Last week Jackson County lost its oldest, and one of the last living, World War II Veterans, Vesta Lou Skelton. Skelton would have celebrated her 104th birthday on December 19. Skelton stated in a recent interview that what she wanted most out of life was to make a difference. This goal was achieved throughout her life. Skelton will always be remembered as a positive, kind, caring and loving person. Skelton can be credited for many positives throughout our community.
Skelton was born December 19, 1919 in Eastwood, Georgia to Sheppard McLemore, who worked as a railroad employee, and Florence Smith McLemore, a native of the Aspel community and teacher. When Skelton was only five years old, her mother passed away at the age of 27 from the Spanish Flu.
Skelton’s aunt, Dessie “Dea” McLemore brought Skelton to her home in Scottsboro, who she shared with John Gross family. In Scottsboro, she had extended family, including the prominent local education family, the Stockton’s.
Throughout Skelton’s school days, she moved between Aunt Dea in Scottsboro and an uncle, who resided in Birmingham. Most of Skelton’s education came from Birmingham Schools. However, she chose to return to Scottsboro her Senior year of high school. In Skelton’s yearbook, an entry was made, which refers to her by her nickname, “Toots.” The high school yearbook credits her with being captain of the girls’ basketball team.
Following her high school graduation, Skelton returned to Birmingham to study nursing. She earned an RN certification at the South Highlands Infirmary, a training facility associated with St. Vincent’s Hospital. After certification, Skelton went to work for county health departments in Colbert and Cullman Counties. She traveled to schools and to isolated homes where she treated impoverished residents. Conditions she treated included those made worse by the lack of health care availability, malnutrition, parasites and chronic childhood diseases such as rheumatic fever that had gone undiagnosed and untreated for years.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Skelton enlisted and was commissioned as an ensign in the United States Navy. She was deployed to Norfolk, VA where she and her fellow nurses treated casualties from the European theater. The patients were mostly burn victims who arrived by ship. She also tended to young men who were suffering from chronic undiagnosed childhood diseases, just as she had in her days with Alabama health departments.
After leaving Norfolk, Skelton served a brief stint in West Palm Beach, Florida. She was then stationed in the Panama Canal Zone. During the height of the hostilities, the staff in Panama were overwhelmed by the wounded who arrived by ship from both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.
In 1945, at the end of the war, Skelton left the Navy, having been promoted to the rank of lieutenant. When she had her choice of where she wanted to resume her civilian career, she chose Jackson County. She was one of two nurses assigned to the Jackson County Health Department.
Following her career in Alabama’s county health departments, she began work in private practice, serving with Doctors Ingrum Bankston, Joe Cromeans, and the newly arrived Samuel Parks Hall. In one instance, Skelton was the sole contact in a local clinic for nearly six months while a doctor recovered from a persistent medical condition. During that six-month period, Skelton cared for the clinics patients and also tended to the doctor in his home.
In 1947, she married Mark Scott Skelton, who she was fond of saying was the best dancer she’d ever seen. Six months after their first dance at the Scottsboro Recreation Center, they were married.
After marriage, Skelton continued her medical career, becoming the second nurse to be hired at the newly opened Jackson County Hospital on Woods Cove Road, now known as Highlands Medical Center.
After five years as director of nursing services at the Jackson County Hospital, she began a five-year career at the nursing home facility associated with the hospital. Skelton at the time thought that the career change would, in the absence of incessant off-duty calls, give her more freedom to be with her family, which now included two sons, Mark Scott Skelton Jr. born in 1950, and Andrew Douglas Skelton, born in 1953.
In the late 1960’s, she left the nursing home to serve as chief health officer at Revere Copper and Brass. After her tenure at Revere, she worked for fifteen years as a psychiatric nurse with the Marshall-Jackson Mental Health Center. There, she worked with alcoholism, drug abuse, and marital relationships. She retired from mental health in 1989 after 15 years, at age 65.
After 48 years as a nurse, attending to combat casualties in WWII and then tending to Jackson County’s most marginalized and isolated inhabitants, Skelton saw more misfortune and suffering than most can imagine. She was known to have police escorts subdue patients who refused to take mandatory vaccinations. She whisked newborns whom attending physicians deemed unviable into her car and drove them to metropolitan hospitals to ensure their survival. She held the hands of numerous frightened county children as they were wheeled into surgery, and she was still by their side when they woke from anesthesia. Through it all, she remained infectiously optimistic, gregarious, and unfailingly self-confident. All traits that she carried on after her nursing career ended.
Skelton was active in her community, and she loved her church, the First United Methodist Church of Scottsboro. She served as President of The Three Arts Club during the first Art Sunday, was Director of Council on Aging, and was past President of Highlands Ambassador Chamber of Commerce.
She enjoyed spending time at her Lake House with friends and family, working in the yard, traveling, reading, playing Bridge, and dancing with her husband, Mark. She was proud of her grandchildren and sons and loved to talk about them.
In 2015, Skelton’s husband, Mark Scott Skelton, Sr. passed away at the age of 95.
She is survived by two sons, Mark Scott Skelton, Jr. and Rita Skelton of Eagle, Colorado and Andrew Douglas Skelton of Scottsboro; three grandchildren, Anna Christine Skelton of Idaho Falls, Idaho, Graham Scott Skelton of Seattle, Washington and Colleen Jane Skelton of Weaverville, North Carolina.
Historical information for this article was submitted by Mr. David Bradford.