Alum Physician Shows Power of Perseverance

Dr. Nancy Woodward Hendrie ’54 and friend in Roteang, Cambodia

Never say “You can’t” to Dr. Nancy Woodward Hendrie ’54. She’ll prove you wrong. She’s a walking lesson in what persevering in the face of opposition can accomplish. “I’ve been called out sometimes for being too blunt, but I get things done,” she says matter of factly.

First, she became a physician when female doctors were rare. Then, when most people would retire, she started a project that is changing the lives of thousands half a world away from her Massachusetts private practice.

• View a photo gallery of Hendrie’s work in Cambodia. 

At age three, Hendrie decided to become a pediatrician, since she loved dolls and babies. But this was an era when young women—even Mount Holyoke students—were more likely to attend secretarial school after college. “I was looked on by a lot of my MHC classmates as a oddball,” Hendrie says, recalling one incident when students actually laughed at her intended career.

They weren’t alone. The director of a camp where she worked summers during college said Hendrie’s medical school ambition “really isn’t very feminine.” When she got into a top medical school and then applied for a residency at Boston Children’s Hospital, Hendrie was rejected for being a married woman with children. The man who interviewed her said, Hendrie remembers, “If you were the Virgin Mary, we’d consider you, but obviously you’re not!”

But Hendrie’s mother—a Mount Holyoke alumna and professor—had taught her that “Woodwards never quit!” So she kept trying. Three years later, Hendrie was finally offered a residency slot, but only on the proviso that she be paired with a resident who expected not to work as hard as residents normally do. Hendrie accepted anyway.

Over the next three decades, Hendrie built a successful private practice in pediatrics, raised five children, and became the first female chief of staff at Emerson Hospital in Concord, Massachusetts. “I worked like hell, and it worked out well,” she says.

By retirement age, insurance company red tape and other regulations were wearing on her, so Hendrie cast about for a new project where she could be her own boss. She found it when someone described Cambodia as a “cowboy country” where the government wouldn’t interfere because they didn’t care about the children she wanted to work with.

Since her first trip to Cambodia in 1997, Hendrie and The Sharing Foundation she created have helped thousands of disadvantaged children in Roteang village. “It’s like kids,” she says of the foundation’s expanding work. “They start tiny, but grow.”

First came an orphanage that accepted all children; many had HIV or serious disabilities and were abandoned at the orphanage gate. Filling those children’s needs led to the discovery of other needs. Over the years, the Hendrie-led foundation has built five schools, carried out multiple immunization programs, and started and sustained computer classes, a large English school, and a classical dance program. A sewing school provides uniforms so students can get educated. There’s a preschool, several playgrounds, picture books … the list keeps growing.

Today, the foundation serves more than 1,500 children daily in 15 educational, social, and medical programs. Thirty-one sponsored students are now in local universities, one attends medical school, and four have returned to teach in the Roteang village school where they once sat on the other side of the desks.

Hendrie has sought no government funding—U.S. or Cambodian—for any of these projects, but raised the money privately with an active U.S-based board. The foundation now has a $5 million endowment, so it will continue long after Hendrie—now in her 80s—scales back her personal involvement.

Hendrie, the architect of The Sharing Foundation, is modest about her contributions. When pressed, she concedes, “A moderate amount of work and a moderate amount of money can change the lives of thousands of people.”

What it takes to do this, she says, is persistence. “Be whoever you are, but really be it,” she advises. “Don’t let anyone stop you.”

—By Emily Harrison Weir