A Salute for Captain Koertvelyessy

Headshot of Audrey K.

Audrey Koertvelyessy, MS ’66, BS ’62, grew up on the Cattaraugus Indian Seneca Reservation (Heron Clan), as one of a large family with a history of military service. She spoke Seneca before she spoke English. 

She was fascinated by her three aunts who were registered nurses, two in the Army, one in the Navy. “I thought if I wanted to have the same kind of adventures they talked about, I should follow their path and get a nursing diploma,” she remembers. 

Ambitious from the beginning

After graduating from high school at age 16, she interviewed for the Massachusetts General Hospital nursing program. The school recommended she wait and apply again in a year, but she didn’t want to wait. She enrolled in the Buffalo General Hospital nursing program, graduating three years later.

It was the beginning of a career that eventually took her to Washington, D.C. as the director and chief of nursing in the Indian Health Service—part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—with its 52 hospitals and some 500 clinics. 

Her role with the Indian Health Service came with an appointment to the rank of captain—equivalent to the rank of colonel in the Army—in the Commission Corps of the United States Public Health Service. That made Audrey one of the highest-ranking American Indian women officers in uniformed federal service. And, closer to home, the highest-ranking officer in her large extended family. 

Now retired and living in Florida, Koertvelyessy recently made a sizeable planned gift commitment to UB’s School of Nursing. “I got where I was in my life and my career because of my UB nursing education,” she says, “and I want to give back to the ones who helped me the most.” 

Her UB nursing education began when Koertvelyessy was already working as a nurse. She knew she’d be better equipped by adding a bachelor’s degree to her registered nursing credential.

She continued to work full-time at night while she studied, and after earning her bachelor’s degree in 1962, she kept on studying, finishing a master’s degree in nursing in 1966.

“My eyes were opened very wide to what nursing could be,” she says. “It was like entering a new realm of nursing.”

UB changed her life in another way. Because she was fascinated by the different health care beliefs and practices she encountered among her patients, she took courses in the anthropology department. There, she met Tibor Koertvelyessy, a Hungarian immigrant working on a doctorate. They fell in love.

Tibor took a faculty position at Ohio University; shortly afterward, OU started a nursing program, and Audrey was asked if she would be interested in leaving Buffalo to join the faculty. Yes! She and Tibor could finally marry. When he died in 2019, they had been married for 45 years.

She became the director of the university’s nursing program and was eventually recruited to Washington. For the 21 years before her retirement in 2009, Audrey and Tibor stretched their life together between Athens, Ohio, and Washington. While he might be doing anthropological fieldwork, she might be testifying before Congress.

“I do not have a specific request for the use of my contribution,” she says of her “unrestricted” planned gift to UB. As a former nursing program director and educator, Koertvelyessy knows that deans value flexibility. “There are always needs in any school of nursing to fund special projects."

Hers was a dream life of accomplishment she couldn’t have imagined as a little girl, looking up to her aunts in their military uniforms. UB showed her a path and she took it. She hopes her gift will help others do the same.

Published February 2, 2023