by Jill Ragar Esfeld
WATHENA — Frances Hartman, a parishioner of St. Joseph Parish here, laughs when people ask why she has volunteered almost every day for the last 30 years.
“Well, I don’t know why,” she said. “I didn’t have a particular reason — there was just always something to do, so I did it.”
Though she is modest, those who know Hartman are eager to talk about her seemingly boundless energy and generous spirit.
She will be 94 this summer.
“I’ve never heard her complain,” said Mary Kay Nold, director of Wathena Keen Age Senior Citizens Center, where Hartman has helped with the Meals on Wheels program for more than 30 years.
“I wish the younger generation could follow her example of always trying to be helpful,” she said.
Hartman started her volunteering in her parish, where she was treasurer of the Altar Society and a regular at morning Mass until she could no longer drive.
“She would set up for weekday Mass,” said Nold. “And before she’d go to the [senior] center, if she had time, she would go over to the parish hall and clean out the refrigerator or freezer. Whatever she could think of to do, she would do.”
Hartman said her work ethic stems from life on a farm with her husband raising corn, beans and five children.
“I stayed active,” she said. “I worked every day.”
When Hartman’s father became a resident of the Wathena Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, she began to volunteer there, too.
“I liked the idea of helping,” she said. “It was something to do.”
The health care facility had a twice-weekly bingo game. Different volunteer groups would trade off calling numbers.
“It ended up Frances was always the one doing it for everybody,” said activity director Theresa Rohrer. “She came for every group because she belonged to all the groups.
“And then it just became Frances.”
Hartman developed a routine of helping at the senior center and then, on bingo days, heading from there to the health care center to call numbers.
And she always had a heart for residents that couldn’t play bingo.
“She would go up and down the halls,” said Rohrer. “And if someone was bedridden and couldn’t come to bingo, she would visit with them and bring them a bingo treat.”
Once she was past the age of 90, Hartman found her eyesight was failing and she could no longer drive.
But that didn’t stop her volunteer efforts.
“She recruited another volunteer,” said Rohrer.
Indeed, Hartman’s son would drop her off at the senior center each day and, on bingo days, a fellow volunteer would drive her to the health care center to call numbers.
“And we made the bingo cards big, on four-by-six cards, so she could read them,” added Rohrer.
With failing eyesight, helping with Meals on Wheels became more of a challenge also. But that didn’t stop Hartman.
“I found her jobs she’s been able to do by feel,” said Nold.
Reminiscent of Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Hartman said, “I did little things.”
“Yes,” said Nold. “She would do little things like wipe my tables down, and she always counted the sacks out for me and opened them up on the table.”
Hartman would then carry a tray of snacks and cartons of milk to the table so the sacks could be packed efficiently.
“We would walk down the table like an assembly line,” explained Nold.
After the lunches were packed, Hartman helped with cleanup in any way she could.
“Her eyes got worse to the point where she could only see shapes and such,” said Nold. “But she had this place memorized as to where everything was.”
Rohrer was so impressed with Harman’s volunteer efforts that she nominated her for the 2012 Northwest Professionals on Aging Annual Wally M. Carpenter Volunteer Award.
The award goes to individuals who have demonstrated a commitment to volunteerism.
All nominees were invited to attend the award ceremony. But when Hartman found out about it, she conveniently scheduled a doctor’s appointment to coincide with the event.
When Rohrer learned that Hartman had won, she knew she had to get the humble volunteer to the ceremony somehow.
“So I called Frances’ daughter and asked her to make up some story about the doctor canceling the appointment,” she said.
After receiving the award, Hartman said simply, “A lot of people do more than I do.”
“I don’t know who they are,” replied Rohrer.
When asked what advice she had for others who would like to imitate her active longevity, Hartman said, “Just do something and hang in there.”
Nold intends to take that advice.
“Yes,” she said, “I keep telling myself when I get old, I need to make sure I’m like Frances — do whatever I can do and not complain.
“And never quit.”
Nold said Hartman has a philosophy that as long as God is taking care of her, she should be taking care of others.
Maybe that’s why God has kept her around.
“I don’t want to brag,” said Hartman reflecting on her long history of volunteering, “but I guess I did make a difference.
“But I don’t think I did a heck of a lot,” she added. “I did a lot, but not a heck of a lot!”