volunteers reunite for the first time since hospital was raised

De Smith, left, Inger Ewings, center, and Betty Rygiel look at the invoice for the five days Rygiel stayed in the hospital for the birth of her son, James, back in 1955. The total for the hospital stay was $118. ( KENOSHA NEWS PHOTO BY SEAN KRAJACIC )

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Published ShowDateNew(“20090809000610”);August 9, 2009 | 12:06 a.m.

Volunteers reunite for first time since hospital was razed

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Kenosha News correspondent

St. Catherine Hospital auxiliary members and volunteers remember a time when Dominican sisters helped staff the hospital, when candy stripers brought water, books and magazines for patients and when pink smocks were the uniform for the female volunteers.

Earlier this month, these former volunteers and auxiliary members gathered for a reunion, during which many old friendships were rekindled, memories were shared and history revisited. Nearly 40 of them met at Birchwood Grill for the luncheon and celebration.

Organizers Beverly Gorkowski, of Delavan, and Cheryl Hannah, of Kenosha, discussed having a reunion since the former hospital was razed in the late 1990s.

“This is the first time we were able to make it happen,” said Hannah, past-president of the hospital auxiliary. “We were all a very close-knit group, so it is wonderful to see everyone.”

Together, members shared stories about their service to the hospital. Their memories were jarred with help from precious mementos — such as plaques from the former hospital building, scrapbooks, auxiliary cookbooks, photo albums, newspaper articles, uniforms and volunteer pins — all brought to the reunion.

“So many people brought in wonderful items, we even have programs from auxiliary meetings, fashion shows and luncheons,” said Gorkowski, whose volunteering at the hospital began in 1977. “It was so sad when the hospital closed. I cried when I left.”

Meticulously kept scrapbooks chronicle the first meeting of the hospital junior auxiliary (a precursor to the auxiliary) as Aug. 1, 1952. Efforts such as knitting baby caps, promoting car seat programs, organizing Christmas parties for the sisters and fundraising kept morale high and helped support the purchase of thousands of dollars of medical equipment for the hospital.

“We were very proud of all that we were able to accomplish,” Hannah said. “It was a big part of all of our lives and amazing when you think about what we did.”

A popular stop for doctors, nurses and visitors was the hospital coffee shop, run by Florence Wieske, who oversaw volunteers, including Esther Zahn and Agnes Benick.

“Florence made it so much fun for us in the coffee shop,” Zahn said. “It was a pleasure to work for her.”

After St. Catherine closed, many of the volunteers and auxiliary members began working at other Kenosha-area hospitals.

Benick said she appreciated the camaraderie and getting to know patients and other volunteers. A familiar face at the Aurora Medical Center gift shop, she has volunteered for more than 30 years.

“I enjoy every part of volunteering and doing things for people,” she said.

Now living in Boca Raton, Fla., Jim Leipzis traveled to Kenosha specifically for the reunion. He said his fondest memories revolved around making a difference in people’s lives and enjoying many laughs along the way.

“I volunteered more than 5,000 hours at the old St. Catherine Hospital,” he said. “I worked the reception desk, ran craft fairs, (helped with) baby car seat rentals and Lifeline. I liked everything about it, and it kept me busy. I made life-long friends.”

One of the more treasured pieces of memorabilia had nothing to do with Betty Rygiel’s many years volunteering at the reception desk. She brought along the receipt for the Feb. 17, 1955, birth of her son, James, who recently won an Academy Award for his work on “The Lord of the Rings.” The total bill for the five-day, all-inclusive hospital stay: a whopping $118.

“I keep this receipt in the family album and treasure it,” she said.

At 88, Rygiel no longer volunteers at the hospital, but she has fond memories of the years she worked the desk with her husband, Edward, who now is deceased.

“I am too old to do any volunteering,” she said. “So now everyone just waits on me.”

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