Each and every week, the day 89-year-old Rose Bertram most looks forward to is Thursday.
On those mornings, she makes her way from her apartment on the second floor of St. Francis Apartments, an independent senior living facility in Eau Claire, to a gathering room in the basement. Every Thursday, 10:30 a.m. sharp.
Bertram parks her walker in line with five or six others and joins the group of eight or nine residents — on good weeks, 10 or 11 — already sitting in a U-shaped arc, with 90-year-old Marvin Kauffman at the helm.
He lifts a book, “The Best of James Herriot,” and begins to read the veterinarian-turned-author’s most beloved short stories, his low, expressive voice booming throughout the room.
To Bertram and the others who gather every Thursday, the stories give them a chance to feel young again. A chance to reflect on their younger days. An escape from the real world — even if only for those 30 minutes a week.
“It’s like going back to childhood, sitting on the floor cross-legged in kindergarten listening to a story,” Bertram said Thursday, pausing briefly before chuckling. “Though sitting cross-legged, that’s of course something I can no longer do. But you forget about everything else and you’re there. I enjoy it thoroughly.”
Kauffman started book club, as all the regulars simply but affectionately call it, a few months back, either late September or early October.
The 90-year-old St. Francis resident who hails from the Watertown area doesn’t have a background in literature or English. He’s no retired professor or some sort of literary expert, but rather a retired businessman who traveled the country and the world while working in sales and marketing for 43 years. He loves people, he loves art — reading, wood carving and burning, painting.
So what made Kauffman decide to launch book club?
An act of service
The idea of serving others kept coming up again and again in his bible study at Immanuel Lutheran Church, so Kauffman said he began thinking about how he could serve the St. Francis community.
While brainstorming, Kauffman said the idea for a book club early on crossed his mind. Though the facility already had a few other book clubs, this club would be targeted toward residents who have more difficulty reading as they’ve lost their eyesight over their years.
“In order for us all to enjoy, someone had to read,” Kauffman said. “So I decided I’d read.”
While determining what kinds of books and stories the group would focus on, one of Kauffman’s sons suggested Herriot’s work, as much of it details his experiences as a vet. Though the stories take place largely in Yorkshire, England, many of the tales center on caring for farm animals and life in a largely rural area of farming.
“That’s the way people around here often grew up, they often say (during book club) ‘Oh, I did that,’” Kauffman said. “So because of their background, I decided it would fit just right.”
So Kauffman made signs for the club and hung them up around St. Francis and asked to have the event included in the weekly newsletter for residents.
Bringing stories to life
The club started with about four or five people, but over the last several months the group has grown to nine or more.
For the majority of each meeting, Kauffman reads, loud for all to hear, from the anthology of Herriot’s short stories.
“This little story is called ‘A lame calf leads me to Helen,’” Kauffman said at the start of book club on Thursday, explaining the story would give them another opportunity to further get to know Helen, a woman Herriot becomes romantically interested in.
Kauffman gestures to a map of Yorkshire, propped on a chair beside him, that he enlarged from the book at DigiCOPY in order to explain where each story takes place. All the key cities and locations are highlighted in orange for the residents to see.
Each of the regulars also have their own little copies of the map, which Bertram said she refers to before each meeting.
Kauffman hopes the effort brings the stories to life.
“If you can put yourself into that time and that place, you’ll have more fun and that’s what I’ve attempted to do,” Kauffman said. “If I can tell these stories and make it sound like we’re right here on this farm, sitting on that soft grass, then I’ve done it.”
As Kauffman reads, the residents sit motionless and silent — apart from the funny moments. Some of them grin from ear to ear the entire time. The stories seem to resonate with them, as Kauffman had originally intended.
‘Reminiscing on the good old times’
Each week, the club closes with reflections on the stories they heard. What did they relate to or find most interesting? What memories come up?
After finishing a story about Herriot’s lack of appropriate clothing for a date with Helen, Kauffman reflected on an experience from his own youth.
Just as Herriot looked to borrow a suit from a friend that was too large, Kauffman said he had to borrow a nice white shirt from his dad for his senior ball that he attended with his then-girlfriend. He wanted to impress his date, but the fit of the shirt was a little disappointing — as Herriot’s borrowed suit was.
“Well, it was a mile too long here and there. I don’t know what my mother did, I think I ended up having to get a different shirt,” Kauffman recalled, chuckling. “But it was an exciting time. Have any of you had a similar experience?”
Therese Quick, manager of St. Francis Apartments, said she can’t quite put her finger on what makes the group so special. But she knows it’s uplifting and inspiring for all who attend.
“It’s been growing and growing and growing,” Quick said. “I think the main thing is Marv’s voice, but also reminiscing on the good old times and all the memories that it brings up for them.”
Marie Quast, a 93-year-old St. Francis resident, said she attends each week for a variety of reasons.
“There are two other (book clubs), but for me it’s hard to read. And I could listen to talking books, but that’s not my favorite,” Quast said. “This is very enjoyable for me. It’s got a little more audience participation and it’s impromptu.”
Perhaps what makes the club most interesting to Quast is Kauffman himself, as he often reflects on his travels to England and all over Europe.
For example, this Thursday, Kauffman donned a British flap cap he’d acquired in his decades of travel.
“He is an interesting person,” Quast said. “He really is.”
To Bertram, what makes the club so special is not only the interactive nature of it, but also listening to Kauffman so expressively tell each story.
“My parents always used to read to me and Marv, he just does such a good job,” Bertram said, turning to a grinning Kauffman. “I think you missed your calling.”
“This is different from other book clubs — better, in my opinion,” she said. “It takes away all the aches and pains and you’re just in a different world for half an hour. By the way, that could be longer as far as I’m concerned.”
The club isn’t just enjoyable for those who attend. For Kauffman, book club has become his method of service and the best part of his week rolled into one.
“I love it, as I think you can tell,” Kauffman said, chuckling. “To me, this is doing a service for some people that may make their life more interesting, more enjoyable and a time where they can get out of their old and jump into something new for a half hour. If I can do that — and it seems as though we’re succeeding — I’m very thankful. And I thank the Lord a great deal all the time.”
For Chris Wood, a trip a few years ago to Madison began as an intimidating journey but ended with a newfound sense of enlightenment.
Wood is on the board of directors for the Center for Independent Living of Western Wisconsin. The organization’s goal, he said, is to help people with disabilities live in their homes as independently as possible.
CILLWW routinely sends one or more people to the annual Disability Advocacy Day, which includes meetings with state legislators and their staffs to discuss disability issues. Wood went alone his first time and with a Center for Independent Living group last year.
“(The intimidation) all changed when I went to the Capitol for the first time,” said Wood in regard to his initial participation in the event. “I met up with some wonderful disability advocates down there, many of whom had built personal relationships with their legislators.
“After the first conversation with an aide, I realized that it would be fairly easy to communicate with legislators. ... After those couple of days, I realized that there was nothing more empowering than sitting one-one-one with your legislators or their staff and getting to directly tell them the policies you’d like to see implemented.”
• • •
The Survival Coalition of Wisconsin Disability Organizations, which is comprised of roughly 40 local and state organizations, coordinates the event. This year’s is scheduled for March 20, and registration just recently opened.
An issue paper is produced before the day to highlight key areas of concern. Last year’s handout included some startling statistics:
• Forty-nine of Wisconsin’s 72 counties were designated as “mental health professional shortage areas.” According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, using 2017 data, the state had 136 such designations with a combined population of nearly 2.3 million and would need 247 practitioners to remove that label.
• Twenty-five percent of people with disabilities lived in poverty.
• Forty-eight percent of parents surveyed had experienced a reduction of school supports and resources in the past two years.
Jason Endres, a board member for the Eau Claire County Aging and Disability Resource Center, said long-term care and employment will be core topics during the event this March. Endres is in his second term on the board. He has spina bifida and his wife has cerebral palsy.
“I believe in what they do, which is helping people who are elderly and people with disabilities live the lives they want to,” Endres said. “I have also used their services for my wife’s and my long-term care needs.”
• • •
Endres is a 10-year Disability Advocacy Day veteran and plans to attend this time around as well. His top concern heading to Madison is a lack of personal care workers and the low pay they receive. He and his wife both are eligible for supportive and personal care in their home.
“People that do personal care are often able to bag groceries for $12 on hour at Woodman’s, so why would they want to do hard work like helping a person to the bathroom, helping people shower and helping people eating,” Endres said. “We are desperately in need for a higher pay rate for personal care. My wife and I are one fall away of ending up in the hospital or worse because we fell in the shower.”
And bringing such concerns to the attention of legislators is the main goal of Disability Advocacy Day.
“It is truly amazing,” Endres said, “seeing 400 to 700 people with different disabilities come from all over Wisconsin, walking through the halls of the Capitol and telling their stories to their legislators about what is working for them and ... their needs such as long-term care, transportation, employment.”
Visit eri-wi.org/dad/ or tinyurl.com/yd2hxmnk for more information or to sign up for the event. The deadline to register is March 8.
“As great as our local politicians are, they’re a bit limited as to what they can do on a local level without help from the state,” Wood said. “That’s why when we go down to Madison, we advocate for more transportation funding, more funding for independent living centers all across the state. We also advocate for more support for those that care for the elderly or disabled on a daily basis.”
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