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  • Claudie Mahar retired earlier this year after a 50-year career in nursing and hospital administration.
  • Claudie Mahar retired earlier this year after a 50-year career in nursing and hospital administration.
  • Claudie Mahar was 20-year-old Claudie Labonte in this photo, which was taken when she graduated from N.H. Hospital School of Nursing in 1961.
  • Courtesy photo

    This photo of young Air National Guard flight nurse Claudie Labonte treating a soldier was taken for a Manchester Union Leader newspaper story on her med-evac unit in the early 1960's. Now Claudie Mahar, she retired this year after 50-year career in nursing and administration.
Monday, June 20, 2011

Local woman has seen medical metamorphosis during 50-year career

Dean Shalhoup

Not yet 18 and just a couple months out of high school, the green-eyed girl whose favorite expression was “wunnerful, wunnerful” suddenly found herself in a place so strange and foreign, it was hard to imagine it was only 40 or so miles from her hometown of Nashua.

“Here I was, only 17 years old and in the middle of something I’d never seen before,” nursing and medical field legend Claudie Mahar, 70, said this week. “I had no idea what mental illness even was.”

Indeed, the awakening came early and fast for Mahar when she arrived at the New Hampshire State Hospital that fall of 1958 as first-year nursing student Claudette Labonte.

She was one of five children and the only daughter of Hyacinthe and Elise Labonte, longtime French Hill residents who moved to 341 Amherst St. when she was 6 and the street was a country road dotted with farms.

Today, Mahar, mother of three grown children and an Amherst resident of more than three decades, can take a few minutes – not too many, though, there are still plenty of boards and committees – and ease into a well-earned retirement by sharing memories of a 50-year career in nursing, the military, medical education and hospital administration.

Mahar has crossed in and out of retirement more than once in the last few years, first announcing in September 2009 she’d be stepping down in January 2010 as the vice president of hospital services, the last of many titles she held at Nashua’s St. Joseph Hospital.

Just days after she retired, hospital officials asked her to “reactivate” herself for a bit to head the hospital’s newly-acquired St. Joseph Home And Hospice Care based in Milford. The 14-month gig took her up to her second and final retirement in February.

Now, it’s kind of the best of both worlds for the youthful-looking Mahar, who can at once look back with satisfaction, warmth and a liberal sprinkling of humor and peer eagerly forward to her next chapter.

From the time she adjusted to her environment at the State Hospital, Mahar knew nursing was for her. Receiving her diploma in 1961, she worked the next two years at the State Hospital, which afforded her added experience in psychiatric nursing.

Mahar recalls an atmosphere reminiscent of the critically acclaimed film “One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest,” released in 1975 but set, coincidentally, in 1963.

At the time, the hospital housed an almost unfathomable 2,200 patients across its broad campus.

Mahar also got to witness the coming of one of the most momentous revolutions in medical pharmacology: the use of new narcotic-based medicines from which most of today’s highly refined drugs are descended.

“There were huge changes going on,” she said. “I saw miracles happen up there.”

One example was a long-term patient who refused to leave her room.

“Once they started treating her with one of these new meds, she began coming out on her own, even began taking showers herself and communicating with people,” Mahar said. “Doctors never saw this kind of thing happen before. You can imagine how excited everyone was.”

As fascinating as watching this medical metamorphosis was, Mahar was soon drawn to another phase of health care, at which she quickly discovered she was quite adept.

“I loved the clinical aspect, being hands-on and helping people directly, but I found I was more comfortable in a support role, like supervising and education,” Mahar said. “I discovered my strength was in managing.”

Her inspiration probably came from a rather unusual experience for a young female nurse in that era: joining the Air National Guard as a flight nurse and flying not only domestic missions, but plenty of harrowing medical evacuation rescues from the sweltering Southeast Asian swamp called Vietnam.

Around that time, she married Army Capt. Harold “Hal” Mahar Jr., her now former husband, who would eventually complete two tours in Vietnam and be awarded two Purple Hearts.

While the couple were stationed at Fort Bragg, Claudie Mahar’s experience helped her land the post of head psychiatric nurse at the base’s hospital.

Mahar’s next decision was guided at least in part by one of the Air National Guard’s rules “for ladies only”: You couldn’t serve actively once you became a mom.

So, with the arrival of Tom “T.J.” Mahar in 1967, Mahar left the military with a rank of first lieutenant, came home, and in 1969, donned a starched-white uniform and cap and reported to her first day as an R.N. in the maternity ward at St. Joseph Hospital.

Since then Chuck, 40 next month, and Danis, 36, came along. Like her mom, Danis is a nurse.

The year 1969 was a bittersweet one for Mahar, though: In April, her 33-year-old brother, Army National Guard Capt. Roland Labonte, was killed in a nighttime mortar attack at a U.S. base in Vietnam.

Not long into her St. Joseph career, Mahar stepped up to charge nurse, then to house supervisor, a sort of general manager of the hospital, before being named chief nursing officer in 1981. At the time, the hospital was headed by its first lay administrator, the late Col. William Clegg, who promoted Mahar to an “assistant to the executive” post, which was later renamed vice president of hospital services.

The awards and commendations bearing the name Claudie Mahar are many. Tops among them are the James A. Hamilton Founder’s Award, the state Hospital Association’s highest award. She has excelled in this, distinguished herself in that and achieved excellence all over the place.

In short, Claudie Mahar is well-decorated, and deservedly so.

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Saturdays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 31, or