Six decades ago, when Mary Jane Williams set her sights on becoming a nurse, it was not because she was particularly fond of medicine or school. She simply wanted a chance to sport the red and white hat her older cousin got to wear during her shifts at the local hospital.

“My cousin, Jeannie, worked over at Yale New Haven Hospital taking care of babies and such,” said Ms. Williams. “I really looked up to her. But also I just really just liked her little cap.”

Ms. Williams’ fashion sense at 17 years old ultimately launched her into a 58-year career in nursing, nurse education and health care advocacy in Connecticut that earned her a lifetime achievement award earlier this month from the Connecticut Nurses Association.

Today, Ms. Williams, now 80, lives full time on the Vineyard and continues her work in health care as chair of the Dukes County Health Council.

During an interview at her home in Oak Bluffs, Ms. Williams reminisced about her earliest jobs, experience lobbying at the state capitol for health policy and her evolving perception of the nursing and health care industry.

“After all this time, I know now that nursing is truly so much more than just bedside nursing,” she said. “Nursing is a profession that has the ability to make a lasting mark on society. It’s about the way you care for people and the way that you educate them. I’ve really been so lucky.”

Ms. Williams’ career began in 1960 at Middlesex Memorial Hospital in Middletown, Conn., shortly after she graduated high school. She attended its Wilcox College of Nursing and was mentored by its director, Ona Wilcox, whom Ms. Williams credits as the reason for her lifelong passion for nursing.

“For some reason, she just really made a commitment to my success,” said Ms. Williams. “Teachers in schools before thought that I was dumb. But I wasn’t dumb, I was just lazy and a middle child. And Ona I think saw past that. She sent me a Christmas card every year until the year that she died.”

In 1965, Ms. Williams spent a summer on the Vineyard — the birthplace of her mother and home of several relatives — working at the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. She returned to Connecticut in the fall as head nurse of the critical care unit at Hartford Hospital, where she stayed for several years.

“Eventually I started to feel restless,” said Ms. Williams. “I loved everything I was doing and everywhere I had worked, but I’d seen far too many nurses get burned out in career ruts.”

Despite her initial disdain for school, Ms. Williams went back to the books to receive her bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees and a PhD while raising her two children and heading the Connecticut Nurses Association. Being busy, she said, is something she’s never feared.

“I did all of the policy work for the Connecticut Nurses Association, reading all of the bills and taking trips to the capitol,” she said. “Gosh it was hard work, but I got really good at it, and just wanted to help make the medical industry better and safer for next generations.”

Ms. Williams retired from nursing and policy work and moved with her husband, Mike Williams, to the Vineyard in 2010. When she grew restless with retirement, she joined the Dukes County Health Council to stay involved in health reform and community wellness.

On Nov. 6, Ms. Williams traveled back to Connecticut to attend the Connecticut Nurses Association award ceremony, where she was honored by former colleagues, mentors and mentees for her lifelong dedication to the nursing industry — an experience that she said moved her nearly to tears.

“I never did any of this to get awards,” said Ms. Williams. “And I couldn’t have done any of this myself. You’re truly only as good as the people who surround you.”