When I walk down the hallway between Buffalo Hill Terrace and The Villas, where The Passions Project photos now hang, I am struck by one particular quality all the photos share.  Each photo shows a resident finding joy, often in an activity they’ve done for a large part of their life.

That is certainly the case for Buffalo Hill Terrace resident Ken Larson.  Just the other day, as my coworker and I walked through the lobby of the Terrace, we heard piano music (Christmas carols, of course!) coming from the auditorium.  When we peaked in to see who was playing, we saw that it was Ken.  This isn’t surprising, because Ken has been playing various pianos at Immanuel Lutheran Communities for the last twenty years.

And he’s been playing other pianos for much longer than that.  Ken started playing when he was a child growing up on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  There was always music in his family.  His mother (a schoolteacher) often played the piano for pleasure, and his father was a barber—who sang in barbershop quartets.  Ken’s childhood piano teacher was a woman who had emigrated to the United States from Cornwall, England.  That he enjoyed his lessons is made clear by the fact that he’s never stopped playing.

As a young man, Ken joined the United States Army, and he was sent to Korea just after the end of the war.  Though he was an infantryman, at the time he was there, his unit needed a piano player for church services.  Ken’s talents made him a perfect candidate for the job, and he spent the next sixteen months on this assignment.

After he came home from Korea, Ken got a job in timber management and sales administration, which eventually brought him to Montana.  He never gave up playing the piano because playing music continued to bring him joy.  At times, he’s also sung (baritone) in a barbershop chorus, but piano is what he’s stuck with most consistently.  Ken’s favorite music to play is music from the 1920s, including songs by Walter Donaldson, Irving Berlin, and Gus Khan.

Since he retired in 1982, Ken has spent even more time playing music.  When his father was in a nursing home in Whitefish, Ken saw how much all the residents there enjoyed music.  He formed a band, the main purpose of which was to play music for nursing home residents.  His current band is called Razzamatazz.  It includes a cornet, saxophone, drums, and a singer, as well as Ken on piano.  They play for nursing homes and retirement communities around the Flathead Valley.  Just this week I heard them playing Christmas carols for the residents of the Immanuel Skilled Care Center and saw how much the residents were enjoying them.

Ken plays music because it brings him joy.  It brings just as much joy to his listeners.  A few weeks ago, I was talking with some residents about a concert at the Terrace that afternoon.  Because the music was a recent addition and wasn’t on the calendar, they weren’t sure who it was.  “Is it Ken?” they asked me eagerly.  That time, it wasn’t, but he’s played for them at least once since, and his performances are always eagerly anticipated.

And in case there was any doubt about how committed Ken is to bringing joy to others through music, I’ll share that he donated the beautiful baby grand piano in our new auditorium.  From the beginning of our search for a piano for the new space, Ken was an asset.  He helped us decide what size of piano to get and consulted on the brand and selection.  When we chose the piano that’s there now, he told us he wanted to donate it to the community, showing his generous heart.  Thank you, Ken, for all you do to bring joy to seniors in our community and beyond!

Villas residents Fred and Shelby Thompson aren’t from northwest Montana, but they love it here.  In their photo, you can see a stained glass piece they made together that symbolizes their two homes: Montana, symbolized by Glacier National Park’s Lake McDonald, and Alabama, symbolized by a pink camellia.  They first came to Glacier nearly fifty years ago.  On that first trip in 1969, the couple decided they would eventually move to Glacier Park, and decision that came to fruition when they built their first West Glacier house in 1997.  Both still speak with gentle, light Southern accents, but it’s clear from their West Glacier home (where we met them this past August) that they’ve put down roots in Montana.

Fred and Shelby’s journey together started when they were in high school.  They were high school sweethearts who married soon after they graduated.  In those early days, Fred worked construction, first as a plumber and pipe fitter and then as a ceramic tile setter.  Shelby worked as a bookkeeper and the two of them made their first home in a travel trailer.  Later, Fred went to work in the family laundry and dry cleaning business.  In fact, the couple first came to Glacier so Fred could run the laundry at Glacier Park Lodge.  Shelby remembers that summer fondly—it was the only extended period in their marriage when she didn’t work.

As time went on, both Fred and Shelby moved on to different jobs.  The couple never had children, and they always supported each other in their careers.  Eventually, Fred established himself as the Production Superintendent of a paper and cardboard company.  The plant where Fred worked specialized in boxes for chicken products—so now I think of Fred whenever I eat Chick-fil-A nuggets.  Meanwhile, Shelby made her career in the US Department of Agriculture, where she worked first for a program that made loans to local farmers and then specialized in rural water systems, including water towers in remote locations.  At the time, her achievements were unusual for a woman, and Fred was always by her side.

Along the way, they had a lot of adventures.  Both Fred and Shelby had pilot’s licenses—a choice Shelby made so she could ensure that the couple could always fly safely–and one of their favorite things to do together is travel.  Maybe that early travel trailer was a foreshadowing of things to come.

Over the course of their 64-year marriage, Fred and Shelby have visited all seven continents together.  They’ve seen the wildebeest migration in Kenya and Tanzania and the penguins in Antarctica and have been on 14 river cruises throughout the world.  Though they reached their goal of visiting all seven continents when they set foot on Antarctica in 2006, they continue to travel as much as they can, and wherever they go, they have as many adventures as possible.  In Antarctica, Shelby took the Polar Plunge.  Fred chose not to dive in to the freezing ocean, but he cheered her on from dry, if not warm, land.  They visited East Berlin in the 1970s, where they remember seeing actors portraying happy citizens on their tour, and recently got a bit overheated in Beijing’s Forbidden City—though they don’t regret the trip.

It’s important to Fred and Shelby that they explore and develop personal connections with the places they visit.  They make friends wherever they go, and sometimes they reconnect with people they met on trips.  They’ve also visited faraway locations for personal reasons.  They went to China because they have an adopted great niece from that country and wanted to know more about her birth culture.

The Thompsons have certainly seen a lot in their lives, and as they move on to the next chapter, they’re happy with where they’ve been and where they’re headed.  “We’re getting old and we know it, but we look back and we don’t have any regrets,” they told us when we interviewed them for their photo.

Virginia Hull loves to crochet.  The Immanuel Skilled Care Center resident always has a project in progress, and she frequently carries her yarn and hook with her.  On a couple of occasions, I’ve run into her just as she’s about to leave for or just getting home from a shopping trip to the hobby store to buy more yarn.

It’s a passion that goes back almost forty years.  Virginia began with fine thread crocheting (think doilies and tablecloths), and while she enjoyed it enough to keep up the hobby generally, she really wanted to make blankets, scarves, and other crafts typically created with heavier yarn.  The process is different enough from fine thread work that she took a night class in 1980 in Sidney, Montana, to help her make the transition.  Once she started this kind of crocheting, she didn’t stop.

Family has always been very important to Virginia.  Her parents emigrated from Greece and moved to Grand Junction, Colorado before she was born.  Her father was killed in a mining accident when she was a young child, but she was fortunate to have a very nice stepfather.  The family—including Virginia’s older brother and two younger half siblings—had a happy life in Grand Junction, where Virginia lived until she moved to Sidney for her husband’s job.  Virginia has two daughters as well as one son who sadly passed away as a young man.  “We had a lot of fun,” she recalls fondly when she talks about her children’s younger days.  And her children are the reason why she’s in Kalispell—she followed her daughter here after her daughter moved to be closer to her own children (Virginia’s grandchildren).

Family is also in the foreground of Virginia’s mind when she’s crocheting.  She took up the craft in earnest because she wanted to make blankets for her grandchildren when they graduated from high school.  Other projects include at least 2-3 blankets for each of her daughters as well as a king-size bedspread.  A lap blanket Virginia crocheted for her mother in her nursing-home days now hangs over the back of Virginia’s wheelchair, and Virginia’s work connects the two women even now.

On the day I spoke with Virginia, she was working on a red, white, and blue lap blanket.  She’s not sure exactly who it’s for yet, but it’s sure to find a home with someone who appreciates it.  It might be a little bit before it’s done, though—with the holidays approaching, Virginia has some other projects that have to take priority, so she’s going to be busy.  That’s okay; Virginia likes to be busy.  When I asked her what she likes about crocheting, she replied, “It’s relaxing, but it keeps me busy and keeps my mind working.”

The mischievous smile on Virginia’s face in her photo gives you a small glimpse of her engaging personality.  She was a pleasure to talk with, and I look forward to seeing more of her and her creations around campus.

On Thursday, October 11, the Immanuel Foundation will host our first public event.  We are inviting the community to join us at 5:30pm in the lobby of Buffalo Hill Terrace for drinks, heavy appetizers prepared by our marvelous dining team, and the unveiling of the Passions Project photos.  And we’re extra lucky because photographer Heidi Wagner will be present to discuss her creative process and the story behind the Passions Project.

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve read quite a bit about the Passions Project by now.  We’re excited to share these photos.  Moreover, we’re excited to offer you a glimpse of the amazing, engaged seniors who live at Immanuel.  Whether they’re sharing their collections, walking beloved pets, or playing games, these residents continue to pursue the activities that bring them the most joy.

Immanuel Lutheran Communities participated in the Passions Project because we think it’s important to show our community how active and interesting residents remain.  That’s partly why the Foundation wanted to sponsor this project, of course.  We think it says a lot about the vision of aging we want to promote—one that’s active, engaged, and joyful rather than isolated and dull.

But the Foundation also chose to be part of this project because we want to show you who we raise money for.  All nineteen of the faces you’ll see at the Passions Project opening are Immanuel residents.  They live in all parts of community, from independent living to skilled nursing.  While some of them might need more philanthropic assistance than others, they are all real people engaged with their passions right here, in this community.  They all have stories.  Every single Immanuel resident has a lifetime of experience behind them, and every single one of them has something to share.  We’re hoping that The Passions Project will highlight some small part of the wisdom—and just plain interesting stories—housed in our community.

We’ve chosen to celebrate The Passions Project and the Foundation launch at the same time because both things are, in some ways, about celebrating the wonderful seniors who call Immanuel home.  The Passions Project celebrates them in obvious ways, by highlighting their skills, talents, and passions.  The Foundation celebrates them by seeking funds to make sure their lives remain as joyful and engaged as possible.  All of us, no matter our ages, need support to pursue our passions.  Immanuel wholeheartedly supports residents in living life in the ways that make them happiest.  The Foundation’s work helps make this support possible, and as we get our work off the ground, we look forward to learning more and sharing more about the people who live in our community.

So please join us on Thursday the 11th!  There’s still time to RSVP by clicking on the link below.

Today, I’d like to introduce you to Clyde Pederson, the first of many Passions Project participants you’ll be meeting over the coming months.  Clyde’s passion is woodcarving.  If you look around the Buffalo Hill Terrace apartment he shares with his wife, Jeanine, you’ll see everything from bark houses like the one pictured above to whimsical carvings of mucus (yes, mucus).

When I asked him what he likes best about wood carving, Clyde replied, “It’s a good hobby because it’s portable…  You can carve any place you can sit.”  The number of carvings in the apartment alone suggests that he sat and carved in a lot of different places.  Jeanine would certainly say this is the case, though he most often carved in their home.  “His passion was woodcarving,” she recalled, “and my job was vacuuming up wood shavings!”

Clyde began carving when he was in high school.  He still has his first carvings, a tiny ball in a box and an interlocking chain.  But he had a lot more time to carve after he retired from his work as a farmer.  When he and Jeanine were camped at an RV park, they came across a fellow camper who was carving small boots.  Clyde was inspired to take up his own knife and chisel, and a passion was born. Also, he had lost the sight in his right eye and had reduced depth perception, so when he was considering a hobby to pursue in his retirement, carving seemed safer than the kind of woodworking done with power tools.

Clyde never took a class in woodcarving.  Instead, he used books.  He even learned the intricate art of bark carving from a book.  However, it’s sometimes difficult to use pictures as precise examples, especially with bark.  He emphasized this when he taught bark carving during his and Jeanine’s winter stints in Arizona.  Sometimes, he said, it was hard to explain to his students that carving isn’t just about replicating what you see in front of you.  “You can’t duplicate a [bark] carving because the bark dictates what you can do,” Clyde told us during his photo session.  “You have to be creative.”

Clyde certainly is creative!  He took his inspiration from everything in the world around him and from the wood in front of him.  Local wildlife has inspired carvings of deer, elk, and bears, while pharmaceutical commercials have inspired more whimsical pieces like toenail fungus and, yes, mucus.  Clyde carved what he saw in the wood.

Sometimes, Clyde bought the wood he used in his carvings.  His favorite wood was basswood.  It’s soft, fine-grained, and white, which makes it versatile and easy to carve. He also used material he found locally, especially when carving bark.  The banks of the Flathead River provided a lot of trees with good bark.  For bark carving, Clyde explained, you need a tree that’s been dead for long enough that the bark is loose.  It’s also important that it be thick enough to hold together when carved but not so thick that you have to cut too much away.  Some of his carvings were even inspired by found objects or trash.  He’s made a series of ducks out of old wooden golf clubs—showing that one man’s trash is indeed another’s treasure!

Clyde isn’t able to carve much anymore (a hand tremor makes it unsafe), but he still talks about it with great pride, and it’s clear he’s passionate about it.  When he put on his protective gear and picked up his tools for the photo, it was like he’d never put them down.  Clyde’s carvings are unique and special, and it was a pleasure to learn more about them—and him!

I had the pleasure of spending much of last week with photographer Heidi Wagner.  Heidi’s photo series The Passions Project aims to change the face of aging by highlighting all the positive, productive ways in which seniors spend their time.  We were excited to have her on campus, and we can’t wait to see the photos she took of Immanuel residents during our 20 sessions.

One of the best things about the week was that I got to learn more about some of the residents here at Immanuel.  Over the course of the week, I talked with a three painters, two pianists, a woodcarver, a restorer of classic cars, and a stamp collector, among many others.

Some of the residents my colleagues and I talked with continue to pursue their passions as avidly as they ever did.  The philatelist, for example, keeps adding new stamps to her album and attends monthly meetings of the local stamp club.  For others, it’s gotten hard or even impossible to do everything they used to.  The restorer of classic cars no longer has either the physical capacity or the appropriate workspace to continue his work, and the woodcarver has developed a health condition that makes it unsafe for him to use sharp blades.  But that doesn’t mean they’ve lost their passions.  Their eyes still light up when they talk about these activities, and they’re still able to share the knowledge they gained over years of pursuing them.

I’ll admit, it was a busy and somewhat draining week.  After three to five interviews and photo shoots, I certainly went home every evening ready to put my feet up!  But it was fun to talk to people about their passions, and I learned so much about residents I’ve known in some cases for a couple of years.  I also made some amazing new acquaintances and learned about what they love—and, in some cases, about their personal histories.

I’m excited to share with you some of what I learned last week about twenty remarkable individuals. Once we have the photos, I’ll share some of those, too.  What The Passions Project shows is that we don’t have to stop pursuing our passions as we age, and that passions don’t stop being passions just because we can’t engage in them in the ways we once did.

If you’d like to see The Passions Project photos in person, don’t forget to mark your calendar for the opening reception at 5:30pm on Thursday, October 11 at Buffalo Hill Terrace.