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Florence woman nation’s longest-serving VA volunteer

Wheeler, 85, honored as nation’s top VA medical center volunteer

  • Ruth Wheeler, 85, of Northampton reflects on her 65 years volunteering at the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds. She was recently recognized by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs with its Secretary's Volunteer Service Award for over 26,000 hours of volunteering since 1951. Wheeler says that at that time there were 1200 patients at the hospital. —Kevin Gutting

  • Ruth Wheeler, 85, of Northampton was recently recognized by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for her over 26,000 hours and 65 continuous years of volunteering at the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds. Kevin Gutting

  • Ruth Wheeler, 85, of Northampton talks about her 65 years volunteering at the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds. She was recently recognized by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs with its Secretary's Volunteer Service Award for over 26,000 hours of volunteering since 1951. Wheeler says that at that time there were 1200 patients at the hospital which is now mostly an out-patient facility. —Kevin Gutting

  • Ruth Wheeler, 85, of Northampton was recently recognized by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs with its Secretary's Volunteer Service Award for her over 26,000 hours and 65 continuous years of volunteering at the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds. Wheeler first started volunteering there in 1951, at the age of 20. —Kevin Gutting

  • Ruth Wheeler, 85, of Northampton is greeted by Dennis Ramstein, Voluntary Services Specialist at the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds, as she arrives for a full day of volunteering on Friday. Wheeler was recently recognized by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for her over 26,000 hours and 65 continuous years of volunteering at the hospital Wheeler since her first day in 1951. —Kevin Gutting

  • Ruth Wheeler, 85, of Northampton, a volunteer at the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds, is greeted by Juan Perez, who works nearby in the business office at the hospital and makes it a habit to check in with her each day. Wheeler was recently recognized by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for her over 26,000 hours and 65 continuous years of volunteering since starting there in 1951, at the age of 20. —Kevin Gutting



For the Gazette
Saturday, May 28, 2016

LEEDS — Twenty-six thousand hours. That’s 1,083 days, 12-and-a-half years of full-time work weeks, 52,000 episodes of “Jeopardy!”

And it is the number of hours — to the nearest thousand — that Ruth Wheeler has spent volunteering at the Leeds campus of the Veterans Health Administration, the country’s largest integrated health care system that serves 8.76 million veterans nationwide each year.

Wheeler, 85, of Florence, has volunteered for the Veterans Administration Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System for the past 65 years. Earlier this month, at a conference in New Mexico, she was honored as the nation’s longest-serving VA medical center volunteer.

“It keeps me going,” she said. “I hate housework, and I can’t do my yard work anymore. It gets me up in the morning.”

Wheeler started volunteering for the VA when she joined the American Legion Auxiliary in 1951. The hospital served about 1,200 patients then, and there were dances and picnics and ward parties.

After she retired from office jobs in the mid-1990s, she started volunteering at the system’s volunteer services department, then in its business office.

It started with a day or two a week and snowballed into a bigger role — she said she sometimes spends 40 hours there in a week. She is impeded only by snow and ice. She’s there so often, if she doesn’t show up one day, someone calls her to make sure that she is OK.

“In the four years I’ve been here, I cannot remember a time I’ve gone up the stairs and looked to the corner and Ruthie’s not there,” said Dennis Ramstein, the system’s public affairs specialist.

Wheeler has seen the population of the hospital dwindle from 1,200 to about 100 now, and watched as what once were wards were remodeled into offices.

She has also become something of a celebrity around the medical center. Aside from her constant presence in the office, she’s involved with activities and parties, Ramstein said, regardless of who’s organizing them. At Valentine’s Day, she runs a kissing booth — where she hands out Hershey’s Kisses.

“Everybody knows me,” she said. “Don’t ask me their names — I’m awful with names — but everybody knows me up here.”

Recognition

Earlier this year, one of Wheeler’s colleagues in volunteer services told her they were going to Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the VA Voluntary Service National Advisory Committee Meeting and Conference. She said she didn’t know she was there to receive the Secretary of Veterans Affairs Highest Volunteer Service Award until she saw the program for the ceremony.

New Mexico was hot, and she said she’s neither a fan of public speaking nor the state’s spicy food, but being recognized for her service felt fulfilling.

“I came back here, and they had a big reception for me, which was a surprise … (with) half the hospital,” she said. “The whole learning center was full.”

Wheeler’s is a military family — her father served in the Army in World War I, her older brother in the Navy during World War II and then in the Coast Guard. If she includes nieces and nephews, she said, she’s got family covering all branches of the military.

She carries a red, white and blue handbag. She spends free time visiting a World War II veteran at a nearby nursing home.

Outside of volunteering, though, she doesn’t do much else. She watches game shows — “Jeopardy!,” “Wheel of Fortune,” she’s not picky — and she sleeps, which she said she’d do much more if she didn’t volunteer so often.

And though she’s in the middle of her ninth decade, Wheeler said she has no intention to stop volunteering.

“I’m going to be 120 and bug everybody,” she said.

It’s hard to even imagine the medical center without her, Ramstein said, because she’s a cornerstone, a celebrity. Here, she’s the woman everyone knows. The center opened in 1924 — she’s been here most of its life, too.

“We have one fellow — he’s a retired Marine — he said, ‘I want some of your hours,’” Wheeler said. “I said, ‘You may get my hours, but you’ll never beat my years.’”