The first memorial on this site goes out to the Fitzhugh couple who lived, loved and served together for more than 80 years. The title of the chapter in my book about their journey together is Unconditional Love. They shared their love for each other with hundreds of others. Rachel passed on last July and dear, precious gentle Gail just couldn’t live without her so he too has moved on the Heaven.  God must be thrilled to have such a pair!

Visitation for anyone wanting to say good bye to Gail one last time will be from 5:00 – 7:00 PM Thursday May 6, 2010, at Dahl-Van Hove-Schoof in Cedar Falls, Iowa.  The funeral will be l0:00 Friday May 7th  at Dahl-Van Hove-Schoof, and the Interment will be l0:00 Saturday in Conway, Iowa, followed by lunch at the Legion Hall on Main Street following.

In honor and memory of Gail and Rachel I am posting the chapter summary from the book, followed by the story they told me. They both helped write the story and this is just a tiny representation of all the service they gave to humanity while on earth. It was my honor and privilege to talk with them both.

Chapter 11: Unconditional Love

Gail Fitzhugh has lived 85 years on this Earth and holds no grudges. “I have no cause to forgive, because I never see ‘wrong’ in others.”

For nearly 80 years, he and his wife, Rachel worked side-by-side to help care for the less fortunate. As a couple, they raised two sons and a “family” of hundreds of previously homeless and displaced people who lived with them on their county-financed ‘poor farm.’

Single mothers, battered women, homeless men and the physical and mentally challenged all were welcome. They started out in Southern Iowa with a ‘family’ of 48 residents, many of whom could barely care for their own bodies. Gail lovingly shaved the scraggly hair off the faces of 20 of the men every Sunday before church. When they moved to Northern Iowa, their family grew to a household of 250. Utilizing contributions from the community wasn’t always enough, and Gail and Rachel relied heavily on their courage, intuition and common sense to figure out how to do whatever needed to be done to keep their home together. They lobbied hard for approval from the County Board of Supervisors to cover major expenses, but they attribute their success to their early realization that it is better to act and ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission and wait.

The rest of the story ~ ~

Gail Fitzhugh b. August, 6 1925  &

Rachel Fitzhugh b. April 23, 1926

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor

Full circle. Complete! Without a lot of material possessions or money in the bank to show for their many years of work, I would challenge you to find another pair who can tell such a variety of real life stories! Gail Fitzhugh and his wife, Rachel, “banked” their experiences and gave back all they learned and earned, sharing their resources with the wards of the state of Iowa. You might think they lived a hard life, giving of themselves to a degree that is almost unimaginable. What do they have to say for themselves? “We had a lot of fun!”

Their compassion has touched countless lives and made a huge difference for those less fortunate. These two precious people, who grew up together from the time they were 3 years old, have worked side-by-side for more than 80 years. Each having their own unique strengths, they raised two sons of their own and hundreds of other children of many ages and several races. They made a home for several hundred men and women who had no place to call home.

They delight in sharing their collection of adventures, which are filled with compassion, advocacy, sharing, giving, learning, hardships, danger, humor, heartache, strength and above all else, huge amounts of love woven throughout every detail. I hope you thoroughly enjoy them and gain an understanding of the delight Gail and Rachel received by giving of themselves so profoundly for so many years.

Gail explains, “A county home is where the people lived who were too poor to have a home of their own.” The county homes were also referred to as “poor farms” because, just like a family farm, they were responsible for growing all the meat and produce, including milking cows and collecting eggs. “The residents of the county home were what we called ‘poor people’ back then. Most people didn’t have money, but managed to make ends meet somehow. The county didn’t hand out financial aid like food stamps or money to pay rent. They didn’t have all these new programs that we have now to help single mothers and battered women. If people couldn’t make ends meet or take care of themselves or didn’t have family who could care for them, we welcomed them at the county home and took care of them there. There really wasn’t such a thing as homeless people on the streets because they could go to the county home.”

When almost every county in Iowa had a county home, there was always a place for people to go who didn’t have a home. Battered women or other homeless people were welcome at the county home; no one was left to the streets.

After spending about 60 years in the county home and state institution setting as employees and managers, they returned to the county home in the Spring of 2007, 20 years after retirement, when they were evicted from their mobile home due to heavy flooding.

Rachel recalled that the fireman had come the day before to issue the paper outlining the procedure to follow in case of a flood. It said pack the suitcase with enough supplies for four days. She remembers thinking, “He’s kinda jumpin’ the gun,” but shortly thereafter, while she was getting her pajamas on, “Knock knock, knock come at the door. It was another fireman. He said, ‘Come on we gotta go. It’s flooding.’ I said, ‘In my pajamas!?’

“‘Yes, in your pajamas.’”

Gail told the fireman, “She has to go where there’s oxygen and I do too.” So, they took her to Allen Hospital to do a little work up and then asked how she was going to get home. She informed them that her husband would be coming shortly with the suitcase, but that they weren’t allowed to go home. And then she reminded them, “I have to go where there’s oxygen.”

The doctor returned and said, “You’re going to the county home. You’re going to Country View.” Probably thinking that most people would have a little trepidation about that, the doctor added, “Do you have any objections?”

“But Rachel replied, ‘No, not-a-one.’  So, away we went.”

Everyone met them at the front door when they arrived. They didn’t just make the best of it; they thoroughly enjoyed it! They both had grown up and worked most of their lives in the county home environment, so it was only natural for them to be comfortable there when they could not return to their home, due to the impending floods. They mingled with some of the residents they knew, and staff people, whom they had actually hired many years before. You see, they had managed this county home in Black Hawk County from 1964 to 1985.

Before that, they had managed the Taylor County Home in Southwest Iowa, for about 14 years, which Gail’s grandparents had run for many, many years before. In fact, Rachel’s mother had worked for Gail’s grandparents at the Taylor County Home.

Gail says they’ve been family since they were about 3 years old. More like siblings as youngsters, then sweethearts, then business partners and fellow advocates. Now, they are enjoying being grandparents and great grandparents to many, and are still taking weekly calls from a long time resident of the county system. They get much enjoyment from reminiscing about all their adventures.

Both Gail and Rachel also worked at the State Hospital in Clarinda, Iowa. Their entire lives have been dedicated to serving the needs of less fortunate people. More than just helping people live, they provided a living for people who didn’t have anywhere to go.

Gail and Rachel’s responsibilities, while managing the county home, included running the farm, caring for residents, and being liaison between the County Board of Supervisors and the residents. That means they both cared for the people and served as their advocates.

Gail ran the farm, managed the residents who were able to work on the farm, and provided all the management, labor and oversight. Rachel did all the cooking with some assistance, as well as the cleaning and laundry. I dare to say, it was a fairly comfortable, large-scale bed and breakfast, lunch and supper for many needy people, funded by county governments.

Both Rachel and Gail spent a very significant portion of their formative years working along side their grandparents and absorbed the compassionate traits demonstrated during really tough economic times.

Gail immediately recalls, “When I was a kid, I used to stay with my grandparents at the county home. Now, this is way back in the day. And this is when you couldn’t sell a bushel of corn. Back in the ‘30s, you couldn’t even sell your livestock. Since most people had no money to buy them, farmers would give them away. So, grandpa would take the wagon and I’d get up in front with him and sit.”

Can you just picture this young man, and how naturally happy he was at the time, somehow understanding his great fortune to play such an important role in so many lives? Gail continues, “We’d go to the neighbor’s and grandpa would maybe pick up five or six old sows,” (old mother hogs that had gotten too old to produce prolific litters of pigs and too expensive to feed). “We’d bring them back to the county farm and butcher them right there on the farm. They’d put ‘em in barrels of hot water and ashes and then throw them on the table and scrape the hair off. My grandma, with the help of some of the residents, and Rachel’s mother, would can all the meat. Then we’d take the canned meat into the courthouse and they’d give it out the poor, just like they do with commodities now.”

Rachel also has very fond memories of this time, long ago. To make ends meet, her mother, a single mom, got a job at the county farm working for Gail’s grandparents. She had to stay there overnight because she didn’t have transportation to get to work. On her weekends off, Gail’s Grandpa Murray would bring her to town to spend the weekend with her parents and children. “On the weekends that she had to work, he’d come get us kids and take us out to the county home to be with mom.” What a kind and generous man!

Rachel explains, “My grandparents raised my brother and I from the time I was three years old until I was eleven, when my mom remarried. My granddad started as a barber, worked for the railroad, then wound up as a janitor at school. Both of my grandparents were very special to me.”

Rachel lived in Conway with her grandparents. It is in Taylor County, but just about off the map now. “Well, when I look back at it now, it seems as though Grandma and Grandpa knew just about everybody in this small town. Down the street, lived a diabetic and I’d hear my grandma say. ‘They’re feeding that man sugar. It’s going to kill him. It’s going to kill him.’ They had compassion for everyone and helped each other out as best they could. Since Grandpa worked at the school, any time there was a disease that went through school, grandpa would come home and tell grandma about it. If they had infantago, we got a bath with Lysol water and then grandma put sulfur and lard on us to go to school. Smelled BEAUTIFUL! We never caught too much from school.”

Although Rachel’s Grandma Matheny didn’t have any medical training, she had an internal knowing about warding off illness. Rachel had a lot of ear infections. Sunday was Grandpa Matheny’s day to smoke cigars. “If I had an infection in my ear, Grandma let him smoke extra and he’d blow the smoke in my ear. Oh, that felt so good. And then the old country doctor, Dr. Groom, said I should have peroxide, and they boiled it out with peroxide.”

They didn’t depend on the old family doctor very often. However, when Rachel was about three or four, she and her sister had pneumonia. Her sister, who was just a year younger than Rachel, passed away. Although she doesn’t remember her sister, she does recall the doctor telling them to put lots of plants in the room to add extra oxygen. Even the neighbors brought over their plants to help oxygenate the home. Then, every night, they would remove all the plants because at night the plants would take the oxygen from the air. Despite all their efforts they were not able to save her sister.

For years after that, upon every occasion feasible, her family put Rachel in the sunshine and fed her Calcidim, in tablet form, to ward off future attacks of pneumonia.

Many years later, when getting a mammogram, her doctor told her she had a spot on her lung. “Dr. Keiser said, ‘Have you ever had pneumonia?’ and when I told him about it, he said, ‘Oh that’s what it is. Don’t worry.’”

Even after Rachel’s mother remarried, she loved to stay after school and help Grandpa Matheny finish up his janitorial work. As they walked home after school/work, they’d pass the garden of “an old maid that lived on the corner of the school yard. Even though her property bordered the school, all the kids were half afraid of her. But grandpa would stop and talk to her. They were just pleasant as could be and I thought, ‘Why are we afraid of her? She’s so nice!’

“Then there was another couple, a lady and her daughter. Grandpa kind of looked after them to make sure they had fuel for the winter. When Gail and I took over managing the county home, the daughter moved in with us after the mother passed away.”

Both Gail and Rachel grew up observing their grandparents operating in partnership with one another, pouring out compassion for other people. They are both quick to point out that it was also sprinkled with fun and lightheartedness. Daniel Custer Matheny was the kind of guy who got joy from giving, caring and humor.

Gail fondly tells this story where he learned the lesson to laugh at himself: “We’d be sitting in assembly at school, and up front was the stage with the teacher’s desk facing the kids, her back to the stage. There’s a curtain on each side and a door where you would enter the stage. Dan would open the door and put the mop over his head. He didn’t have a tooth in his mouth. He could just pull his bottom lip up over his nose like Popeye, and all the students in the room would laugh. The teacher always knew, full well, who it was and she’d say, ‘Dan you get out of here.’”

Gail was always helping his grandparents at the county home, so when Rachel spent the weekend, they got to participate in the neighborhood social functions together after work. Gail remembers, “Some of the times when we started home, it was so foggy that we could hardly see, so we just had to follow the fence to get back to the house.

Rachel shares, “They had a Christmas tree at the county home for the employees and it was set up in a room right underneath a bedroom with a floor radiator. My brother, Gayland, and I, and Gail, and his brother, Roy, would look down through the holes in the floor where the radiator was, to see what was under the Christmas tree.”

Rachel goes on to tell about the compassion she felt for her brother. “Gayland sort of got the short end of the stick, being raised by grandpa because Grandpa Matheny didn’t have a skill or talent to teach Gayland and no car to take him anywhere.” She is quick to point out that he was definitely not short on love. She just felt it was tougher on a boy because this was the only male figure in his life until he was a teenager, when his mother remarried. Still, the bond of love outweighed the poverty and must have nurtured his artistic ability.

Rachel’s brother also passed on the love he received, by helping in the county home. At first, he worked with Gail at the men’s building. Then he worked at the State Hospital in Clarinda. He started the recreation program there, teaching recreational skills to the residents confined to the state mental hospital.

Some additional stories of caring for others give further perspective on Rachel and Gail’s lifetime relationship with the county home environment:

Several single mothers lived on the county farm with their children. One of the boys living there with his mother was in Gail’s class in school. Another mother had four children. Many residents pitched in and helped get them all ready to go off to school.

Rachel’s mother, a single mother herself and an employee there, brought in a woman with four children. Rachel tells of the heartache everyone experienced when social services took her children away before they really got a chance to live in the county farm environment. “They told her they were going to take the children and she cried, and my mom cried, and his grandpa cried, but they took the children.

“When Gail and I took over the management of the Taylor County home, this same woman served as the county home nurse.” Rachel continues, “She was the best nurse and the kindest and most thoughtful person that ever was. She came out and said, ‘Mom Fitzhugh, I think you better come in here and check this lady. She don’t look good this morning at all.’ And sure enough, she’d be correct, the lady was really sick.

“That was back when you couldn’t hardly get a doctor to come out. And that was the same way here in Black Hawk County. It was hard to get a doctor, so we did it ourselves. After many years, we finally did get a doctor.”

Recalling their life together as co-managers on the 360-acre Taylor County farm, Gail says, “We farmed, and had as many as 48 patients (residents) when we were there. Rachel, in addition to her domestic duties, watched over the women’s dorm and had to keep an eye on the men when I was gone. We raised our two sons here. Finally, the Board of Supervisors decided that we could get one female employee to help with the cooking.” Rachel says all that activity kept her out of mischief.

“Every Sunday, of course, we had church right at the facility,” says Gail. “Different churches would come out on Sunday morning, and give a service for the residents. After that, all the men got a shave and the women could get a haircut, if they wanted. I shaved about 20 men every Sunday. Only two of the men living there could shave themselves.”

Rachel had an unusual story to share: “The men’s building had two stories and a real long porch along the side. One morning I said, ‘Gail you’ve got to get out there, we’ve got to wash some windows today.’ Well, he got up on top of the porch and was washing the outside window. He had designated one young man to wash on the inside. He raised the window to tell the young man he had had missed a spot on the inside. Gail called the young by name and when he started to say, “You missed a spot…” out of the clear blue, the guy hit him in the eye! He didn’t even crack a smile. Gail said, ‘Why did you do that?’ The guy only replied, ‘I don’t know.’”

Gail continues, “I went inside and said to him, ‘Come on. We’ll go downstairs and sit down.’”

Usually, if one of the men had misbehaved, gentle Gail had them sit in a chair in the kitchen, so Rachel could watch over them and keep them out of trouble. Although Rachel is very tiny and petite, she commanded such respect that NO ONE dared cross her. I am not sure how she established that, but her iron hand ruled with order, keeping chaos at bay.

So Rachel’s responsibilities extended beyond watching the women to include the misbehaved men, allowing Gail to run the farm. Together, they handled the surprises of each daily activity, not knowing what was going to happen next, but always ready to provide the guidance needed to maintain order.

“Another thing I’d like to tell you,” says Gail, “In Taylor County, I butchered all our own meat, slaughtered our beef and pork, cut and wrapped the meat and put it in our big walk-in freezer. Rachel dressed the chickens, which included slaughtering, stripping off the feathers and cutting out the inedible parts. We raised about 2000 fryers, (the chickens designated to end up as fried chicken) and had about 1000 laying hens (those used for egg production) on the Taylor county farm.” Taylor County had a dairy herd of 110 Holstein cows that Gail turned into a Grade A dairy.

After many years of milking all the cows by hand and carrying all the milk in 10-gallon mile cans Gail explains, “I finally put in a milking system where we attached milking machines to the cows and the milk ran through an overhead pipeline, right over to our bulk tank. Then, tanker trucks came to pick up the surplus milk and hauled it to Kansas City. Rachel was in charge of keeping the guys out of the bulk tank with their dippers.”

They wouldn’t be able to keep their Grade A status if they continued to dip the fresh milk out of the bulk tank to drink. However, Gail adds, “There is nothing quite as good a fresh milk.”

Gail’s first responsibility of the day was to wake up Rachel. “Waking up was my hardest job. He’d say, ‘Get up, get up. I’m going to milk.’ What he actually meant was when he comes back from milking the cows, breakfast better be on the table. Well, one Monday morning he couldn’t get me out of bed. You see, Sundays at the county home was ice cream day, homemade ice cream. We made it out of cream from our cows, and eggs from our chickens. We always had a little left over after the residents got their share, we used to call them patients, but since that is their home, now they call them residents. We were carrying the leftovers out to our walk-in cooler, refrigerator that we kept outside. Well, I walked with one foot on the sidewalk and one foot on the grass. The next morning I couldn’t get up.”

Rachel continues, “When Gail came in from milking, he discovered—no breakfast. He said, ‘I called you. Breakfast isn’t ready.’

“‘Well you get me on my feet and point me toward the kitchen and I’ll tell you what to do.’ So, then he called his mother to come over after he got breakfast. She came over to cook because it was the cook’s day off. I discovered I had some vertebrae out in my back.”

Another time, Rachel was out of commission due to a hole under the clothesline. She explains, “I hung clothes out for the whole building on washday. I said ‘fill that hole up in there or I’m going to step in that hole and break my foot and you’ll be sorry.’ And that’s what happened and his mom and my mom both had to come out and help. I broke a bone in my foot. But then the hole got filled up.”

Rachel remembers, “Oh Yeah. That was another funny thing that happened at the Taylor County home. We had a lady with an ear infection and I didn’t call the doctor. I remembered that peroxide worked for me; why not try it on her? Well, the upshot of it was, when we poured peroxide in her ear, it ran down into her hair. Her lighter brown hair turned to red! She was so proud of her hair and I thought, ‘Oh my god!’ So when her mother came to visit, she had to go through the office and pass by me, to get to where her daughter stayed. So I warned her, ‘Before you go, don’t be alarmed that your daughter’s a red head.’ After I explained it to her, she just laughed and laughed. We had some fun times.”

Between the time his grandparents managed the Taylor County farm and when he and Rachel took it over, Gail’s uncle managed it for about four years. His uncle drilled down 1500 feet to try to find water on the farm when the old well got bad. The drilling resulted in only salt water. For a while, Gail piped pond water up to the farmstead and ran it through a purifier. Eventually, he traveled 130 miles to Kansas City and bought a steam cleaned, used, semi tanker truck with six different compartments to haul water from Creston, Iowa, about 34 miles away.

Gail used this same “water wagon” to water down the racetrack before the buggy races at the Taylor County fair. He rigged up a sprinkling system for the back of the truck that evenly dispersed water from the truck onto the ground. They would load up all the residents and take them to the fair in a stock truck with bales of straw to sit on.

Just as Gail and Rachel helped out when they were young, so did their boys who grew up with the residents. When the boys were young, they protected one of the residents who was getting short-changed by a vendor at the fair. The young Fitzhugh boy got his father involved to ensure the resident wasn’t taken advantage of. The boys even bid on and purchased some 4-H hogs that they raised, themselves, on the county farm.

Gail and Rachel had an excellent reputation for caring for their residents, so when Black Hawk County was in need of new management, they approached the Fitzhughs and asked them to move North. Evidently, one of the Supervisors in the Waterloo area had relatives living in Taylor County who recommended the Fitzhugh team.

Recognizing this as an opportunity to provide a better living for their sons, they answered the calling from the County Board of Supervisors to take over the management of the Black Hawk County Farm in Waterloo. After several visits, they decided to pack up and relocate from the southern part of Iowa where they had lived all their lives, head way north to Waterloo, and step into the management of a much larger operation.

When the Black Hawk County Board hired the Fitzhughs, they told them they could bring their best help with them, so Ralph and Joann Smith moved along North, too. Ralph was the farm boss and Joann, the head cook. They worked with Gail and Rachel for many years. Their loyalties helped hold things together during those times of transition. It was challenging for both the residents and the Fitzhughs to adjust to the changes.

The Black Hawk County home/farm also had a dairy herd and a very large hog operation to support 250 residents, approximately, five times the size of the Taylor County home.

When they arrived at Black Hawk, they were handed a very big handful of keys. It was just about lunchtime, so they headed downstairs to the employee’s dining room for lunch. There were about nine people and the cook in a little room just off the side of the kitchen.  The kitchen was very large and housed five very big ovens. Every one of those five ovens was propped shut with a board. They were lit by reaching into the oven with a rolled up piece of flaming paper. Tiny, little Rachel expresses in an uncharacteristically loud voice, the sound they made as soon as they were lit. “POOFFFF!”

It didn’t take long for Rachel to speak her peace. In her words, “I was the lippy one.”

Donald Sage, one of the more responsible board members, lived nearby and would stop by periodically to check on things. One morning, on one of his visits, he could tell Rachel wasn’t in a very good mood. He said, “What’s the matter today?”

Rachel told him quite frankly. “Do you know something? One of these days, somebody’s going to light one of those gas stoves down there, and it’s going to explode and somebody’s going to get burnt. And guess whose side I’m taking?”

He said, “What do you mean?”

Rachel replied, “Haven’t you been in our kitchen? Go down and look. Come on, I’ll go with you.”

He was shocked and very dismayed that the couple running the place before them had not brought it to his attention. “Why didn’t they say anything?”

Rachel defended the prior management saying, “I don’t know, probably trying to save you guys some money. I won’t!”

“Well, we’ll get some new stoves,” Mr. Sage promised and shortly thereafter, they replaced all five ovens with brand new ones.

That was just the beginning of tables being turned by this feisty, southern Iowa woman.

Gail, the quiet advocate, was every bit as courageous when it came to speaking up for his residents. He reports that the food was good; they had a very good cook. Gail describes the dining hall changes they quickly instigated. “All the women from all over this four story building would come down to their dining room. All of them had to sit up high and eat off of a stool. We had a lot of residents with epilepsy and when they would have a seizure, a lot of times, they’d fall over. We were afraid they could easily just fall right off the stool. We had to get the Board of Supervisors to see that we needed chairs for the safety of the residents so they could sit up straight at the table without falling. We got all the chairs we needed.”

Gail and Rachel explained to the Board how to get the chairs and other needed supplies at a reasonable cost. The men’s state penitentiary in Fort Madison ran a business called “Iowa State Industries.” The inmates made oak furniture and rocking chairs. They also made bedspreads and draperies to match. County governments could buy the items to furnish the county homes. Gail and Rachel took some of the supervisors to tour the facility, located about 165 miles from Waterloo.

Rachel implemented many changes as quickly as she could. She proudly states, “We were the first county home in the state of Iowa that had a unit dosage system for medicine.“

Gail explains, “We learned all this through being at the state hospital and I went to Iowa City for Gerontology training and different things like that. They had classes at the University of Iowa and the Des Moines Area Community College in Ankeny for county employees to learn about care of the aging.”

Rachel was appalled at the manner in which the medicine was dispensed to the residents. “When they passed out medicine, the employees would put the pills in a spoon at their place at the table and then just walk away.

“One day I said, ‘Do you know what you’re putting in that spoon?’

“‘It’s the medicine they’re supposed to take,’ was the answer I got.

“I said, ‘Well, how do you know?’

“‘And they said, ‘Because it’s white.’

“So, I made a big board with all kinds of white pills and pink pills. I said, ‘Ok, pick a pill. They’re white. They’re pink. You pick one that you want to take.’ I said, ‘You think they’re going to take it? You want to take it? I’m not going to take it, not knowing what’s in it.’

“Then, I got two of these little wire cages with the hoops on the back with the medicine cups in it like nurses carried around. I fixed them up with the residents names on the cards on the back and what medicine they were supposed to take. The medicine was kept in the kitchen. I took one cupboard, made a stall and put everyone’s name on the bottle in the certain stall. Now the residents were far more likely to get the proper medications and dosage.”

The very next morning after Rachel had organized everyone’s medication, Gail was out of the building and the cook approached Rachel. She inquired of Rachel, “How’s your day started?”

Rachel replied, “You don’t even want to know!”

The cook said, “Well you better come down anyway.” She took Rachel to the basement and showed her what had happened.

Rachel recalls, “There were two male employees for the men’s side. They didn’t like the many changes that were occurring. One of the men had pulled out all the dividers and mixed up all the medications. According to the cook, the man had said, “Rachel and her damn smart ideas.”

Rachel wasted no time in calling the board members and told them, “We’re having a meeting in the morning and you better be here.”

When Gail and Rachel moved there in November, the board had requested that they keep the old employees until the first of the year. Rachel quickly took control by telling the guys, “We told the board we’d keep you guys till the first of the year, but we’re gonna do things they way we want them done and if you don’t want to go along, leave now or you’re going to get canned.” Rachel reports that they stayed, but not too long after the first of the year.

It didn’t take long for the residents to discover that the Fitzhughs were very concerned about their quality of life and making a difference for them. They quickly implemented positive changes and incorporated a great deal of community involvement in the County Farm.

  • Buck Powers, the plumber, brought out his tools and worked with Gail to make many improvements.
  • The Legion sponsored an annual Waffle Supper in connection with the Waterloo Dairy Cattle Congress.
  • The Quota Club, an early networking group of women, collected Christmas presents for the residents.
  • A family in town donated over 1000 ceramic forms when a local ceramic artist died. Rachel started a volunteer program for women who would help the residents make ceramics and sell them.  They used the proceeds, along with some donations, (no county funds used) to purchase a bus to haul residents to the Cattle Congress and about 100 miles to the University of Iowa basketball practices.
  • The volunteer program set up Bingo games and got community donations for prizes. They took the residents fishing and other recreational activities.
  • Winders Sports Shop donated fishing equipment and took the residents all over the county on fishing trips.
  • They went bowling on Fridays.
  • Fourth of July celebrations were special.
  • The Fitzhugh boys were in high school and brought several of their friends out to learn about life on the county farm.
  • Gail hosted a good old-fashioned hog roast during the World Series each year. One year, he pulled a tarp over a corn picker to keep everyone out of the rain.
  • Once, while in a coffee shop, Gail started a conversation with a fellow diner with a curved pipe in his mouth. Gail was telling the story of cutting everyone’s hair even though he didn’t have a license. It turned out that this man was head of the local barber college and thought it would be good experience for his students to do volunteer haircuts. Every Wednesday, they called ahead and asked what Rachel was serving for lunch. Depending on the menu, they had several students show up. It didn’t take Rachel very long to figure out their favorite meals. Gail started out with one barber chair and eventually increased to four.
  • Robert Wagner, a local pharmacist who worked at what was then called Medical Arts Pharmacy, now Miller Drug Town, was a lot of good help to them over the years.
  • Art students from the University of Northern Iowa, in nearby Cedar Falls, provided pictures to hang on the walls.

Gail says, “We’ve had a lot of good people help us.”

Rachel giggles with delight as she recalls, “The men’s side had big, white window sills about like this, no drapes, no pictures no nothing, one TV on two different rooms, just one, just row after row of rocking chairs. So, Gail and I took our own money, bought a bunch of clay pots and set them in the window and put rocks and plastic geraniums in them.”

Their loyal cook called again and said, “You want a good laugh today?”

Rachel wondered, “What now?”

The cook told her the men were watering the plastic flowers. Rachel explains, “Of course, there was a hole at the bottom of the pot, so the water would just run down onto the floor.  But they were so excited to have something to care for and some color that they didn’t notice. They missed having something to care for.”

This precious little woman, who needs extra oxygen, doesn’t run out of stories. She seems to be more delighted with each story, the next one building on the last.

“In the men’s building,” recalled Rachel, “was the barber room, where they had the barber chair. There was an older man who stayed in there and kept this little space clean. It was close to Christmas time and he said, ‘I want to ask you a question.’ I said, ‘Ok what do you want to know?’ He said, ‘Can I make a cardboard fireplace?’ I said, ‘Where are you going to get all your materials?’ He said, ‘My daughter will bring the materials.’

“He made the neatest looking fireplace out of red crape paper. It even had a mantle. I told him how nice it looked. He said, ‘Can I put something on the mantel?’ I said, ‘Sure!’ He said, ’What would you suggest?’ I said, ‘Whatever you want.’

“He was an old alcoholic. I should have known better. We gave a lot of tours when we first came. A group of church women came for a tour. We got to the basement and I said, ‘Oh wait I want you to see the mantel that this man made.’ It had an empty booze bottle sitting on the mantel. They looked at me like ‘What’s going on?’ I didn’t remove the man’s bottle.”

Rachel’s endless supply of stories goes on. “Then, the women’s building—Why? I don’t know—had bars on the window. I said to Gail, ‘That’s got to go.’ We didn’t ask; we just did it—had it done, rather. And the women were so happy! The same supervisor came to me one day and said, ‘Do you think that’s wise?’ I said, ‘Mr. Sage, you go in and tell the judge and the sheriff that if they’re so bad that they have to be in a place with bars, they better send them to jail or to the state institution. Don’t send them out here.’

Gail reminds her, “Did you tell her about the Black lady who yelled all the time?”

Rachel, with no shortage of oxygen, kept right on sharing. “This was before we took the bars off the window. When she’d see Mr. Sage drive up, she’d start screaming. I went over one day and I said “Why do you do that?’ She said, ‘I’ve gotta get out of here. I’ve gotta get outa here.’ I said ‘Why?’ She replied, ‘My daughter needs me, my daughter needs me.’ I said, ‘If I take the bars off the window, will you stop screaming?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ So, Mr. Sage drove up. He said, ‘I didn’t hear my lady scream today.’ I said, ‘No, because the bars are gone.’ We found out she was pimping for the daughter. When she went home we got the daughter. We got the daughter. We had fun.”

“Then, they had one of the rooms on the women’s side called the ‘day room.’ They had it locked throughout the day. I said, ‘Why?’ Well, one of the young girls that was there, her brother had run off, so they put her in this locked room so she wouldn’t run off, too. She was only 15 or 16 stuck in a locked room with mental and handicapped women, just because her brother had run off. ‘Well, we’ll change that in a hurry.’ So, I called Mr. Sage. I said, ‘You tell the judge and the sheriff not to send kids out here anymore.’”

While making a huge difference for people and helping people others weren’t willing to help, they had fun.

Rachel proudly tells one of their many success stories. “We hired a young girl, when she was just 17 years old and 37 years later, she retired. The first two years were really rough.  We just about fired her several times. She didn’t really want to be at work and pulled everything in the book on me.” Rachel is just strong willed enough that she became even more determined to have the upper hand. She thought to herself, “You devil, I’ll outlast you yet” and worked diligently at suggesting new ideas to keep her busy. Patience paid off and the county home was the work home for this young gal who stuck it out for 37 years. The Fitzhughs recently attended her retirement party.

Gail reports that they keep in touch with most of the old employees that are still living. He also explains, “you want to know that we only have about 2 county homes in the state of Iowa now. There was a time when we had 93 counties with county homes in Iowa. We were the first county home in the state of Iowa to have a social worker. It was here in Black Hawk County.”

How did they come about getting a social worker? Gail says, “I just hired her and then told the board about her afterwards.” Rachel comments, “They put up with a lot out of both of us.”

“We had good supervisors in both facilities,” Gail loyally reports. “I think we had only one stinker out of the bunch of them. We’ve always had good cooperation with the board, but we had to tell them what we wanted and what all the problems were.”

Gail shared about some of the residents working on the farm. “I had about 13 guys that would go across the road to the fields and work with Ralph, the farm boss. But then the state and the government got real edgy about the residents working and at a certain time, we couldn’t do that anymore.”

Government regulations took away the residents’ right to work. Instead of looking forward to a new day where they could enjoy working and having something to do to contribute to their community, they had to just wait around idle.

“Well, I changed that,” says Gail. “I was on the state legislative committee going to Des Moines. We started paying the ones that wanted to work and the supervisor finally went along with it. It wasn’t much. But, like Rachel said, she told them that we gotta go buy them clothes anyway, why not pay them the money to work. Let them have their own account and they can buy their own clothes.”

Now the people were earning and contributing at the same time. It was never a dull moment and Gail tells what happened next. “First thing, they wanted a canteen so they could spend their money. So we fixed a canteen, but we had to watch it because a lot of them would overdo. We’d take them to town and they’d buy their own clothes. We put a lot of people back into society by doing that.”

Rachel tells more, “We had the first half way house in the State of Iowa for the mentally ill.”

Gail explains, “We put a couple of folks each month into a few houses that the county had taken over due to unpaid property taxes. We hired a couple for each house to take care of the people and the home and gave them six residents each. I furnished them all the meat from the County Farm. They took care of them. We watched them too. Those managers are now working as social workers. The homes are all closed up now, but the people are all out living on their own.”

The Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier ran a story of Edith Richmond in their December 1, 2008 issue. Eddie was one of those individuals that the Fitzhughs took a stand for. They taught her the skills and provided the oversight so she could live successfully on her own.

The Lenox Time Table/Bedford Times Press October 15, 2008 issue told a sweet story about Harvey Quillin who served as Gail’s cattleman in Taylor County and ended up living in the county system his entire 85 years.

Rachel and Gail are so modest about the lives they have affected. They just take it all in stride. So many people experienced an entirely different quality of life due to the courageous and bold actions they took as advocates for change in the facilities they ran.

Gail tells about one of the several residents still living there after all these years. “She still calls me once a week.” Rachel chimes in, “She only has one niece living. That’s the only family she has. She came to us when she was in her 20s. Her mother had passed away and we wouldn’t let her dad take her home because he would abuse her.”

Gail says, “Her problems came from the environment where she was raised. She’s 66 years old now.”

There is an endless supply of the most amazing stories! Rachel tells about the time

county health care professionals picketed for union labor. Rachel and Gail wanted no part of it but got dragged in anyway. Rachel relates, “I was sitting in the office and a knock, knock, knock comes to the office. The deputy sheriff was standing in the office. He said, I‘m supposed to tell you to call personnel.’ The board had just hired a new personnel manager and I didn’t know him at all. I said ‘ok what’s the matter now?’

“He said, ‘Your farm boss is driving his tractor up and down the lane and it’s bothering the strikers out front.’ We knew they had talked ‘bout striking for union, but I didn’t know they were picketing out there. Well, maybe Ralph was messing with the strikers, but really wasn’t causing too much trouble.”

Rachel continues, “When the sheriff told me I was supposed to call personnel, I said I can’t. On top of everything else, the people who had come to black top our driveway had broken the telephone line. I let him know, ‘If you think I’m walking to the neighbors, which is a mile and a half away, just to make a phone call, you’d better think again. How ‘bout you get on your phone. You tell him if he wants to talk to me, he can come out here.’  So, the new personnel manager came out to give me a piece of his mind. I told him, ‘I don’t know you. I don’t take orders from you. If you have any complaints you go to the board.’ He wasn’t happy.”

Rachel tells about another one of their historical “firsts”: “And then we were a voting pole. Our area had always been strictly Republican. The year that Kennedy ran, a knock, knock, knock come on the door. There were two guys in business suits and all dolled up. They said ‘We’re gonna run a new telephone line to County home.’ I said, ‘No, no you’re not. I haven’t gotten any orders from the board to do this.’

“‘But we’re gonna do it.’ They insisted. I said ‘No, no you’re not, not till someone from the board tells me.’” This small-statured woman would not be intimidated by anybody claiming to be a high-powered county official nor any fancy dressed politicians!

Rachel goes on to explain, “The Democratic Party paid to have a line run in, a special line for that one night of the Presidential election. They ran it in and the two guys stayed the whole time. I kept telling them ‘You guys can’t go back there because that’s where the poll is. You have to stay out here, you know.’ Well, they’d go peek. And then someone would come out and I guess tell them how they voted. Then they’d call somebody and that was the first year that this voting area didn’t go completely republican. We had a lot of firsts.”

There are several stories around the use of the jail on site and the cooperation with the local County Sherriff. Stories ranging from the Marx murder case, where two sons of a local farm family had a dispute over who got the farm, to some onsite incidents when they had to use the jail.

One night, Rachel had to call the Sherriff when one of the Country View residents stabbed another. There was a racial dispute and one put a knife into the shoulder of a guy in a bathtub. This happened when both Gail and the farm boss were gone. Rachel tells, “So I went over and asked for his knife and he gave it to me. I said, ‘You sit here in the hall ‘til Gail comes.’ And he did. When Gail came, he got two more knives. Anyway, he had to take him down to the jail and lock him up ‘til the police came to get him. “

Rachel spoke up again, “In the late 70s somebody reported that one of our residents had walked up the road to the Marx farm. This wasn’t true at all, but all the evidence from this murder was at the county home in our jail there. One morning, they started to remodel the county home when we were gone. Joanne, the cook, knew the ins and outs of the whole business and she heard thump, thump, thump as they started remodeling where the jail was and she put a stop to it. They said they had their directions to do that, so she had to call the sheriff and they were able to preserve all this evidence stored in the jail.  There is a lot of history on those grounds.”

“We even got a new building put up,” says Gail. “We worked for several years to get this accomplished. We went down and took over the Bell Telephone Company. We got on the lines down there and called everybody. That was when Lynn Cutler was supervisor. She and I went around to different groups and explained everything. I guess you could say we tried to educate the voters. It rained all day and all night the day the bond issue came up for vote, but it still passed with a 95% yes. The biggest ever in the state of Iowa for a bond issue, so we got a new building!”

Rachel explains, “You understand that a lot of county homes weren’t like ours. Most of them were smaller and located in less populated areas. But all the county home managers networked. We all kept in touch in case something new happened.”

Gail emphasized the strong support system among the county home managers. In addition to calling each other to share news and ideas, they had an organizational structure of formalized networking. Gail naturally served as President. They had regular annual meetings and set up district meetings also. They aligned their districts with the existing county areas like the district judges, district supervisors, auditors, treasures, etc.

Rachel recalls a particular interesting story. “There was this couple that lived in… I forget the county.” Gail pitched in, “was Delaware County.”

Rachel continues, “Yeah. Bert called Gail and said, ‘Be on your feet, be alert. They’re going to come and stop you from using your own eggs.’ And Gail said ‘Why?’ He said, ‘I don’t know! Somebody got a wild hair I guess.’

“Anyway, the guy that was checking told Bert that he had to have a license and candle the eggs before he could use them. Bert asked where to get a book so he could study to do it and the man said, ‘I‘ve got one, but you can’t have it.’ The wife heard and invited the man to stay for lunch. While they were eating, Bert went and read the book as much as he could. When lunch was over, he said, “Have you got a test I can take now?’ The man said, ‘You can, yes, but do you think you can pass it?’ Bert said, ‘Well, can I try?’

“He passed the test, so he kept in the eggs business by candling his eggs. What they were doing was selling the eggs, as well as using them and now, he had a license to candle the eggs.”

Gail recalls when the farming part of the operation ceased. “Along about 1981, I really can’t tell you why, but the Government got so they didn’t want our residents helping around because it was too dangerous. When we milked, we’d sell cream beyond what we used. I guess we couldn’t keep up with all the sanitation and FDA regulations.”

Rachel explains that, initially, “because we weren’t a nursing facility, we really didn’t have a governing body. They didn’t have such a thing as custodial, so we were kind of on our own, except for the board. And then someone got the bright idea that they’d have custodial homes and we fell into that. Then we got more rules and regulations.”

They grew up surrounded by strong caring families. The Fitzhughs just minded their own business, worked hard and took good care of their “patients.”

What was gained from their giving?

Many people experienced a much-improved quality of life because of their efforts, but I have to say that the big winners were the Fitzhughs, who now look back at their lives, fulfilled! Although their days are slower now, they have a storehouse of adventures and memories that not only made it all worthwhile, but also fed them with the satisfaction of a life well lived!

As they consider where they will live next, realizing they will probably soon need to be in an assisted living environment, they wouldn’t rule out returning again to the county home. However, wherever they go, they want to stay together as a couple. When they started out, there were those who thought they were too close to make a marriage work.  From beginning to end, full circle on living a fulfilled life, Gail and Rachel have played and worked, laughed and cried together and fully intend to remain side by side.