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Friends surprise longest-serving VA volunteer in nation

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  • Neil Nusbaum, Chief of Staff at the VA in Leeds places a sash on Ruth Wheeler, the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.<br/>

    Neil Nusbaum, Chief of Staff at the VA in Leeds places a sash on Ruth Wheeler, the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ruth Wheeler , who has volunteered at the VA in Leeds for 62 years, is said to be the longest-serving VA volunteer in the nation. She was honored Thursday, the day after her 82nd birthday at the VA center in Leeds.  She was surprised by a group singing of "Happy Birthday" in the cafeteria Thursday. Here, she gets a hug from Bobby Smith, another volunteer. <br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    Ruth Wheeler , who has volunteered at the VA in Leeds for 62 years, is said to be the longest-serving VA volunteer in the nation. She was honored Thursday, the day after her 82nd birthday at the VA center in Leeds. She was surprised by a group singing of "Happy Birthday" in the cafeteria Thursday. Here, she gets a hug from Bobby Smith, another volunteer.
    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ruth Wheeler,  the longest serving VA volunteer, honored the day after her<br/>82nd birthday Thursday. She is shown here with Michael Nemeth, a VA police officer.

    Ruth Wheeler, the longest serving VA volunteer, honored the day after her
    82nd birthday Thursday. She is shown here with Michael Nemeth, a VA police officer. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Neil Nusbaum, Chief of Staff at the VA in Leeds places a sash on Ruth Wheeler, the longest serving VA volunteer Thursday.

    Neil Nusbaum, Chief of Staff at the VA in Leeds places a sash on Ruth Wheeler, the longest serving VA volunteer Thursday. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Roger Johnson, the director at the VA in Leeds honors Ruth Wheeler , the longest serving VA volunteer.

    Roger Johnson, the director at the VA in Leeds honors Ruth Wheeler , the longest serving VA volunteer. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ruth Wheeler,  the longest serving VA volunteer, with Gerald Peters an employee, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.

    Ruth Wheeler, the longest serving VA volunteer, with Gerald Peters an employee, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Richard J. Tremaine, the associate director at the VA in Leeds, places a tiara on Ruth Wheeler, the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.<br/><br/>

    Richard J. Tremaine, the associate director at the VA in Leeds, places a tiara on Ruth Wheeler, the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.

    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ruth Wheeler has volunteered at the VA for 62 years. She turned 82 on Wednesday.

    Ruth Wheeler has volunteered at the VA for 62 years. She turned 82 on Wednesday. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ruth Wheeler clocks in as the longest serving VA volunteer at 62 consecutive years.

    Ruth Wheeler clocks in as the longest serving VA volunteer at 62 consecutive years. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ruth Wheeler , the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.

    Ruth Wheeler , the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ruth Wheeler, was surprised Thursday when friends at the VA hospital in Leeds, where she has volunteered for 62 years, honored her on the day after her 82nd birthday.

    Ruth Wheeler, was surprised Thursday when friends at the VA hospital in Leeds, where she has volunteered for 62 years, honored her on the day after her 82nd birthday. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ruth Wheeler,  the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds during a flash mob singing of  Happy Birthday Thursday afternoon.

    Ruth Wheeler, the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds during a flash mob singing of Happy Birthday Thursday afternoon. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ruth Wheeler , the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds gets a hug from Bobby Smith, a volunteer who attended the Flash Mob singing of Happy Birthday.

    Ruth Wheeler , the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds gets a hug from Bobby Smith, a volunteer who attended the Flash Mob singing of Happy Birthday. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ruth Wheeler,  the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds with Michael Nemeth, a VA police officer.

    Ruth Wheeler, the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds with Michael Nemeth, a VA police officer. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Neil Nusbaum, Chief of Staff at the VA in Leeds places a sash on Ruth Wheeler, the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.

    Neil Nusbaum, Chief of Staff at the VA in Leeds places a sash on Ruth Wheeler, the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Roger Johnson, the director at the VA in Leeds honors Ruth Wheeler , the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.

    Roger Johnson, the director at the VA in Leeds honors Ruth Wheeler , the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Neil Nusbaum, Chief of Staff at the VA in Leeds places a sash on Ruth Wheeler, the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.<br/>

    Neil Nusbaum, Chief of Staff at the VA in Leeds places a sash on Ruth Wheeler, the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.
    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ruth Wheeler,  the longest serving VA volunteer, with Gerald Peters an employee, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.

    Ruth Wheeler, the longest serving VA volunteer, with Gerald Peters an employee, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Richard J. Tremaine, the associate director at the VA in Leeds, places a tiara on Ruth Wheeler, the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds. In the background is Roger Johnson, the director of the VA in Leeds.<br/><br/>

    Richard J. Tremaine, the associate director at the VA in Leeds, places a tiara on Ruth Wheeler, the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds. In the background is Roger Johnson, the director of the VA in Leeds.

    Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ruth Wheeler , the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.

    Ruth Wheeler , the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ruth Wheeler , the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.

    Ruth Wheeler , the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ruth Wheeler , the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.

    Ruth Wheeler , the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Neil Nusbaum, Chief of Staff at the VA in Leeds places a sash on Ruth Wheeler, the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.<br/>
  • Ruth Wheeler , who has volunteered at the VA in Leeds for 62 years, is said to be the longest-serving VA volunteer in the nation. She was honored Thursday, the day after her 82nd birthday at the VA center in Leeds.  She was surprised by a group singing of "Happy Birthday" in the cafeteria Thursday. Here, she gets a hug from Bobby Smith, another volunteer. <br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • Ruth Wheeler,  the longest serving VA volunteer, honored the day after her<br/>82nd birthday Thursday. She is shown here with Michael Nemeth, a VA police officer.
  • Neil Nusbaum, Chief of Staff at the VA in Leeds places a sash on Ruth Wheeler, the longest serving VA volunteer Thursday.
  • Roger Johnson, the director at the VA in Leeds honors Ruth Wheeler , the longest serving VA volunteer.
  • Ruth Wheeler,  the longest serving VA volunteer, with Gerald Peters an employee, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.
  • Richard J. Tremaine, the associate director at the VA in Leeds, places a tiara on Ruth Wheeler, the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.<br/><br/>
  • Ruth Wheeler has volunteered at the VA for 62 years. She turned 82 on Wednesday.
  • Ruth Wheeler clocks in as the longest serving VA volunteer at 62 consecutive years.
  • Ruth Wheeler , the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.
  • Ruth Wheeler, was surprised Thursday when friends at the VA hospital in Leeds, where she has volunteered for 62 years, honored her on the day after her 82nd birthday.
  • Ruth Wheeler,  the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds during a flash mob singing of  Happy Birthday Thursday afternoon.
  • Ruth Wheeler , the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds gets a hug from Bobby Smith, a volunteer who attended the Flash Mob singing of Happy Birthday.
  • Ruth Wheeler,  the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds with Michael Nemeth, a VA police officer.
  • Neil Nusbaum, Chief of Staff at the VA in Leeds places a sash on Ruth Wheeler, the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.
  • Roger Johnson, the director at the VA in Leeds honors Ruth Wheeler , the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.
  • Neil Nusbaum, Chief of Staff at the VA in Leeds places a sash on Ruth Wheeler, the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.<br/>
  • Ruth Wheeler,  the longest serving VA volunteer, with Gerald Peters an employee, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.
  • Richard J. Tremaine, the associate director at the VA in Leeds, places a tiara on Ruth Wheeler, the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds. In the background is Roger Johnson, the director of the VA in Leeds.<br/><br/>
  • Ruth Wheeler , the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.
  • Ruth Wheeler , the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.
  • Ruth Wheeler , the longest serving VA volunteer, on her 82nd birth day at the VA center in Leeds.

On Thursday, the staff at the Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in Leeds celebrated Wheeler, 82, for being the longest serving VA volunteer in the nation, acording to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Voluntary Service office in Washington, D.C. Wheeler has been donating her time and effort to the Leeds hospital for 62 consecutive years.

To celebrate, employees and volunteers linked the announcement of Wheeler’s accomplishment to her birthday and threw an elaborate surprise party for her right in the middle of the center’s cafeteria. The fun was supposed to happen on Wheeler’s actual birthday, which was Wednesday, but her sister took Wheeler out for lunch and people at the VA had to hurriedly scrap plans and reschedule the party.

As Wheeler approached the cash register to pay for her sandwich, the cashier, Angie Sheperd, started belting out Happy Birthday to You. The singer was soon joined by the 40 or so people in the dining room as Wheeler stood smiling in disbelief.

“Thank goodness I’m in a hospital,” Wheeler said with all eyes in the lunchroom on her, “because I’m going to have a heart attack.”

VA center director Roger Johnson quickly came to Wheeler’s side and presented her with a proclamation of appreciation for her more than 21,000 hours of volunteer work she’s performed at the VA since 1951. He also dubbed Jan. 24, Ruth Wheeler Day at the center.

Before Wheeler could get out a couple words, members of the staff came up and put a gold-colored tiara on her head and wrapped a red satin sash with the words “USA’s Longest Serving VA Volunteer” stamped onto it.

“She is just a pip. She should be the poster child for volunteers,” said MaryAnn Lyman, the VA’s financial revenue manager. Lyman has worked with Wheeler for at least 20 years. “We all want to grow up to be a Ruthy.”

Wheeler was then ushered into the extra dining area off the cafeteria where even more people were waiting to congratulate her, typically with hugs and kisses on the cheek. She was guided to a table laid out especially for Wheeler with a tablecloth, china plates, balloons and cards, and a large sheet cake wishing her a happy birthday.

“We want to make her feel as great as she is,” said John Paradis, the VA’s public relations manager.

“I never expected anything like this,” Wheeler said as sitting at the table catching her breath and greeting the many people who wanted to wish her well.

Wheeler said there are many reasons why she has dedicated so much of her time to the VA center, but the most salient is, Wheeler comes from a family with a long history of serving in the military. Members of her family are represented in every branch of the armed services, she said. Family members served in both world wars and she has a niece in the air force.

Wheeler started volunteering in 1951, but it wasn’t until 1993, when she retired from her job as an office assistant at Berkshire Electric Cable in Leeds, that she became a full-time volunteer working four days a week in the business office sending out health benefits renewals, patient pre-registrations and other information catalogs. Lyman says Wheeler probably stuffs and seals 200 to 300 envelopes a day for the VA.

“Her organizational skills are amazing. Nothing gets by her. Nothing,” said Mike Walsh, the VA’s quality manager. “It’s the consistency of her presence and work that defines Ruthy. ... All the other volunteers look up to her.”

Wheeler likes to stay active, but she’s unable to work outdoors and she detests housework. “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I retired” from the VA, she said.

She loves the people she works with and Wheeler enjoys the sense of satisfaction she gets from helping people. Her advice to young volunteers: “Just do it.”

“Just do it because it’s nice and it’s fun and it kind of makes you feel good to help someone,” Wheeler said. “It’s worth it. It’s very rewarding to be a volunteer.”

Yesterday’s surprise party wasn’t the only unexpected treat Wheeler received that day. In the morning, Wheeler drove to the center to take care of some business. When she returned to her car, she noticed a paper stuffed under her windshield wiper.

“I was cussing them out,” Wheeler said.

Then she read it: a postcard from the Veterans Affairs Police wishing her a happy birthday.

“You got me good,” said Wheeler laughing with officer Michael Nemeth, the one who slipped the card under her windshield wiper. “I’ve been here so long, everyone knows me here and they’re all such good, wonderful people.”

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