She’s a South Hills icon, a 34-year fixture in the pharmacy at the Bridge Road Rite Aid. No more. On May 15, at 71, Harriet Nottingham worked her last 12-hour day. She finally retired. Can you believe it?
Her Charleston roots run deep. Daughter of the late Harry Brawley, a well-known teacher, broadcaster and city historian, she spent her early years in Kanawha City, then moved on the hill as a teenager. She never left. Everyone up there knows her.
Professionally, she blazed a trail of sorts. When she started in 1966, pharmacy was dominated by men. No problem. A shrinking violet she is not. During 48 years behind the counter, she plowed through change in her usual intrepid way.
She and her pharmacist husband, Gerry, helped set up the pharmacy school at the University of Charleston. They remain active in the school to this day.
Throughout her career, her outgoing, chatty personality earned her what she considers the most important quality customers look for in pharmacist: Trust.
And oh my, the tales she could tell — but never will.
“I was the middle of three daughters. We had a wonderful childhood in Kanawha City, a great place to roam. Mom and dad built a house there in 1935. Then they built a house on Bedford Road.
“Mother was a teacher. Dad was a principal. He was always teaching at Morris Harvey, as UC was known then. He was always involved in activities we didn’t know about until later. I hadn’t even seen his slides of old Charleston. After we moved to Bedford, he was the director of public affairs at WCHS.
“In the spring of 1960, I was a senior in high school. Seniors have very busy lives. Our life came first. I would walk over and ride home with him at 5. One day, he was late. I was sure I had an important phone call at home. Later, I learned that he was helping to prepare for the Humphrey-Kennedy debate at WCHS.
“In 1967, he was appointed by the governor to become the first director of educational broadcasting. He said educational radio was harder to bring into the state than educational television.
“I was always good in math and chemistry. I had a wonderful chemistry teacher, Mrs. West. She called me one day and asked if I had picked a profession. She recommended pharmacy. She had a daughter who was a pharmacist.
“My mother said she had always been interested in pharmacy, but back when she went to school in the Depression, women became schoolteachers.
“Roy Bird Cook was the dean of pharmacy in the state and city and well-known nationally. He had Cook’s Pharmacy on Quarrier Street. Mother took me down to talk to him. Mrs. Cook was out front. She said Mr. Cook did not think women should go into pharmacy. But she encouraged me. I enrolled at WVU.
“When I entered, it was the first five-year course. It had always been four years. Now, it’s six years because they count the internship as a year of instruction. In my class, there were only four women out of maybe 30 or 40 students.
“We had two years pre-pharmacy, three years of pharmacy school and our internship. Six months of internship had to be after we graduated. WVU had opened an outpatient pharmacy, so I did part of it there.
“I did my first internship with Bill Kenney at Kenney’s Pharmacy on Lee Street. Kenney’s and Cook’s were the old-time pharmacies. I told Kenney I needed hours. He said he could only pay me $1 an hour. I said that would be fine.
“The first call I took as a pharmacy intern was a woman who wanted to know if we had leeches. I whispered to Mr. Cook, and he got on the phone and said we didn’t have leeches any more. He showed me the leech jar on the top shelf. His father had used them for bloodletting.
“Remember Dave Brown at Rite Aid on Bridge Road? When I started there in 1980, I was new and a woman besides. Older customers would call and ask for Mr. Brown. If he wasn’t there, they would hang up. After they got to know me, they would say, ‘I will give you this refill number, but you let Mr. Brown fill it.’ You have to earn your way.
“In between my internship and Rite Aid, I worked at Trivillian’s, Lynch Pharmacy on Oakwood Road, Kenney’s again and a little hospital work. I wasn’t fond of that because I like people.
“I have worked as little as six hours a week and as much as 40. We work 12-hour days on the days we work, and as you get older, that gets increasingly harder.
“Before computers, we would have to type the labels, hand-write the receipts, hand-bill the insurance and pull the files and mark every time a prescription was refilled. They told us this new computer system would do all that. How could that be? But I learned quickly.
“There’s a lot more information now for customers. Counseling is a big part of pharmacy now. When we started out, a doctor could put on a prescription whether he wanted it labeled. If he said no label, you did not even put the name of the medication on the label. Now we have to give packets that tell every possible side effect, so that is a big change. Another one is that the profession is probably 60 to 70 percent women.
“When I was trying to decide what to do in the health field, I nixed medicine because I didn’t think I could use a needle to inject people. Now, immunizations are a large part of pharmacy. We are now able to give five or six immunizations. For the last three years, our store has averaged between 600 and 700 flu shots. And I love it. I didn’t think I could do it, but you do what you have to do.
“My husband, Gerry, is a pharmacist too. In 2005, Ed Welch wanted us to meet him for lunch to discuss a pharmacy school at UC. He was trying to decide whether the university should go toward a college of law or a pharmacy school. We put in our plug for pharmacy, of course.
“They decided where the building would be. They had a core of instructors, and we had to get a class going that would graduate in 2010, entering in 2006. There were about seven faculty members. We were interviewing students for the first class, telling them that yes, we would be accredited and yes, there will be a building. All that was over there was a pile of dirt. We just kept saying, ‘You have to trust us. It will happen.’
“We went to graduation, and I led the pharmacists’ oath for them. I told them, ‘You did trust us, and look what happened.’ I have helped them interview every year since then.
“It’s important to have a retail pharmacist helping to interview because there are certain traits you need in a student. You have to see it. It’s kind of like choreography.
“During the Bob Wise administration, Paul Nussbaum, head of Health and Human Resources, appointed me as one of the two pharmacists to be on the new PNT committee. Basically we make the formulary. This is our 12th year, and I’m very proud of that.
“Every year, Gerry and I give a small scholarship, the Nottingham Award, to the winners of the counseling competition that UC holds.
“Many things have happened. More than one person has said I should write a book. And I could, but I can’t.
“You have to build trust with the customers. In one of my more poignant experiences, a young man came in on a Saturday night. I noticed him lingering. He looked very troubled. He was in the vitamin aisle, so I went to talk to him. He said he was very depressed and wondered if there was anything that could help him.
“I found something for him. He had suffered quite a bit of loss in his family. He later told me he was on his way down to the bridge to commit suicide. We’ve kept up with each other, and he is doing fine.
“There was an elderly gentleman, recently widowed customer, that I’d had a friendly relationship with for years. He came in one Saturday night and said he had a problem. He had sutures and outbreaks on his back that he was supposed to medicate topically. He didn’t have his wife, his brother and children were out of town, and he couldn’t reach his back. I told him to take off his shirt. He did, and I administered the medication. He told that story all over town.
“That’s the kind of pharmacy we have up there. It’s a neighborhood pharmacy that happens to be a chain.
“As a preceptor for the University of Charleston, I have students coming through here. One of the first lessons I teach them is, ‘That person at the counter is either feeling bad, has been sitting in the doctor’s office or has a relative feeling bad. You get what you give. If they want to have a war, don’t go to war. They are not themselves. Try to appease them. Don’t take it personally, because they don’t feel good or they are worried. If you don’t learn anything else in your five weeks in this store, learn that.’
“I never developed a lot of hobbies. This job has been my life. I want to keep my hand in pharmacy. I’m keeping my license. I’d like to see if Health Right can use me as a volunteer, and I want to look into volunteering for hospice.
“Gerry and I have traveled to many foreign countries. Now, we are going to see some of the United States.
“And I’m going to spend more time baby sitting for grandchildren. I have three in town, three in Charlottesville and one in college. We raised my two children, Gerry’s two and our one. We were the Brady Bunch.
“I feel very blessed. I’ve been a pharmacist since 1966 and in the same store for 34 years. I’m waiting on the third generation. I’ve been blessed with good health, wonderful customers and a great family, and now is the really fun part.”
Reach Sandy Wells ar firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5173.