2.4 million reasons to be nice
Lois A. Bowers
We're supposed to be nice because it's the right thing to do, not because we expect something in return. It sure is heartwarming, though, when people are rewarded for their good deeds.
Evenglow, a faith-based, not-for-profit continuing care retirement community in Pontiac, IL, almost two hours southwest of Chicago, recently was on the receiving end of such a reward — to the tune of $2.4 million — bequeathed by a 103-year-old woman, E. Ruth Harris, whose family had been shown kindness on a visit decades ago.
“Her parents and their dependent child were looking for a place in case her parents predeceased the child,” Evenglow CEO Mark Hovren told me. “They were impressed with how they were treated when they came to Evenglow and inquired.”
The precise date of the tour is lost to history, but given Harris' age, Evenglow believes it was in the 1970s, when Evenglow primarily was an assisted living facility, Hovren said. The community was about an hour away from where Harris and her family lived.
Evenglow was incorporated in 1957, occupying a former hotel that was replaced six years later with a seven-story tower that still exists and also is home to independent living residents. Two decades later, an adjacent 73-bed nursing home was built. A 26-bed memory care facility was added in 2001.
Harris' sister, Agnes, had a developmental disability and ended up passing away before her parents, so a place to live outside of home never was necessary. Harris never forgot the impression that Evenglow's staff had made on her family, however. She and her late husband, George, made gifts to the community over the years, although “nothing that really grabbed our attention other than the consistency,” Hovren said.
“She also was a Methodist, and Evenglow is Methodist-affiliated,” he said, sharing another possible reason for her generosity. “She knew of people in this area as well, so I think over the years, she became well-acquainted with Evenglow, and the story of her parents' inquiry stuck in her mind.”
Harris lived in her home until sometime in the last year of her life, when she was hospitalized, Hovren said. She died in January 2017 at her local hospital, and in May 2018, Evenglow received word of her bequest from the financial institution managing her affairs. The largess of Harris' gift caught Evenglow by surprise, Hovren said.
“We knew before that we were named in her will,” he said. “We just didn't know any of the details.”
Now the CCRC is in the enviable position of deciding what to do with the donation.
“Our board, before the notice, had embarked on a strategic planning program,” Hovren said. “The building that was built in 1963 and the health center built in 1983, they've obviously both got some age on them, and there are always mechanical issues that come up.”
Once specific plans are finalized, Evenglow also formally will recognize Harris, he said.
“These things don't happen to us every day, so it takes us a while, as a board, to determine what to do and how to do it,” Hovren said.
In the meantime, the CEO has been responding to media calls after a community-issued press release generated local media interest that turned into regional and then national interest.
“We knew it would be kind of a big deal around here,” he said. “But when the Chicago Tribune called, I thought, ‘Wow. That's kind of odd.' ”
The extent of the media attention may have been unexpected, but the magnitude of Harris' gift is not lost on Evenglow.
“Ruth could have given her money and resources to any institution, and any institution would have been very grateful,” Hovren said. “We're obviously very happy and thrilled that she considered us at Evenglow.”
Whether the attention will lead to additional move-ins remains to be seen, the CEO said.
“I think that day may come,” Hovren said. “Our having been in Pontiac for this length of time — 61 years — we're well-known in the area, and people make their decisions to move or not to move based on their needs and what they want to be doing. Usually in the late fall is when we start picking up residents who don't want to live on the farm or don't want to endure another winter alone.”
One thing is certain, however, he said: “You never know what act of kindness might result in something good.”