Ruth Wheeler of Florence, nation’s longest-serving VA volunteer, dies at 88

  • Ruth Wheeler is shown in 2015. FILE PHOTO

  • Ruth Wheeler, of Florence, is shown in a 2015 photo shortly after being 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. Wheeler first started volunteering there in 1951 when there were 1,200 patients at the hospital. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • —Submitted Photo

Staff Writer
Published: 2/11/2019 12:24:07 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Several days a week for nearly 70 years, Ruth Wheeler made her way to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs medical center in Leeds, assisting with a variety of tasks.

Even at the age of 88, and as the longest-tenured VA volunteer in the country, Wheeler continued to have a passion for helping those who served in the military, spending each weekday at her home away from home until just a few days before her Feb. 2 death.

“Every veteran was very special to her,” said Carol Booker of Hadley, Wheeler’s niece. “She always went out of her way to greet them, and they remembered her smile, and her very cheery personality. They all seemed to love her.”

Whether it was seemingly mundane administrative and clerical tasks like sending out health benefit renewals, patient pre-registrations and information catalogs, running a kissing booth coinciding with Valentine’s Day week where she would hand out chocolate Hershey Kisses, or aiding in services at the chapel, Wheeler put in nearly 30,000 hours at the VA.

“Whatever they had for Ruthie, she was the first to volunteer,” Booker said.

Christina Bertrand, chief of voluntary services at the VA, said a memorial for Wheeler is tentatively planned for Feb. 21.

“Basically, she was here for five days a week, eight hours a day, and always had a smile for everyone,” Bertrand said.

Bertrand said when she and her former boss, Anne Murray, went to New Mexico three years ago, when Wheeler was receiving accolades from the U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert A. McDonald, they worried about the trip and how Wheeler would take to the hotel accommodations. They needn’t have been concerned, because when they got up the next morning they found Wheeler had already been in the hotel lobby getting to know other participants.

Juan Perez, claims assistant at the VA, said he misses Wheeler terribly.

“We all love her. My heart broke when I heard the news,” Perez said.

He said he could always depend on Wheeler to handle the work she was assigned.

“She was fantastic, and I’m never going to find anyone like her,” Perez said.

David Whiteley, the retired chaplain at the VA, describes Wheeler as “an all-things-for-all-people type of woman,” who was always supportive of the chapel during the more than 20 years he served in that role.

“I’ll certainly miss her. It feels like we’ve lost a family member,” Whiteley said.

Wheeler’s death was noted on the sign at the entrance to the facility, where it stated, “We mourn the passing of Ms. Ruth Wheeler, America’s longest-serving VA volunteer.”

Wheeler, who lived in Florence, was born in Ashfield and graduated from Sanderson Academy, later getting a degree at the Northampton Commercial College. It was while living in Shelburne Falls that she joined the American Legion Auxiliary and, with her mother, Mary, a member of the Women’s Relief Corps during World War I, and her sister, Doris, began volunteering at the VA in 1951.

“It was kind of what got her up in the morning and got her going,” Booker said.

Booker said Wheeler was also inspired by her father, Raymond, a World War I veteran, and her brother James “Bud” Wheeler who served during World War I. Wheeler had relatives who served in all branches of the military. Booker herself is an Air Force veteran.

Wheeler stayed active in the American Legion Auxiliary, eventually joining the American Legion in Easthampton, where she was senior vice president of the auxiliary and attended all meetings and monthly dinners.

“She was an awesome lady,” said Legion member Susan Miller. “She was very well liked, and a hard worker.”

Miller said that Jan. 27, when a chili cookoff was held, Wheeler made sure to be there to help out, making it a point to tell everyone that she wouldn’t be eating any of the food. All money raised from the event supported the chapel at the VA.

Wheeler earned numerous honors for the length of her volunteer service. A day after her death she was scheduled to be honored at the Four Chaplains observance, with a Legion of Honor Humanitarian Award, given in recognition of her “lifetime commitment to selfless service and societal advancement that has demonstrably affected the quality of life in the community, state or nation, service without regard to faith or race.”

Booker said two boxes filled with the awards, certificates and trophies Wheeler earned, including recognitions signed by President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush, former U.S. Sen. Scott Brown and former state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, will be given to the VA.

All these honors could be displayed at some point, Bertrand said, though she observes that Wheeler didn’t volunteer for acclaim.

“She was given countless awards, but she just wanted to give back to veterans,” Bertrand said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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