by Lisa Fields
At first, it was a family connection that drew young Patricia Tooker to enroll at Wagner College — that, and a basketball scholarship.
But after her graduation in 1979, she found herself returning, again and again — for advanced degrees, for part-time work, for a full-time commitment as a teacher and leader.
Ultimately, it was the reputation of Wagner’s Evelyn L. Spiro School of Nursing, and its proximity to her home and workplace, that kept her coming back.
Today, 43 years after earning her bachelor’s degree at Wagner, Patricia Tooker ’79 M’95 D’16 is a tenured professor and dean.
“Wagner, professionally and personally, has been a big part of my life,” Tooker says. “Some of the folks up here, we tease about being lifers, like, ‘Did you ever work anywhere else?’ I say, ‘Yes. Yes, I did.’ ”
Making her way
Tooker chose Wagner during high school, following in her older sister’s footsteps. One of six siblings who grew up on Staten Island, Tooker didn’t want to go away to college. She played for Wagner’s women’s basketball team, which earned her a scholarship that made college more affordable.
“Not a complete, full scholarship — but enough that helped a little bit,” Tooker says. “I didn’t play all four years, because nursing really was very challenging, time-wise, for a ball player.”
Tooker always knew that she wanted to become a nurse. Wagner’s baccalaureate program appealed to her at a time when many nursing programs only offered associate’s degrees.
“I grew up knowing that I loved the sciences and was fascinated with the human body,” Tooker says. “If somebody had a skinned knee or needed help, I just always seemed to be the person jumping in. I don’t think that’s changed. I think that’s part of my DNA.”
Although she was passionate about nursing, Tooker sometimes felt out of place as an undergraduate.
“I wasn’t scholarly, to the point that I felt intimidated when I was surrounded by students who were smarter than me — or so I thought,” Tooker says. “I was strong in the clinical setting, and I felt a sense of accomplishment when I was able to perform the care. Eventually, I learned ways to study better.”
One discouraging instructor left a lasting impression.
“I had a nursing professor when I was, I believe, in my junior year. She stopped me in the hallway, put her finger in my face and said, ‘Mark my words: You will never be a nurse,’ ” Tooker says. “I saw her years later at Maimonides Medical Center when I was a staff nurse. I said to one of my colleagues, ‘Can you just watch my med cart for a minute? I want to go say hello to someone.’ I couldn’t get over to this instructor fast enough to tell her that I was, indeed, a nurse.”
Tooker began working as a nurse after her sophomore year. At that time, undergraduate students were allowed to take the exam to become a licensed practical nurse. “Upon passing the LPN boards, I went over and got a job at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, [which] Wagner had a very close affiliation with,” Tooker says. “For my remaining two years in nursing school — and that’s perhaps where the conflict with basketball was — I worked.”
She spent every weekend, holiday and school break at Maimonides. Tooker’s strong work ethic paid off; upon graduation, she was offered a full-time position as a staff nurse.
That same year, she married Brian Tooker, whom she’d started dating during college. “I knew him my whole life,” she says. “I was born and raised on Staten Island. My husband was born and raised on Staten Island about two, three blocks from where I was living.”
After seven or eight years, Tooker left Maimonides to take a position as staff nurse at Bayley Seton Hospital on Staten Island, where she bumped into an old friend who was living in Woodbridge, New Jersey. The friend convinced her to move to Woodbridge, where she and Brian lived for about 12 years.
During that time, Tooker’s career advanced.
“I answered an ad for a recovery room nurse,” Tooker says. “Within a short time, they named me the nurse manager of a brand-new surgical ICU trauma unit. I remained at Bayley and left as one of their administrators.”
While at Bayley Seton, Tooker returned to Wagner for her master’s degree. She also began working part-time as an adjunct professor. The hospital was so close to campus, it was easy to coordinate.
“I would come up here for my graduate studies on call and sometimes my beeper would go off,” Tooker says. “I’d have to leave and come back.”
Rediscovering her roots
Tooker and her husband were married for 15 years before their son, Christopher John (C.J.), was born.
“I did infertility treatments for more years than I wanted,” Tooker says. “Most people know I was childless for many, many years. That was a big challenge for me, growing up in a large family and having a lot of siblings and friends who were having their first, their second, their third, their fourth.”
When C.J. was young, the family moved from Woodbridge back to the Staten Island neighborhood where Tooker and her husband were raised.
“My son didn’t grow up with siblings,” she says, “but he grew up with many cousins and aunts and uncles and both sets of grandparents within walking distance.”
After Tooker resettled on Staten Island, an old Wagner friend reached out. Kathleen Ahern, professor and director of graduate studies at Wagner’s nursing program, called to see if Tooker would consider applying for a position as a full-time instructor. “I had her as a student in the master’s program,” Ahern says, “but I also knew her background, that she had very extensive clinical experience and she was very well received by the students as an adjunct before she came on full-time.”
Tooker was hesitant, but the position would allow for a better work-life balance. “I said, ‘I don’t really think that’s what I want to do full-time, but I’ll give it a try,’ ” Tooker says. “Kathy Ahern said it would be a lifestyle that would be conducive to raising my son. It would also make it possible for me to keep my skills up by working weekends, holidays, whenever, in the critical-care areas that I loved so much. And here I am.”
Learning to lead
Gradually, Tooker was awarded tenure and promoted to different positions at Wagner. Along the way, she earned the 2010 Faculty Teaching Award.
“I slowly found myself evolving into leadership roles, similar to what had happened in the hospital,” Tooker says.
About a dozen years ago, Wagner began making plans to offer a doctorate in nursing practice, the first and only doctoral program, so far, that the college offers. “The doctor of nursing practice is focused on folks who are in the practice setting, want to stay in the practice setting and want to contribute their research of a project into a community of need,” Tooker says.
Tooker was one of the faculty members who helped create the program — and when it was approved, she got permission from the provost and president to enroll in it, herself. She graduated with the inaugural class in 2016, shortly before becoming dean of the nursing school.
Her DNP research focused on the opioid epidemic, which had developed a stranglehold on Staten Island.
“I was one of the initial committee members in a Staten Island Partnership for Community Wellness initiative called TYSA, Tackling Youth Substance Abuse,” she says. “It was my commitment to this community agency, trying to wrap my head around, why Staten Island? Why was my hometown an epicenter?”
Despite her many responsibilities as nursing dean, Tooker volunteers with several community organizations. She’s been a member of the Eger Lutheran Homes and Services board of trustees for nearly 20 years.
“Pat has a very special work ethic,” says Lorri Senk, Eger’s president and CEO. “She focuses on her work, then she will focus on Eger, and then she’ll focus on her family, but I know that family does come first. She is a warm and wonderful person. She makes you feel that you know you can go to her with problems or concerns.”
For the past four years, Tooker has served as chair of Eger’s board, a demanding role at the height of the Covid pandemic.
“Every day, a different challenge, every day, a new set of rules,” Tooker says. “We didn’t know enough about the transmission of the illness, so folks were coming out of the hospital and going into the long- and short-term-care facility being carriers, which just caused further outbreaks.”
She’s also spent a considerable amount of time volunteering with the Staten Island Performing Provider System, collaborating on projects and serving on committees.
“She must be a magician with time management because, obviously, she has the full-time job at Wagner, and yet she’s willing and able to share her ability and her experiences with organizations like Staten Island PPS,” says Dr. Salvatore Volpe, its chief medical officer. “I believe she does what she does because she cares about people, and that comes across very quickly.”
The simple things
When she isn’t working, Tooker enjoys walking, biking, gardening and socializing with friends and family. Her son lives on Staten Island, as do her parents, who still live in her childhood home. Most of her siblings live locally, including her twin sister, Ellen Navarro, who is the director of Wagner’s Center for Intercultural Advancement. Tooker also relishes spending time at the beach. She and her husband purchased a small condo in Bradley Beach, New Jersey, shortly after 9/11.
“I always wanted a beach house,” Tooker says. “After a lot of loss of life of many friends and colleagues — nurses, firefighters, cops — I had a better understanding of the fragility of life and how it could be over so quickly.”
Several of Tooker’s close friends also have second homes in Bradley Beach, allowing them to connect meaningfully in New York and New Jersey.
“We just kick back and spend time together and share our stories of raising children and taking care of elder parents and listening to good music and trying to stay healthy and happy,” she says.
Tooker deeply values her friends, who understand her busy schedule and accept her for who she is.
“We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, so when we finally get to unwind, we have a lot of fun,” says Diane Ryan, one of Tooker’s longtime friends. “We sit on the beach. We go for a walk. No judgment; just support, laughter. It’s invaluable.”
Full steam ahead
Although Tooker recently turned 65 and her husband has already retired, she has no plans to leave Wagner anytime soon. Instead, she’s focused on the work ahead. Tooker is collaborating with the Staten Island PPS to incorporate telehealth into Wagner’s nursing curriculum by connecting students with residents at PPS-affiliated long-term-care facilities.
“As long as the students are working with a live human being on the other side, not just each other through telehealth, we can use it as some clinical hours,” Tooker says.
She’s also begun crafting a curriculum for a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner program.
“It just looks like a great program that I think would be a really good fit for Wagner, if I could work on that and get it up and going,” Tooker says. “I don’t know. A few more years. My friends keep saying I’ve been saying that for a few years now. They’re like, ‘Really? When are you really going to retire?’ They’re waiting for me at the beach.”
Patricia Tooker was named the first Kimberly H. Spiro Dean of Nursing, a position established following a $3 million gift from the Spiro Foundation which will support leadership and innovation in the Evelyn L. Spiro School of Nursing.
The gift from the Spiro Foundation was the latest in a series of generous contributions made to Wagner College by the family of Donald and Evelyn Spiro, both members of the college’s Class of 1949.
“I am so grateful to trustee Kim Spiro for her continued support of Wagner College and the Evelyn L. Spiro School of Nursing,” Wagner College President Angelo Araimo said. “Kim carries on the legacy of her parents, whose dedication to Wagner spanned seven decades. This wonderful gift carries that dedication forward and allows us to continue growing one of the best nursing schools in America.
“And it could not be more appropriate that the first person named as the Spiro Dean of Nursing is Patricia Tooker,” Araimo continued. “Like other excellent leaders, Pat has the ability to inspire those she leads, reminding them that what we’re doing matters. She lives the Wagner Plan, which was her number one job as dean of integrated learning — and she makes the ‘integrated’ part of Wagner learning work in the context of training health care professionals.”
The Wagner community gathered to recognize the 10 year anniversary of the death of Ronald “R.J.” Tillman, a Wagner nursing student who was struck and killed by a motorist while bicycling home from campus on February 12, 2012.
Following his death, family, friends and alumni raised $14,000 toward a memorial fund which supports the R.J. Tillman Award, given to second-degree nursing students who exhibit deep caring, sensitivity, and concern for classmates and patients. The award has been given annually since its inception and remains a tradition for the nursing program. Supporters can continue to grow the endowed fund by making a gift at: