Mary Zelma Smith "Tootie" McElhannon, 59: Was a committed pro-life nurse

For Mary McElhannon, being a good nurse and mother went hand in hand.

The mother of five was primarily a homemaker who worked part-time or volunteered until her children reached late high school or college age. She was employed at several hospitals -- Newton General in Covington, St. Mary's in Athens and Atlanta's  Northside Hospital.

Time at Northside became a life-changing experience for the 1969 Southwest High graduate. It was shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court had legalized abortion and, as a nurse, she had to assist with clean-up after procedures and the occasional delivery of an expired fetus.

"She came home and told me, ‘I can't do that,' " said Stewart "Buddy" McElhannon, her husband of 38 years. "For her that was a galvanizing moment. She became passionate about pro-life work, and all that came together for her at the Refuge Pregnancy Center, if you will."

At the center in Covington, the nurse known as "Tootie" helped young women navigate difficult times. She started "Building Bridges for Life," a support group for expectant mothers or new ones. She set up a clinic to provide sonograms and ultrasounds.

"She was more than committed," said Janice Olejnik, the center's director. "She was a stickler for details and (she) put in 12-hour days and didn't get paid a dime. She really loved those girls, and they felt it."

In October, Mary Zelma Smith McElhannon was diagnosed with breast cancer that quickly spread to her spinal fluid, stomach, pelvic bone and eye. She died Thursday from complications of the disease at Rockdale Medical Center in Conyers. She was 59.

The funeral will be held at 10 a.m. Tuesday at St. Pius X Catholic Church in Conyers. Scott Ward Funeral Services - Harry White Chapel of Conyers is in charge of arrangements.

Mrs. McElhannon was born in Louisville, Ky., and she moved with her family to Decatur when she was a first-grader. She and her husband were in the same second-grade class at Toney Elementary and dated as Southwest DeKalb High seniors.

In 1972, Mrs. McElhannon earned a nursing degree from DeKalb College and  started work at Northside Hospital. She soon became pregnant with Joel, her eldest.

In 1980, the family moved to Athens, where they lived for eight years. There, Tootie worked in a wellness program at St. Mary's Hospital and Healthcare System.  The family moved to Conyers in 1988 and shortly thereafter Mrs. McElhannon began volunteering at the Refuge Pregnancy Center. She became its certified sonographer and nurse manager.

For some expectant mothers, she became a surrogate mom.

"It wasn't just about saving babies," her husband said. "I can't tell you the number of girls she has brought in to live with us during the term of their pregnancies."

Additional survivors include sons, Joel McElhannon of Atlanta and Russ McElhannon of Cumming; and daughters Taryn Tennyson of Locust Grove; Margaret "Maggie" McElhannon of Atlanta and Mari Westney of Chapel Hill, N.C.

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