Five-plus decades of fabulous

Juanita Buchanan has been “a joy” for generations of students, patients and colleagues

Des Moines University owes a lot to Ms. Betty D. Jackson. The typing skills/ business education teacher at Des Moines’ North High School saw so much potential in one of her students, Juanita Buchanan, that she paid her tuition to attend keypunch courses after she graduated in 1968. 

On Oct. 21 of that year, Buchanan, then 18, brought her skills to the College of Osteopathic Medicine and Surgery (COMS). And while so much has changed at the institution since then – its name, twice; its location; expansion of its programs from one to eight; its leaders, faculty and staff – one aspect has remained the same: Juanita Buchanan is still employed here. 

“She has always been a good worker. She’s so loyal to that place, it’s unbelievable,” says Roger Senty, D.O.’58, past chair of the COMS department of surgery and retired dean of the college. “When I’m on campus, I always make a point of going to the clinic to greet her.” 

Buchanan began her career with the institution as a receptionist for the College Clinic adjacent to the college on Sixth Avenue in downtown Des Moines. She got the job after an “awkward” interview along with another candidate with Elizabeth Burrows, D.O., clinic director and chair of the obstetrics/gynecology department. 

“Dr. Burrows left the room, and the other woman interviewing said to me, ‘I hope you get the job – she scares me,’” Buchanan recalls. “Dr. Burrows was very straightforward and stern but very smart. She made the students work. She was an excellent doctor. Her patients literally had her home phone number.” 

To students, Buchanan was a welcome respite from the rigors of medical school. “There are two people who added joy and happiness to our miserable, dull and demanding days of student life – Juanita and our ever-smiling, ever-helpful elevator operator, Gussie [LaMar],” says N.K. “Niru” Pandeya, D.O.’69, FAAOS, FAACS, FAAPRS, FAIS, FICS. “Among other nice things they did, they were daily barometers of the foul moods of our frustrated, cantankerous teachers. They warned us if one of the teachers was in a miserable frame of mind more than the usual. They also knew our grades before the teachers posted them!” 

While Buchanan describes the faculty as “very committed to teaching,” the facilities were less than ideal: “The electricity was very poor. When we had storms, the equipment would go pfffffft.” 

In the late 1960s, then-new COMS President Thomas Vigorito, D.O., had drawn up ambitious plans to relocate the campus to Fort Des Moines on the city’s south side, but inadequate funding quashed the move. However, in 1971 J. Leonard Azneer, Ph.D., replaced Vigorito and, one year later, engineered the college’s move to St. Joseph’s Academy, a 15-acre former Catholic girls’ school on Grand Avenue. 

“All of a sudden, we’re up and we’re moving,” Buchanan says. “I was shocked and anxious that we weren’t going to have a clinic. Where were our records going to be? They’d all been sent in boxes to Fort Des Moines. 

“The move was good in that St. Joseph’s offered more room and the environment was a little better,” she continues, “but as far as what we needed as a clinic, it was chaos.” 

It also needed work. Buchanan recalls a “creepy” auditorium with slanted floors, a “rickety crosswalk” and an “elevator that when you got on, you prayed.” But she says it was “heaven” having the Catholic nuns, who were allowed to continue living on campus, serve as cooks for the cafeteria. 

Through the years, Buchanan has worked in student affairs and admissions but most enjoys her current position as office assistant in the DMU Clinic. “I assist wherever I’m needed. I love the variety. I think that’s why I’m still here,” she says. She’s moved to tears when she describes helping patients who need special assistance or simply a kind word. 

“Juanita has a good rapport with patients. She will run out to the parking lot to help patients who have trouble getting around, and she makes sure ride share and taxis are on their way so patients don’t have to wait as long for a ride,” says Judy Allison, CHA, privacy officer and manager of the DMU Clinic’s health information management department. “It is not unusual for a patient to drop off a thank-you card, flowers, candy or baked goods for her. She provides goodwill for those coming to the clinic.” 

She does so for her colleagues, too. “When I returned to DMU as a new employee in March 2014, the first person to greet me was Juanita,” says Noreen O’Shea, D.O.’84, FAAFP, assistant professor of behavioral medicine. “Her love of life is infectious – an infection I hope more people catch!” 

Beyond DMU, Buchanan is proud of her family, which includes two daughters, a son, 23 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren. She loves traveling with friends to places like Aruba, the Bahamas and Cozumel, Mexico. She’s active in her church, True Bible Baptist. And she continues to be a proud DMU employee. 

“I’m a people person and a team player,” she says. “I’ve seen big improvements here, and several programs have been added. That’s why we all have to work together as a family to get things done.” 

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