By Susan Houston Klaus
The first things you learn about Leland Essary are that he’s exceptionally good humored, a great storyteller — and proud of his mother’s accomplishments.
Burnett Society member Leland and his mother, Theta Cole Bullington, shared a love of adventure and of helping others. Theta rose in her profession to be a respected leader in public health nursing; Leland enjoyed a decades-long career in teaching. Along the way, the mother and son didn’t hesitate to lend a hand to people in need.
Born in Stockville, Nebraska, Theta had her sights set on becoming a nurse.
“Her parents were not wealthy people,” Leland said. “When Mom graduated from high school, she went to teach to make money [to be able to go to the university and study nursing]. Her overall goal was not to be a teacher; her overall goal was to be a nurse. It meant a lot to her.”
In 1938, at age 29, Theta earned her general nursing degree. The next year, she received her Bachelor of Nursing degree from what is now the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Theta was a nurse in Pennsylvania during World War II. Later, she moved to Oklahoma, where she worked with the Native American community and then went on to serve in public health nursing in Nevada and as director of public health nursing for Santa Cruz County, California.
A young Leland and his mom returned to Nebraska in the late 1950s, where she renewed her teaching certification, serving in one-room schools. Later, she worked in nursing for the educational service units in North Platte and Kearney.
Theta was always ready to help others. Leland remembers her writing a check to a friend of his and saying, “Pay me back when you can.”
Neighbors in rural Nebraska, with health care many miles away, would ask for her help because they knew she was an RN.
From his mother, Leland learned the value of hard work and pitching in where it was needed.
He worked cattle on his stepdad’s 5,700-acre Sandhills ranch from the time he was 11.
“You fix fences, you put up hay for the winter, you fix wells, herd cattle, chase cattle,” Leland said. “I bet I was on a horse five out of the seven days in a week.”
Leland graduated from McPherson County High School and Kearney State College. Like his mother, he became a teacher.
Leland had taught in Grand Island for eight years when he and three other teachers who enjoyed off-roading were lured by Arizona’s warm climate and plenty of places to ride off-road. Leland moved to Phoenix and joined Washington Elementary School, teaching sixth-grade math and some English.
For Leland, teaching turned out to be a lifelong vocation.
“In 30 years, I never had a class of kids that I just didn’t absolutely love,” he said.
Like his mother, Leland hasn’t hesitated to go the extra mile. A kind gesture nearly 25 years ago turned into a lasting friendship.
In 1999, he met up with a tour group of Amish people whose driver had had a health emergency. Leland volunteered to take them around southwest Colorado. He refused to accept any payment, so one member of the group invited him to visit them in Indiana.
He took them at their word. After he retired, he drove to Indiana, planning to stay a few days and return home. Leland ended up staying in the community for more than three months. He found himself again in the classroom, teaching math and English in a one-room school — the same kind of school at which his mother had taught when she returned to Nebraska.
Theta joined her son in Arizona after retiring in the late 1970s. She loved to travel and enjoyed her years in the Phoenix area.
Recently, Leland said, he had been thinking about how he could honor his mother, who died in 1995, and her career in nursing through his estate. He thought about the recognition Theta received in 1983 from the UNMC Alumni Association, which presented her with its inaugural Distinguished Alumnus Award.
It meant everything to her, Leland said.
“She was so honored by it,” he said, “I got to thinking, what could I do?”
Theta’s enthusiasm for her alma mater helped Leland decide on the perfect gift in her honor: the Theta C. Bullington College of Nursing Scholarship Fund.
It seemed an appropriate tribute to someone “who just lived the nursing profession” and knew it could be difficult for some to afford an education, Leland said.
The endowed gift, which was established as a bequest, will provide a lasting legacy for his mother for decades to come.
“Mom was a kindhearted soul,” Leland said. “She would be more than happy to have what she worked for go to help people in the profession.”