LeadingAge Magazine · November-December 2017 • Volume 07 • Number 06

Engineers, Veterans and Volunteers: These are the People We Serve

November 16, 2017 | by The Members of LeadingAge

LeadingAge members tell us about the generous and accomplished people they work for—and with—every day.

John Kula

Masonic Village at Elizabethtown, Elizabethtown, PA

In the early 1980s, John Kula, a mechanical engineer, was approached with an opportunity to help Johnson & Johnson break into the field of cardiology.

John Kula
John Kula

He and 2 co-workers attended cardiology conferences searching for the “next big thing,” until one concept caught their attention. Dr. Julio Palmaz, a vascular radiologist, had designed a variation of a stent, a tiny metal tube used to open arteries, made of stainless steel mesh. Kula’s team signed a contract with him, and all they had to do was ensure it would work in humans.

“‘Find another project’ doctors told me,” Kula says. “It will never work.”

Kula took some crash courses in plaque and arteries, which included shadowing a chief of surgery and making trips to the Yale School of Medicine to sit in during autopsies and poke around hearts to determine how strong a stent would need to be.

His team eventually developed a demo. It was 6-8 mm in diameter woven with mesh no larger than a human hair. The first stent was implanted in a man who is still alive today. It took 4 hours, and he was awake during the procedure. Today, the procedure takes about 20 minutes, and patients return home the same day.

It took almost 10 years, but the stent was finally approved by the FDA for use in peripheral arteries in 1991 and for use in coronary arteries in 1994. Kula’s team increased to 2,000, and sales grew from $15 million to $750 million. Johnson & Johnson quickly captured 90 percent of the stent market.

President Bill Clinton awarded Johnson & Johnson a National Medal of Technology for the development. Kula received a Johnson Medal, which is the equivalent of the company’s Nobel Prize, and a Senior Engineers Fellow Award.

“It was never about the money for me or the awards,” Kula says. “The reward was helping people.”

- Debra Davis, public relations manager, Masonic Villages

Residents Join Project Linus

The Terraces at San Joaquin Gardens, Fresno, CA

Every week, retired nurse Cathie Athans finds herself surrounded by friends and fleece. Cathie and more than a dozen other residents at The Terraces at San Joaquin Gardens are on a mission to knot fleece blankets that will later end up in the hands of local children in need.

In 2016, the group became one of many in the country who joined Project Linus. The nonprofit organization provides blankets to children who are seriously ill, traumatized or in need of a homemade gift.

Project Linus
Residents hard at work on their fleece blankets. Photo courtesy of HumanGood.


The Terraces got its assisted living residents and team members involved in the project. The group buys the fleece blankets with their own funds and ties the strips down on each to create a knotting effect.

While the group knows they’re making a difference in the lives of area children, they also say the camaraderie of being together and making these blankets is benefiting their lives. They’re more active, and according to studies, they’re less likely to develop dementia or other mental illnesses.

Last year the group made and donated 40 blankets to the Fresno Police Department, who in turn gave them to children in need. This year’s goal is 100 blankets. They’re twisting and tying their way to more than double last year’s total.

- Chelsea March, GlynnDevins

Oral Congdon and Dr. Howard Cook

Three Pillars Senior Living Communities, Dousman, WI

Oral Congdon and Howard Cook, both Masons, lifelong Wisconsinites, and Three Pillars residents, exemplify family and community.

Oral Congdon
Oral Congdon

Anyone who knows Oral Congdon also knows that his late wife Dorothy and his 4 daughters are his everything. “My daughters are the best in the world. They’re absolutely marvelous to me,” he declares. He says he never much minded living in a house full of women. In fact, he became rather comfortable with the fact that he was almost always outnumbered. “Even the cat we had was a female,” he grins.

He’s since been blessed with 9 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. “I miss my wife, Dorothy, fiercely,” he admits, but the recurrent visits, phone calls, and mail from his family help fill that place in his heart.

Congdon was in sales, and he’ll tell you that he’s been a salesman since age 8, when he first began selling products door-to-door. The bulk of his career was in the field of selling lubricants to farmers, truckers, or anyone who had something to do with a motor. His job came with much travel, and some very hard stints of being away from his wife and daughters.

When they were together, the Congdon family loved to travel, exploring new places as a family. They continued to go on trips together each summer, even after the girls were grown and had families of their own.

Congdon is a Kenosha, WI, native, and he never strayed far from the town he loved. He did go away for college to Northwestern, where his imposing size (6’5”) helped earn him a full football scholarship. If there are 2 things Oral would like you to take away, it’s to appreciate your family and stand by your values.

Howard Cook
Howard Cook

Born in Fort Atkinson, WI, in 1925, Howard Cook grew up surrounded by a loving family—and several unlikely furry companions. Raised on a mink farm, every day was a learning experience. Cook enjoyed learning about the mink, taking on a pseudo-veterinarian role by anticipating their needs and establishing care practices to keep them in the best of health. His interest only flourished as he continued to learn and earn additional responsibilities on the farm. The Cook family also owned a few horses along the way, and this animal-friendly upbringing set Howard on the path he'd later take to become a veterinarian.

In a serious training accident while in the Army in 1943, Cook suffered several fractured bones and was told he wouldn’t walk again. As traumatic as his injury was, he has always held a bit of gratitude for its timing.

“That injury pulled me out of a group trip where all [the] soldiers were tragically killed,” he recalls. Miraculously, he recovered and, at a time when the Army was desperate for help, was soon placed back on active duty. He spent his remaining service years in Japan. Upon returning home in 1946, he married the love of his life, Shari.

With the help of the G.I. Bill, Cook attended the University of Minnesota's School of Veterinary Medicine. During his last year of schooling, the Cooks welcomed their first son. They later had another son and adopted a daughter. Today, Howard is the proud grandfather of 5 grandchildren.

Cook’s career included working primarily with horses. He also had the privilege of caring for animals at the Milwaukee County Zoo, which proved to be interesting and exciting work.

The Cook family settled into a home in Dousman and added trotting horses to their homestead. The kids loved them, sometimes riding them and often working with them to pull a sulky, entering them in professional races in Chicago.

After retiring from veterinary practice, the Cooks moved to the Tomahawk area and spent their retirement doing things they loved at their lake house, with Howard volunteering several days per week at the Minocqua Wildlife Center, as well as with the Department of Natural Resources’ wolf program. Many of his winter days consisted of following one pack of wolves and documenting their movement, behaviors, illnesses and patterns.

The Cooks made the move to the Village on the Square Independent Living apartments in 1999. Though his beloved Shari has since passed, he says the best part of being at the Dousman campus is knowing he's always taken care of. In 2013, they established a scholarship fund exclusively for employees of Three Pillars’ dining services department. To date, 15 students have been granted a scholarship from the Cook Fund, and this summer, additional scholarships will be awarded.

- Kelsey Pangborn, communication strategist, Three Pillars

The Pillowcase Project

The Waterford, Juno Beach, FL

The brightly colored pillowcases, covered with flowers, fire trucks and cartoon characters, immediately captured Shirley Spaeth’s attention at a quilting show last year.

Pillowcase Project
The pillowcase project group at The Waterford: (left to right) June
Kleeman, Hattie Shorts, Shirley Spaeth and Barbara Mendenhall.

“They were made for children in the hospital,” says Spaeth, a resident of The Waterford. “That gave me an idea that maybe we could make those here.”

Spaeth and another resident, June Kleeman, approached Life Enrichment and Enhancement Director Leenie Holgate, who helped them organize the program.

Residents raised nearly $800 to buy fabric with whimsical designs like dinosaurs, horses, zoos and bunnies. Then 40 volunteers set up a production line with some residents folding and sewing and others washing, ironing and packaging the pillowcases. In all, the group at The Waterford crafted 100 pillowcases and donated them to Ryan’s Case for Smiles, a nonprofit founded in 2007 to help children cope with the trauma of serious illness. The organization distributed the pillowcases to 6 local hospitals.

“When children are in the hospital, it’s often a very scary thing,” Spaeth says. “Pillowcases have a very important role in helping children accept what’s happening and get through it.”

Children get to take the pillowcases home after they leave the hospital, Spaeth says.

Cindy Kerr, founder of Ryan’s Cases for Smiles, says the pillowcases will help children find the strength to make it through difficult times like chemotherapy treatment.

“We can all smile knowing what an impact we’ve made in all these people’s lives,” Kerr says. “I am humbled to work alongside volunteers who share their love for children battling cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.”

Spaeth and Kleeman’s enthusiasm for serving the community outside The Waterford is typical of Lifespace residents. The Waterford volunteers plan to make a second batch of pillowcases this year, and another group of residents is using pillowcases to make Easter dresses for children.

“Everyone here is very invested in making sure that we give back to the greater community,” Holgate says.

- Allyson Sutton, Signal Hill

Betty Stern
Betty Stern

Betty Stern

St. Camillus, Wauwatosa, WI

Throughout her life, Betty Stern has been a devoted volunteer to the Wauwatosa, Wisconsin community.

Stern moved to St. Camillus 6 years ago and it didn't take her long to become a volunteer. She began at the thrift shop 1 month after she moved in. The shop, located on the St. Camillus' campus, is operated by the Order of St. Camillus Foundation and all proceeds go towards the underlying needs on campus. Stern oversees merchandise, item organization and addressing customer needs. Stern likes to ensure that the store is organized, and every customer feels special.

After 3 years of volunteering, Stern was diagnosed with macular degeneration. As time went on, her vision progressively got worse, but Stern has not let that interrupt her passion for volunteering. Stern’s unwavering positivity and knack for retail has customers coming in explicitly on the days she volunteers just to visit and see if they can find any hidden treasures. Stern’s ongoing commitment to the community is awe-inspiring and noteworthy. She is known by almost everyone and takes the time to say hello to all residents across campus.

- Lindsey Bartelt, volunteer & marketing coordinator, St. Camillus

Emery Erickson

Covenant Village of Golden Valley, Golden Valley, MN

For 90-year-old Emery Erickson, a dream came true in April at Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins. Erickson took to the pitcher’s mound and threw the ceremonial first pitch, where it bounced only once before landing in the catcher’s glove. Family and friends cheered from the stands for the Covenant Village of Golden Valley resident.

Emery Erickson
Emery Erickson throws the ceremonial first pitch at a
Minnesota Twins game. Photo courtesy of Wayne
Kryduba/Minnesota Twins.

“It’s been a wild ride,” he said before taking his place at the pitcher’s mound. “It’s finally sinking in.”

The long-awaited pitch was one more item he could check off his bucket list.

“No one is more deserving than Emery,” says Robyn Baumgarten, resident life director at Covenant Village of Golden Valley. “Emery inspires all of us. He has a zest for life and a heart that gets bigger with age.”

Emery served in the Navy during World War II and although long retired, he still looks for opportunities to give back to the community. He recently trained Alta, a golden retriever, to serve as a therapy dog at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, and he built a Little Free Library with fellow residents in the woodshop. Another Little Free Library is in the works—this one will hold children’s books—and he continues to build dog dishes in the woodshop for Helping Paws, a local nonprofit.

“Volunteering is a way of life for my dad,” says his daughter, Jan Miller. “He’s just amazing.”

Before the big day, Emery practiced throwing the ball with a reporter from a local television station and patiently listened to pitching advice from “little ladies” who never followed baseball before. About a dozen residents attended the game, including rubye, his wife of more than 40 years.

Only a few months before, rubye’s dementia required that she move across the street from residential living to memory care. That day, though, wearing her signature color purple, she joined Emery at Target Field to cheer him on.

“It was a special day for a special couple,” says Baumgarten.

- Wendy D’Alessandro, Lynn Public Relations

Kermit Dyke

Asbury Solomons, Solomons, MD

Colonel Kermit Dyke, 103, of Asbury Solomons, recently found out he is the oldest living graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Kermit Dyke
Col. Kermit Dyke

Dyke graduated from West Point in 1940, and he remembers it as a “serious place.” Dyke says he found out the news when his son, also a graduate of West Point, found it in a West Point publication.

The previous longest-living graduate was in the class of 1933 and died Sept. 20, says Kim McDermott, director of communication for the West Point Association of Graduates.

Colonel Dyke’s fondest memory of West Point was his graduation, with a parade during the day and a dinner in the evening. “It’s a different place now because there’s girls in the ranks,” Dyke says with a chuckle.

He last visited West Point about a year ago, and says the motto of the institution, “Duty, honor, country,” still speaks to him, especially the “honor. It’s interesting to recall my experience up there and the institution that it is.”

Dyke’s military service started in 1933 when he enlisted in the 160th Infantry of the California National Guard. He entered West Point in 1936 and graduated a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps. After graduation, he went on to serve in the U.S. Air Force until 1962, and was assigned to the 20th fighter group at Hamilton Field, CA, where he flew the new P-40 fighter planes.

His tours included England, North Africa, Sardinia, Sicily, southern France and Italy. He retired from the military after 27 years of service, worked for North American Aviation and moved to southern Maryland.

Dyke is part of a long line of family members who served in the military. In addition to his son attending West Point, his grandson is currently enlisted in the Marine Corps.

- Sarah Fallin, deputy editor, The Calvert Recorder (used and adapted with permission)

Dean Cole
Dean Cole

Dean Cole

The Community at Brookmeade, Rhinebeck, NY

As maintenance director, Dean Cole is responsible for maintaining all 3 affiliates that comprise the Community: The Baptist Home at Brookmeade, The Terraces assisted living community, and Arbor Ridge at Brookmeade, independent living. In this capacity, Cole has supervisory, development, and mentorship responsibilities for all staff employed in our maintenance, housekeeping, safety and security, and central supply departments.

Cole will be launching Build It at Brookmeade! ™ to promote dexterity & motor skill activities within the intergenerational program at The Baptist Home for residents and children of the community.

He is an integral contributor in our strategic planning, renovation, and repair decisions as well as the senior leadership team member responsible for all matters related to the facilities. He has a successful track record of identifying excellent vendors and managing all aspects of project planning through to completion on time and within budget. His care for our residents and their quality of life is something he wholeheartedly lives and breathes, and he models and demands the same for his staff as well as contractors who work at our site.

- Brian Zeidan, director of development, The Community at Brookmeade

Thanks to the many LeadingAge members who wrote the stories included in this article. To contribute more stories of diverse, remarkable elders—and the staff, board members and volunteers who serve them—contact Editor Gene Mitchell at GMitchell@LeadingAge.org or 202-508-9424.