by Jill Ragar Esfeld
LEAVENWORTH — There is an adage about grief that says it is “love with no place to go.”
Dick Forge, a member of Sacred Heart-St. Casimir Parish in Leavenworth, knows grief and the heartache it leaves behind.
Years ago, a drunk driver took the life of his only son Rick, who was just 5 years old.
The grief he felt then was shared by his wife Kathy. Together, they got through the pain by pouring their love into their work, their church and their four daughters.
But in February 2020, after 53 years of marriage, Forge lost Kathy, too.
After a normal evening at home, the couple was preparing for bed. When Forge went into their bedroom, he found his wife unresponsive on the closet floor.
“I grew up on a farm,” he said, “and I was around dead animals.
“You can tell when their eyes are set — and her eyes were set. I knew she was really gone.”
Kathy was rushed to the hospital and kept on life support just until her family could gather around her and a priest could anoint her.
She was well-loved in the town of Leavenworth — as a teacher at Sacred Heart School, a church cantor and a leader in the religious education program.
A thousand people showed up for her wake and funeral.
“I lost a lot when I lost her,” Forge said of his wife’s sudden death. “I knew life wouldn’t be the same, and it hasn’t been. It’s tough.
“Kathy was a wonderful wife. Rick was a wonderful boy.”
“But you have to make the best of it,” he continued. “You just have to put one foot in front of the other and keep going.”
Oddly enough, long before Kathy died, she prepared a path for her husband to grieve through, a place for his love to go.
A place for love
Forge has always been a busy man.
A graduate of Benedictine College in Atchison, he received the college’s Kansas Monk Award in 2005 for exemplifying its patron’s motto: “ora et labora” — “pray and work.”
“Dad has always been very scheduled,” said his oldest daughter, Karen Wolken. He lives “work and prayer,” and that’s what Benedictine is about.
He and Kathy raised their family in town for 25 years and then moved to a farm in 2000.
In addition to continuing his job as a social worker for the Leavenworth Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Forge had his “hobbies” of raising cattle and maintaining a vineyard.
Though he sold his cattle in 2017, he still harvests 160 French grapevines each year and processes them into about 27 gallons of wine.
But there’s one caveat.
“I don’t drink it all,” he said.
When he retired at the age of 74, his wife knew she had to keep him busy.
Wolken remembers her mother’s tireless efforts to that end: “She called everybody in town and asked, ‘What can he do?’”
Kathy volunteered her husband to work with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and to serve at the Leavenworth Interfaith Community of Hope, a shelter offering assistance to those living in poverty.
Forge tried the volunteer work and loved it as much as he’d loved his job.
“People talk about work,” he said. “And I feel like I’ve never worked a day in my life because I liked what I did.”
He has continued the volunteer work as he mourns the loss of his wife, allowing his love to flow through in service to others.
“Who would have thought,” asked Wolken, “[that] 10 years later, Mom really saved his life by giving him so much to do?”
Forge volunteers with CASA, sitting in on visits between children and noncustodial parents, on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays.
“And these kids would not get to see the parent without volunteers like Dad,” said Wolken. “This isn’t just a little thing. This is huge.”
On Wednesdays, Forge serves lunch at Leavenworth Interfaith Community of Hope and then washes the dishes and cleans the bathrooms.
“Dick is an inspiration to those wanting to give back,” said executive director Myranda Agnew. “He has done everything from mopping the floors to serving meals and having encouraging conversations with our guests.
“He is such a joy every time he’s here!”
It takes over 70 volunteers a week to operate Community of Hope.
“Individuals like Dick, committing to serving people, make it possible for us to serve those in poverty and the unhoused population,” said Agnew.
To Forge, the service is a last gift his wife gave him to get through his days without her.
“My whole week is based on my [volunteer] work,” he said. “You know I could lie on that couch all day long, but I get out a couple of times a day.”
Work, faith and Baxter
Forge does get out a couple of times a day — not just for volunteer work, but also for Baxter.
“My daughters have been a godsend to me,” he said. “And one of them, about six months after Kathy died, said, ‘Dad, you need a dog.’”
His daughter put an ad in the paper and found Baxter, a labradoodle in desperate need of a home.
“I said, ‘I’ll take him,’” said Forge. “He’s been my best buddy ever since.”
Forge is not so sure Kathy would approve of this new addition to his life. She didn’t much care for dogs and wouldn’t allow one in her house.
Now, Baxter is not only in the house, but on the furniture.
“I just told Kathy, ‘I had to have somebody,’” said Forge. “Everybody leaves me except the dog.
His volunteer work and his dog keep Forge occupied. His faith keeps him going.
“You ask me how I make it — because I do that stuff,” he said. “And, well, my faith. That’s it. You’ve got to have faith.
“And I’m telling you, you can’t just have it. You’ve got to live by it.”
Forge does. And people see that.
“I think people in town see Dad doing the corporal works of mercy,” said Wolken. “They see him volunteering as a living imitation of Jesus.”
Forge looks forward to the day he’ll be reunited with his wife and son.
“I don’t think the end is frightening to face if you have faith,” he said. “You know you’re going to meet God, and be judged by him, and go on.”
But, at the age of 86, he’s not ready to go just yet.
“You know, I’m lucky,” he said. “I’m not a spring chicken, but as long as they keep tolerating me at those places, I’ll keep going.
“I love Kathy, and she would want me to keep going.”