Dorothy Patach - Nurse, Educator, Environmental Activist
How does Dorothy Patach's story fit into the broader history of immigrant neighborhoods, the nursing profession, and women's environmental activism?
Power through Voice and Action
Dorothy Patach was born in South Omaha in 1923 to a family of Czech immigrants. She began her education at Hawthorne Elementary School and eventually graduated from South High School in 1941. Patach went on to the Nebraska School of Nursing (Lincoln) and graduated with her nursing degree in 1944. Throughout her education, she followed her father’s advice: “Just don’t become an educated fool.” Although her father supported her in receiving a higher education, he reminded her to remain informed about and involved in her direct community.
After receiving her nursing degree, she worked as an assistant operating room supervisor and clinical instructor at her alma mater for three years. She then moved on to Clarkson Hospital for eight years. During this time, she earned a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition and a Master of Science in Nursing Education from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Patach began working with nursing students in 1956 at the Jenny Edmundson Hospital in Council Bluffs, Iowa. While working at various local hospitals, Patach helped to develop surgical drapes and was involved in the testing of Formula 99 (which later became known as Dial Soap). In 1959, Patach joined the staff at the University of Nebraska at Omaha until she retired in 1989.
Not only was Patach a nurse and educator, but she was also an activist within her community. The idea of community involvement was instilled within Patach as a child. Her parents were heavily involved with the upkeep of the neighborhood and as they got older, Patach began to take over their responsibilities. If problems arose in the neighborhood, she felt obliged to assist with the situation. For example, when her family experienced plumbing difficulties, she immediately took action by consulting with the city to fix the sewers. Patach is also an avid volunteer. She has worked with a variety of organizations in Omaha, most notably with sokol centers, the Spring Lake Neighborhood Association, the South Omaha Neighborhood Alliance, the South Omaha Business Association, and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Due to all her efforts in maintaining her community, Patach came to be memorialized by a seven-acre environmental area.
This photo depicts Sokol Hall off 13th and Martha in Omaha, Nebraska. As Patach was growing up, numerous sokol halls were scattered around South Omaha. Originally, sokol halls were activity centers for people of the Czech culture. Although they facilitated cultural activities, they specifically supported athletics and physical health. These centers gave the Czechs a feeling of home and kept Patach connected to her heritage. Patach’s grandparents immigrated to the United States in the late 1800s.
Although she considers herself full-blooded Bohemian and was invested in her Czech culture, she easily fit in with the diverse South Omaha community. She fondly looks back at her neighborhood where all different cultures lived together, from German to Russian and Irish to Hispanic. People were able to coexist together. When summed up, the distinct cultures of the South Omaha neighborhoods created something greater. Throughout her entire life Patach has brought all different types of people together to work toward common goals.
Photo Courtesy of History of Czechs (Bohemians) in Nebraska.
Patach, Nurse and Educator
The article above is from the Dundee and West Omaha Sun, which was published on December 1, 1960. It shows how Dorothy Patach played a large role at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in teaching future nurses. Before becoming an educator, Patach graduated with her nursing degree in 1944. She was one of the first student nurses, without a previous college education, to enroll in the Nebraska School of Nursing (Lincoln). She originally wanted to be a doctor but was encouraged to pursue nursing instead, possibly because of the gender roles at the time. Although she did not follow her first choice in career, she went on to be very successful in nursing and teaching.
Patach stressed the fact that she became a teacher for the students and the students only. She deeply cared about her students’ success within college, but she also wanted them to develop a deep sense of community. The article above comments on how Patach taught one of the biggest classes of nurses that UNO had seen thus far. Later in her career, she became involved in administrative roles at UNO as well as other local hospitals. She was central in helping to grow nursing programs within Omaha. After impacting countless students, she retired from UNO in 1989. Patach, following her father’s advice, reminds us that education is not enough; you also have to work hard to get what you want. If you are concerned about your community, take control and take action. You are in charge of your own future.
Article Courtesy of University of Nebraska Archives and Dundee and West Omaha Sun.
Dorothy Patach Environmental Area
In addition to nursing, Patach advocated for the environment in her community. This photo was found in the November 14, 2001 edition of the Omaha World Herald. It shows Patach in front of a future environmental area located off 20th and N streets in South Omaha, across the street from her childhood home. Patach wanted to name the area Heritage Park in recognition of the Native Americans who reportedly wintered there countless years before. However, due to her clean up efforts and dedication to the natural environment, the environmental area was to be named after Patach herself. Over the course of many years, she consistently reported incidents of dumping throughout the open land and demanded that the city have it cleaned. This area was actually one of the last areas she helped to restore. Patach was previously an active participant in getting numerous ravines in the South Omaha area filled and transformed into safe spaces for people to enjoy.
Her efforts parallel a nationwide movement to protect the environment. Although she was a powerful voice in her community and wasn’t afraid to express her concerns, she did face obstacles. The South Omaha community continues to fight pollution created by the industrialized and impoverished area. At times, it was also difficult to find volunteers who wanted to give their time in trying to restore Omaha to its natural beauty. However, Patach has remained persistent, even after all of these years, a testament to the impact of the individual.
Photo Courtesy of the Omaha World Herald.
Dorothy Patach Environmental Area Photo Courtesy of Jessi Thomsen (taken 21 July 2015).
Ty and Ebin, the students who compiled the Dorothy Patach project, came “face to face” with history. Patach and the environmental area that bears her name both act as portals into a rich slice of Omaha’s past and a glimpse into what it means to be an active community member. Ty and Ebin came to know history as a person—someone who lived and breathed the years that would probably be skipped in the pages of a textbook. They learned the value of a story, the value of listening, and the value of uncovering individual memories as threads that create and complicate a broader view of history.
Patach’s history is an invisible one because it may not precisely coincide with the broader narrative of the immigrant experience in South Omaha. Many remember neighborhoods divided by culture, ethnicity, and race. Many historical accounts describe conflicts, riots, and intolerance between these isolated groups—boundaries that weren’t stripped away until people lived the mutual experience of working in the packing plants. In contrast, Patach describes a diverse but functional neighborhood, a collection of immigrants from a range of cultures and experiences living and working together in her South Omaha community. The broader narrative of the immigrant experience lives in textbooks and museums, and it may also have contributed to Patach’s own life and path, whether she realizes it or not.
Dorothy Patach was also an important part of the history of nursing. Nursing professionalized in the late nineteenth century, and by the early twentieth century, there were hundreds of nursing schools in the United States. Women made up the overwhelming majority of nurses, with most nursing schools refusing to admit men. At the same time, nursing maintained strict segregation until the mid-twentieth century, with white nurses serving white communities and black nurses serving black communities. Following World War II, just as Patach had recently graduated, American health care became even more intensive, demanding ever larger numbers of nurses. However, fewer women like Dorothy were choosing the profession because of low pay and generally poor working conditions, leaving the country with a nursing shortage. The profession also became more specialized at that time, with nurses like Dorothy training to work in specific settings, such as operating rooms.
Outside of work, Dorothy Patach was a part of a nationwide movement of middle-class women who increasingly focused on neighborhood improvement and environmental protection in the late 1950s and 1960s. Women across the country formed groups and coalitions like the League of Women Voters (which played a key role in dealing with water pollution), Citizens Crusade for Clean Water, Citizens for Clean Air, Women Strike for Peace (to end the environmental hazards caused by atmospheric weapons testing), and more. Women’s magazines increasingly publishing articles on the environment, especially water pollution, and women made Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring (1962), about the dangers of pesticides, a national bestseller. In her South Omaha community, Dorothy Patach worked on a number of these environmental issues through local groups.
Ty and Ebin committed themselves to preserving Patach’s history and memorializing her experiences, as she remembered them, just as intentionally as the community memorialized her name with the Dorothy Patach Environmental Area.
"Thanks to MIHV I got the rare experience to meet history in person. For example, I got to interview Dorothy Patach. I had no prior knowledge on her environmental experience, and I was really surprised to learn that there are such strong environmentalists in Omaha."
- Ebin R
"When I first came to MIHV, I didn’t expect to meet such a nice and courageous person like Dorothy Patach. She has really helped and changed South Omaha and Omaha itself. It’s important to know and learn about people who have had an impact on our own communities. It’s also important to know about history and what or who has given us a new viewpoint."
- Ty C.
Armendariz, Virgil, et al. South Omaha Stories. 27 May 2015.
Dorothy Patach Collection, Archives and Special Collections, Criss Library, University of Nebraska Omaha.
“Dorothy Patach.” University of Nebraska at Omaha's Women’s Archive Project, forthcoming 2015. Web.
Gonzalez, Cindy and Nichole Aksamit. “S. Omaha Beautifier Honored.” Omaha World Herald. 3B. 14 Nov. 2001. Print.
“Inaugural Dorothy M. Patach Spirit of Service Award.” University of Nebraska Medical Center. 2015. Web.
Jokela, Roxanna. Personal interview. 20 July 2015.
Knutzen, Jean. “Nursing Director’s Experience Profits Students, Patients.” Dundee and West Omaha Sun. 16. 1 Dec. 1960. Print.
Krzemian, Mary Ann. Personal Email, July 2015.
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“Omaha South High Magnet School.” Omaha Public Schools, 2015. Web.
Otis, Harry B. and Donald H. Erickson. E Pluribus Omaha: Immigrants All. Omaha: Lamplighter P, 2000. Print.
Patach, Dorothy. Personal Archive.
Patach, Dorothy. Personal interview. 20 July 2015.
Rosicky, Rose compiler. History of Czechs (Bohemians) in Nebraska. 1929. Reprint. Evansville, IN: Unigraphic.Inc., 1977. Print.
“Search 1822 N St., Omaha, Nebraska.” Google Maps, 2015. Web.
Research compiled by: Ty C. and Ebin R.