HCN News & Notes

VA’s Longest-serving Volunteer Remembered During Service in Leeds

LEEDS — Ruth Wheeler, the VA’s longest-serving volunteer was remembered for her more than six decades of service to veterans on Feb. 21 during a memorial celebration in the Edward P. Boland VA Medical Center chapel.

For 68 years, “Ruth Wheeler served our veterans faithfully,” said VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System Chaplain Lionel Bonneville, during a memorial service planned days after she passed away. “She served veterans to honor her World War I veteran father.”

Christina Bertrand, chief of Voluntary Services, noted that “Ms. Ruthie logged a staggering 29,721 hours as a volunteer,” was irreplaceable, and would be sorely missed. “It would take five — maybe 10 — volunteers to fill her shoes.”

The gathering in the chapel on the healthcare system’s main campus brought dozens of volunteers out to recognize a woman known simply as “Ms. Ruthie,” but whose service to veterans was described as “faithful, and with a smile that brightened the spaces she entered,” said John Collins, the medical system’s CEO and director. He recounted a story about Wheeler marking the year when she was recognized at a national VA Voluntary Services event as the longest-serving volunteer in the VA’s recorded history.

“We were flying her to the national meeting, and we wanted to keep it a surprise that she was going to be recognized. Some of the officials involved were concerned that she might get overwhelmed at such a large event, and especially one so far away from home,” Collins said. “Ms. Ruthie shocked us all when she woke up before everyone and went down to the event first, introduced herself to the early risers, like her, and then went back upstairs to wake up the VA officials she traveled with.”

Collins said he flew to the event and surprised Wheeler. “She saw me and asked, ‘what are you doing here?’ Little did she know it was all for her — including national recognition at the VA’s largest Voluntary Services gathering.”

During the memorial service, along with other reflections on Wheeler shared by those in attendance, Collins shared a story that deeply crossed into his personal life. He said Wheeler, 88, shared a long-standing and coincidental bond with his father.

“Every time I’d see Ruthie, she’d ask me, ‘how is your father?’ And she’d tell me, every time, ‘you know, I was born two days after him,’” Collins said, sharing another personal loss during the memorial service. “For those of you who didn’t know, my father also recently passed away — and it was two days before Ms. Ruthie.”

Wheeler began her 68 years of service at VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System in 1951, and her service, which included sorting mail, lasted until 2019.

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