Lavonne (Vonnie) Harthun was a Minnesota nurse who grew up in a small town, yet rose to a position of influence in the halls of power. She was an only child who never married, yet she became “a member of the family” to countless friends and neighbors. She was a go-getter who invented devices, guided young nurses and showed a lifelong thirst for learning, teaching and mentoring.
So, when “Vonnie” died last month at age 82, in the presence of loved ones, it marked the end of a life that over the years shaped other healers and molded other lives, said Pam Carlson, whose mother and Harthun became best friends.
“She was quite a lady,” Carlson said. “She was intelligent, witty. She was always eager to be up on the latest knowledge.”
Educational drive? Hartun was born in Worthington, Minn., and grew up in Faribault, where she graduated from high school and later received a diploma in nursing from St. Lucas Hospital School of Nursing. She went on to earn honors and degrees — in psychology from Drake University and nursing administration and English from what is now Minnesota State University, Mankato. She also earned a master’s degree from the University of Minnesota in nursing education and counseling.
Harthun parlayed that education into 32 years at the University of Minnesota in the operating room and as an administrator, serving as a head nurse and later as a supervisor and a department head. She was the first nurse at the U to receive a Regent’s Chair for her contributions to the nursing and medical fields.
Professional drive? Harthun authored 35 scholarly articles, published in eight different professional journals. She also was an inventor, having six patents registered with the U.S. Patent Office. One of them, cousin Wayne Langland of Willmar remembered, pulverized kidney stones.
“They put you in water when they used this thing. She always said it was something like sandblasting your kidneys,” Langland said. “She was as good as a lot of doctors. I mean, she could have been a doctor by any means.”
Harthun was appointed by former President Bill Clinton to his 15-member Consortium on Health Care in the U.S.A., which at one time met monthly in Washington, D.C. She served on a statewide Medicare committee.
“When you use the word go-getter, that can take in a lot of territory,” Langland said. “But if she said she was going to do something, she got it done.”
Over the years, she became a traveler — to Germany, Norway and Sweden — and a sort of consulting health expert for the other residents of her senior living community, Carlson said.
“She was Dr. Vonnie to so many people. Instead of calling their doctor first, if they had a symptom, they would talk to Vonnie, too,” she said.
As her health failed, she even became a mentor to the young nurses who came to her home to care for her. One of them called Harthun “Mom.”
“It was amazing to see at the end,” she said.
Harthun died June 25. A memorial service was held July 1 in Burnsville and a private burial was held in Faribault.