. “She heard someone call inside,” Moren said, “and made one last trip. She disappeared in the smoke. We called to her when we couldn’t see her anymore and she answered once.” Moren, and others, said repeated calls to Miss Warnick brought no reply. The building was crumbling, and heat, so intense it blistered paint on buildings across the road, drove would-be rescuers back. A charred and smoldering body was 20 feet inside the front door in what was a corridor. The body was identified as that of Miss Warnick… Miss Warnick’s sister, Susy, said the nurse had come to St. Petersburg 12 years ago. “She did housework until about a year and a half ago when she went to Littlefield’s as a practical nurse. She had never been a nurse before. She was very cheerful and very patient. I last saw her about two weeks ago. She liked her work and said it was very hard. She used to talk about the patients and sympathize with them.” - St. Petersburg Times

“A valiant nurse who disappeared in the fiery ruins of the Littlefield Nursing Home blaze was credited with giving her life in an attempt to retrieve immobile patients from this morning’s tragic fire that claimed 33 lives. Miss Gertrude Josephine Warnick, 55, pulled one inmate from the flaming frame building, then was seen returning to a section where arthritic patients were bedridden and helpless. The tall, dark haired woman never came out. “She was that kind of nurse,” commented Mrs. O.T. Dryden, night nurse at another rest home across from the Littlefield place.” - Tampa Tribune

The Tampa Bay Times reported Warnick’s story in April. She was finally given a gravestone in October. Barmore, along with several other locals, helped guarantee that Warnick was no longer the forgotten nurse here. Buried at Clearwater Municipal Cemetery, Warnick’s grave was located in the back, unmarked, and next to another unknown victim of the fire. 

Dunedin History Museum’s executive director, Vinnie Luisi, worked closely with Barmore to ensure the grave would receive a stone in a timely manner.

“I’m just grateful that her name is out in the public now,” he said. “People are aware of what she did, and she’s recognized in the cemetery.”

Luisi shared the story with the Pinellas County historical committee. Along with Michael Helmstetter, CEO of Clearwater’s Jolley Trolley, a portion of the proceeds from a Clearwater Haunted Tour went towards Warnick’s gravestone. 

Warnick will also be honored next year by the Clearwater Historical Society’s annual exhibit on women’s history.

“She needs a headstone,” said Allison Dolan, the society’s president.

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