In loving memory of Ona Riggin, October 11, 1930 – June 3, 2021
Ona Riggin, RN, EdD, grew up on a dairy farm in Monroe, Wisconsin in the 1930s. Her parents were Swiss immigrants and she spent her mornings before school milking cows. In a family that only spoke Swiss-German, Riggin ended up failing first grade.
“She didn’t even have English skills in the first grade and yet, she went on to all these educational degrees,” Scott Heffington, son of Riggin, said.
Her failure did not slow her. In fact, it fueled her.
Riggin overcame her language barrier and excelled academically, eventually achieving her doctor of education degree from Memphis State University in 1976.
Heffington said it was his mother’s persistence that always turned her setbacks into success.
In 1964, Riggin’s first husband, Claude Scott Heffington, died when her son was only 18-months-old. Through the difficult days and years that followed, she managed to find strength and push through. She continued to work full-time and go to school, all while caring for her son, a toddler at the time.
“It’s always tough being a single mom, but it was really tough being a single mom back in the ‘60s,” Heffington said.
She also faced societal challenges, including fighting for housing, a problem Heffington says many women faced at that time because landlords did not want to rent to women, especially single moms.
Heffington said no one would have ever guessed her struggles because Riggin was stoic. She was plucky. And she always found a way.
While going to school full-time and working at the University of Tennessee’s College of Nursing, she ended up meeting and later marrying Dr. John “Jack” Riggin.
Riggin went from a single mom of one to a married wife and mother of five. Jack had four children of his own: Geoffrey, Melanie, John and Lauren. A new chapter began for the family.
“She created stability among the chaos,” Heffington said. “We still managed to eat dinner as a family every night.”
Their once seemingly empty home was suddenly bursting at the seams with children, both Riggin and her husband, her husband’s father and a new German Shephard puppy that Lauren found and Geoffrey insisted on keeping. It was time to move.
In 1977, the Riggin family moved to Florida and Riggin started at the University of South Florida in the fall as a professor and director of special projects in the College of Nursing.
In an interview with Riggin in 2001 for USF’s 50th History Anniversary Project, she said at the time she started at the College of Nursing, it was a mere skeleton of what it is today.
From 1977 to her retirement in 2005, she devoted her life to the growth of the College of Nursing and the success of the students. During her career, she chaired the graduate council, research council and the honor and awards council. In 2001, USF recognized her as a Distinguished University Professor, a prestigious award for senior faculty members who have distinguished themselves among their peers both within and outside USF. The title is awarded through an extensive process of nomination and external peer review.
“Ona was a great friend and colleague,” College of Nursing Professor Dr. Candance Burns said. “Her leadership helped shape the College of Nursing during the early formative years.”
It wasn’t long before Riggin’s efforts and leadership started to make a noticeable impact on the college and ultimately change the future, for the better. Riggin recognized the importance for the college to have a master’s degree and jumped into action.
Riggin took the lead on a feasibility study for a Master of Science degree program. Her proposal was approved in 1979, just two years after she started her career at the college! Not long after the approval, the College of Nursing admitted 16 students that would end up being the first class of the new master’s degree program.
In 1980, USF officially had the only nursing master’s program in the area! From there, the program continued to grow with a variety of concentrations, specialty areas and new curriculum. The first addition to the program was in 1982 when a Gerontological Specialty was added. In 1983, when the National League accredited the program, there was 140 students enrolled and the master’s program didn’t show any signs of slowing down.
In 1984, a specialty in Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing was added; in 1986, Community Health Nursing and Oncology was added; and in 1988, the Family Health Nursing concentration was added. Due to the rapid growth of the program, Riggin eventually became the chairperson for the Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing, her specialty. The program needed someone to help that concentration develop because at the time, a very small percent of nurses entered psychiatric mental health.
Naturally, Riggin put her heart and soul into her new chairperson role and soon after, it became one of the most known psych mental health programs in the country. The Air Force and Navy approved the program and both branches began sending students to complete their master’s at the College of Nursing. Riggin remained the chairman until her retirement.
In 1990, Riggin also became the director for the development grant in alcohol, tobacco and other drugs, an initiative to help people with substance abuse problems.
She was fueled by her dedication to students, a trait many remember her for. She always focused on helping and supporting each student to ensure their success.
Even after her retirement, she continued to lend a helping hand by creating the Ona & John Riggin Psych Mental Health Scholarship. The scholarship still exists today. It is for full or part-time graduate or doctoral students pursing a major in Psychiatric Mental Health from the College of Nursing.
After retiring, Riggin became a Ruling Elder in the Presbyterian Church, where the youth group coined the saying What Would Ona Do? Most days, she was seen walking around Temple Terrace, enjoying her daily three-mile walk. Often, she left everyone puzzled, as she insisted on carrying her cane instead of using it to help her walk, even after breaking her hip in 2012.
In her last days, the practitioner that cared for her was a graduate from the College of Nursing that studied the exact programs Riggin created.
With each USF student that pursues a master’s degree in nursing and the faculty that teach, her legacy will live on.
She is survived by her five children, five grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren.
“The amount of people who loved her is so amazing,” Helen Heffington, Riggin’s daughter-in-law, said.
She will be missed dearly by her former colleagues, her church, the community, her family, and friends both near and far.
Details of Ona Riggin’s memorial service are listed below:
October 2, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Temple Terrace Presbyterian Church
420 Bullard Parkway, Temple Terrace, FL 33617
Story by Cassidy Delamarter, USF College of Nursing