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A Trailblazer in the Nursing Profession

Helen Yura Petro

"Helen was a wonderful supporter of our college, especially the School of Nursing, by establishing their scholarships, as well as coming to our major events. She had a passion for living and for sharing with others through her philanthropy, textbooks, teaching and project development. I will miss her smiling face at our college events and the special lunches we shared. The last time we met, Helen gave me a pyanka egg, the traditional Slavic Easter egg hand-painted in bright colors. Now, I treasure it even more as a remembrance of her and her generosity."
Shelley Mishoe, Dean College of Health Sciences

Helen Yura Petro was the first of six children born to Slavic immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania. Her father was a coal miner. The simple surroundings were filled with rich Slavic history and traditional foods that would remain an essential part of her life. With the children spaced far apart, Helen became a second mother to her younger siblings, and her nurturing temperament took root.

When she was in high school in Allentown, several of her friends applied to nursing school—just across the street—at Sacred Heart Hospital. On a lark, she joined them. It was that innocent inquiry that set in motion her distinguished nursing career.

Excelling in her studies, Helen won $1,500 in scholarships toward her admission to The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. A year later she transferred to the University of Dayton, where she received her bachelor’s degree in nursing. She returned to Catholic University for a master’s degree in nursing and Ph.D. in higher education. In 1964, she joined the faculty of Catholic University, teaching psychiatric and mental health nursing. While there, she collaborated with Mary B. Walsh on the book, The Nursing Process, which the American Journal of Nursing selected as book of the year in 1975 and which later became a classic in the nursing profession. She also co-authored Nursing Leadership and Human Needs and the Nursing Process. In addition to her books, Helen coauthored 50 professional articles and papers. She became chair of nursing at St. Joseph’s College in Maryland and later held the assistant director position at the National League for Nursing, which accredits colleges and universities with the highest standards of nursing education.

In 1979, Helen’s career attracted the attention of Old Dominion University, which invited her to lead its new master’s program in nursing. At ODU, she devoted herself to a vision of leadership in the nursing profession, while also expanding the scope and quality of nursing care.

Helen’s focus had always been on her career; however, when she joined the newly formed Byzantine Catholic Church in Williamsburg, she caught the eye of widower Joe Petro. Joe’s father had also been a coal miner, and was of Slavic descent. Their similar backgrounds, shared heritage and steadfast faith brought them together, and Joe became the love of Helen’s life. They were married in 1989.

Always wanting to give back, Helen and Joe endowed three scholarships at ODU for nursing students. The first, in memory of their parents; the second, in memory of siblings; and the third, in their own names, all creating a strong Yura-Petro legacy at ODU’s College of Health Sciences. Through the years, Helen received numerous additional awards, including the Founders Award from Sigma Theta Tau; Eminent Professor of Nursing at ODU; University of Dayton’s 1979 Special Achievement Award from its Board of Governors; a National Founder’s Award for Excellence in Nursing Education; and other honors and honorary degrees, culminating with the designation of Eminent Professor Emeritus at her retirement.

Following her death in October 2015, Joe honored Helen and their 26 years of marriage with another gift—to the national nursing honor society, Sigma Theta Tau’s Epsilon Chi Chapter at ODU, where it will be used for the annual Helen Yura-Petro Lectureship that focuses on nursing research and the annual spring symposium. Helen Petro will be remembered at ODU for her reputation as a trailblazer, her kind spirit, and her patience as a professor. She is truly a legend in the nursing profession.

Have you made a provision to leave a future gift to Old Dominion University? If so, please let us know so we may thank you. Please contact Barbara M. Henley, CFRE at 757-683-6563 or or Brett A. Smiley, CFRE at 757-683-4735 or

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