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By Harry Anderson
Karlene, I know how reluctant you are about letting me interview you. But look at it this way. What you do for the residents at The Chalet is extraordinary, truly! Your story should be told. It will inspire a lot of people. Deadline’s approaching, so suppose I come to your office tomorrow morning at 10 and we’ll talk for an hour?
That was my email message to Karlene Hogan, the activities director at The Chalet – the independent living unit of The Village at Waterman.
That was her reply, sent at 6:58 a.m. Typically, she had begun another workweek before a winter sun arose – punching out a laconic response to a request that had her grimacing.
“Let’s get this thing going,” she blurted to her visitor before he pulled his arms from his coat. “What do you want to know?”
The telephone jangled and she put the receiver to her ear and snapped, “Yeah, what’s up?” She listened, and – with fire in her blue eyes – snapped back, “I told you yesterday . . . this time listen! The chairs gotta be set up in the parlor by half-past one. Bye.”
She clicked on a Vape (a mechanical substitute for a cigarette), puffed, and scowled at her visitor. “I suppose you want me to tell you something about yours truly. Right? Well, in a nut shell . . .”.
She hardly paused for breath: “I’ve lived in Coventry all my life and graduated from Coventry High School, Class of ’73. [With a broad smile] I was always getting detention, not that I was a bad kid. I was just a nuisance. Anyway, being young and foolish, I married my boy friend right after school, had two sons, and got divorced. Then, I had to do something, so I went to hairdressing school. But a bad back put an end to that. [Scowling] So I got a job driving a school bus and hated it. Seven years I did that, and positively hated it! Then I saw an ad in the paper. Foxwoods was hiring. For almost five years I worked the poker table at the casino – the 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift. Finally, I had had it and quit and ended up here driving the van. Seventeen years later, I’m still here.”
She blew a stream of blue smoke at her desk lamp and shrugged. “Well, that’s it! The story of my life. Are we finished?”
A bent octogenarian pushed his walker into the small office and inquired about what time today the van would be leaving for its run to CVS and Citizens. Karlene narrowed her eyes and raised her voice: “Jake . . . To – mor – row! The van will take you tomorrow, not today. Today’s Monday. Comprendez?”
She took something from her desk drawer and handed a newspaper clipping to her visitor. It was a photograph of a big man with enough face showing from behind an umpire’s mask to see that he was good looking. “He’s my older son, Keith Petersen, named after his father. This was taken when he umpired the Little League World Series at Williamsport.”
She returned the photograph to the drawer, puffed again at the Vape, and grinned. “When Keith and his brother Kevin who’s now 33 were at Coventry High, they had the same English teacher who I didn’t get along with when I was in his class. One parent conference night I put a paper bag over my head and barged into his classroom. ‘Look,’ I said to him, ‘you didn’t like me. I don’t want you picking on my kids!’ You should’ve seen the look on his face!”
She sucked in her breath, looked at her watch, and sighed, “So – yeah – I’ve been here for 17 years, ever since March of 1999. I was hired to drive the van. But just two weeks into the job, after the activities director quit, I was asked to take her place. ‘Me?’ I said. ‘Are you people crazy? I don’t know nothing about how to do anything!’ But they talked me into it. I have to tell you something. When I first came to The Chalet, I immediately liked everything about it – I mean everything! So, I said to myself, ‘What the heck. I’ll give it a shot.’ After five horrible years driving a school bus, I didn’t like kids anymore. So, I knew I either had to like old people or animals.”
Karlene discovered that management was not crazy, that she has all the right stuff to become a very good activities director. The rough and tough times she had passed through – sparring with teachers, single handedly raising two boisterous sons, chauffeuring a gaggle of unruly kids to and from school, dealing cards to hard-core gamblers in the wee hours – were molding her character. And all the while – unperceptively – at home at the kitchen table she had been forging her foundation.
Not only were the zillions of hi-lo-jack games played with her father giving her enjoyment but also they were passing on to
her his ethics: stay on your toes, play your cards with confidence, accept the fact that you will not always win, and be a good sport. Before his death four years ago, by example he had also instilled in his daughter such traits as not being pretentious or shying away from hard work
Perhaps I should make known that the morning of our interview was not the first time I met Karlene. Hardly. I have gone on excursions with her – to Concord and Walden Pond, for example – when I witnessed her in action. Like a Border collie guarding its flock, she kept watch of the residents as they picked their way along unpaved paths. With a voice like a drill sergeant, she shouted orders: “Norman, keep moving! You don’t wanna get left behind, do you, buddy?”
I have hitched rides on the van to Rhode Island Philharmonic concerts, awed by her devil-may-care navigating through Smith Street traffic. On one such Saturday night, when a resident tripped and fell on the van’s steps, she kept her cool and managed the crisis with the skill of an EMT.
I have seen her lead a line of residents into St. Philip Church for a Sunday Mass or into Chepachet’s Baptist Church for a Sunday afternoon’s Music at the Meetinghouse program. I have ducked beneath her voice when she trooped into The Chalet’s library during a book discussion, bellowing: “I’m collecting your books today and I don’t want no one to forget! Do you hear me?”
And I have seen her pretend to be buttoning her coat as she wept at graveside of Ginny, a long-time resident of The Chalet.
As soon as a newcomer checks in, Karlene has a one-on-one talk with him/her. “I’m Irish,” she smiles. “I’m very nosy.” Her aim, though, is to ferret out the person’s likes and dislikes, because, as she explains, “I don’t stereotype. These aren’t just ‘old people’. Everyone is unique and has her own story to tell. It’s just the way I am. I want to please!”
A thunk at the doorway to her office brought her to her feet. “Jake, when are you going to learn to drive that walker?”
Jake had returned to persuade Karlene to make the run to the bank and pharmacy that afternoon, saying he just heard that tomorrow snow is forecast.
“Good try, Buddy. But tomorrow it is! You still don’t get it, do you? I’m not intimidated by nothing!”
The old man looked up at the visitor and said, “Whew . . . this lady’s no softy.”
She shot back, “This lady’s gotta run. There are lots to do. See you gents later.”
I stood by my car in the front parking lot and took in the view down below. A brisk wind churned the water of Waterman Lake, and I recalled watching Karlene’s hustling hot dogs among the residents last Fourth of July as they sat scattered on The Chalet’s lawn to await the evening’s fireworks show over the lake. All’s well up here on the hill, I thought. How could it be otherwise, what with Karlene Hogan’s determination to vanquish the demons of the aged, all the while boasting, “I’m not intimidated by nothing!”