QUINCY — Rick Gengenbacher may have missed an opportunity for a fabulous career in the sporting goods industry.
The Illinois Veterans Home is grateful for that.
Gengenbacher, 56, became the adjutant at the home on June 1. He replaces Dawn Whitcomb, who announced in December her resignation after 11 years in the position. The adjutant works with veterans, in the community and around the state, to make sure they meet eligibility requirements to be admitted to the home.
“As the adjutant, you have to supervise volunteer services, activities, social services, the chaplaincies (the one has a full-time Protestant and full-time Catholic chaplain), housekeeping and laundry,” Gengenbacher said. “Basically, the adjutant is assisting the administrator. If we have a problem or someone gets bent out of shape, you try to help the administrator and be that go-between.”
Gengenbacher most recently was in charge of marketing at the home. He has worked for the Illinois Veterans Home since September 1987 when another job fell through at Merkel’s, a former sporting goods business near 18th and Oak (now a parking lot for the Abbey restaurant).
“It’s crazy how things work,” he said. “I didn’t want to go back to school (at Culver-Stockton College), but (the Merkel’s job) didn’t work out. So I went back to Culver. On the wall in Student Services was a little postcard that said, ‘Illinois Veterans Home, $5 an hour.’”
Gengenbacher said his only experience to that point with the home was as a Boy Scout pushing wheelchairs from the units to the Catholic chapel on Sundays. When he took the job, he met Marilyn Niebur, director of social services. She also was the sister of Hap Northern, administrator of the Illinois Veterans Home from 1969 to 1973 and again from 1977 to 1994.
“Marilyn wanted me to do this little publication called the Bugle (produced for residents of the home),” Gengenbacher said. “I thought, well, I can’t do that. I’m not qualified to do that. She says, ‘Oh, you can do it.’ I did that for a while, and Hap took a liking to me. He said if I joined the National Guard that when I came back, he’d have a job for me. I was smart enough to figure out a few things.”
When Gengenbacher returned from National Guard training in May 1990, Northern gave him a full-time job as a recreation worker.
Gengenbacher now will be in charge of approximately 60 employees. He also will be the right-hand man for administrator Troy Culbertson, who has been at the home for six years.
“Rick has the leadership skills necessary to manage the staff,” Culbertson said. “He has a good knowledge of how things have worked in the past. Our training time will be a whole lot less with someone like Rick. He can step in and know how things were handled in the past.”
Gengenbacher’s previous job duties were similar to that of a public information officer. He operates the home’s television station, produces the Bugle, handles the creation of identification cards for employees at the home, coordinates orientation for new employees and plans special events at the home for Memorial Day and Veterans Day.
“I do any number of things,” he said. “I’m a jack of all trades, master of none.”
Gengenbacher has been a full-time employee for 32 years. He will celebrate his 35th anniversary of working for the home in some capacity in September, so retirement was a consideration.
“I was faced with losing two of the most senior staff on this campus (Gengenbacher and Whitcomb),” Culbertson said. “I’m excited because I get to keep that knowledge base that Rick’s had here for the last few years. Rick has the ability to deal with people very well.
“it’s also a key time here because in the next two years, we’re going to be moving into the new buildings (a state-of-the-art skilled facility with 210 beds and a domiciliary with 80 beds). It’s going to take a lot of our own personal skills to navigate some of the new things that we’re going to walk through with our residents.”
Gengenbacher said he has committed to take the position “for at least a couple of years.”
“I don’t have a (retirement) plan at all,” he said. “People who talk about retiring make themselves miserable. It’ll come in due time. My dad worked at Gardner Denver for 50 years, and he always said, ‘I like what I’m doing, I like who I’m working with and it’s easy enough.’ I’m not going to work 50 years at the home, but I feel the same way. If that changes, then I would rethink my decision.
“I truly love this place. I love what we do and who we do it for. The role of the adjutant is to be the advocate for our veterans. We want to make sure they’re healthy and safe. We’re here to serve those who served us. This is their home.”
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