Soldiers’ Home Holyoke

Uncategorized October 5, 2013

Five days remain on my stay at the Soldiers’ Home.  When I set up three weeks ago, I knew it was going to be an interesting experience given the contrast from the public library where’d I’d spent the previous four months.    When John Paradis, the Home’s public affairs person first took me around the facility my initial reaction, once further into the interior, was surprise at the number of men in wheelchairs.  For every resident walking, there were ten either in wheelchairs or using walkers.   It was a shocking contrast to the youth and energy of the Amherst public library.

Once set up with my easel, in the lobby,  one by one, residents trickled over to look at my paintings and ask questions about the work.  Those who came down were a fraction of the three hundred-plus residents.   After doing portraits of two of the veterans, there was more of a buzz.  I had heard Eugene “Fitz” Fitzenry was bragging about his portrait, in his own words, “trying to drum up more business for you.”  One by one, I met more residents.   Some conversed easily.  Some were suffering from some level of dementia, living in the loop of their ever-closing life.

Sam Lococo,  a gentleman I’d met shortly after arriving pops by every other day.    His short frame topped with a wonderful cap of white hair, waves whenever he catches my eye.  Always full of praise, we chat for a short bit before he wanders off  with the aid of his walker.  “I’ll leave you alone,” he says.  “Come back anytime,” I always answer.   I”m glad he does.

What strikes me daily as I sit at the easel is the contrast of these residents to their former selves in painted form  that hang on the temporary wall, six portraits facing my easel.   How is it that these once vibrant warriors now exist as remnants of that long-ago war.  I look into eyes that have lost their lustre.  Today, for whatever reason, more residents stopped by to talk.  One of them, Douglas Herring of Amherst, “eighty-six and a half years old,” he says, adding: “I have to make the most of the count” came by to talk.  Moving his walker to the couch set against the temporary wall, he shifted and sat down.   We talked about his  life growing up in Amherst, in simpler times and what the war did for all of us.  He is saddened by how the world has changed, angry by the lack of compassion in the world.

“We were lucky to be born when we were,” Douglas says.  Gesturing toward the other end of the lobby, he adds: “It’s not a bad way to go being here.  I’m not longing to stay.   I’m not trying to break any records.  I’ve had a good life.”   His candidness is sobering.   But I appreciate his honesty.   The truth is that the Soldiers’ Home is a place where old soldiers come to die.  Sadly they do fade away.  Fitz had told me when we first met, he doesn’t try to make friends.  “It’s too hard losing people you know.”  In my short stay, I’ve been witness to several ceremonies in the lobby, honoring the flag-draped gurney wheeled into the lobby, honoring yet another fallen soldier, airman, sailor or marine.

I will face that loss when I depart on Wednesday.  I didn’t think emotional attachments would happen in such a short time.  I will be away from the east coast for the next six months.  It saddens me to realize that in all probability, some of these friends I will never see again.  What will carry me forward are the words Douglass Herring left me with, shaking my hand:  “Keep doing what you’re doing.  It would be a loss if you stopped.”



For over three decades my profession was as an author and illustrator of children's books. Firefighters A to Z (McElderry Books/S&S) was chosen as a "Best Book" by the NY Times (2000). Over 100 titles are attached to my name. In 2011 my life changed the moment I saw a photo of a WW II fighter pilot. Nineteen year old Griffin Holland, P-47 pilot stood erect on the wheel of his plane, staring off into the distance, cocky as all get out. The need to paint that photo and Griff's tearful reaction to it as an 88 year old man set this journey in motion.

Comments 8

    • wwtwotravelingportraitexhibit says on October 6, 2013

      Thanks Deb. Leaving the Women’s Memorial was the best thing. Now into the real world, I’m discovering so many wonderful people and hearing great stories. I won’t, however, miss the anti-war diatribes on my guest book written by the fascist liberal, anti-war idiots in Amherst. Sheesh. Happy trails to you as well.

  1. Chapin Kaynor says on October 5, 2013

    Chis–my Dad was at the Soldiers Home in Holyoke when he died in 2010. I got to know some of the residents and all you say is true. There is great disparity in soundness of mind and soundness of body and often many layers of time and defense. They come from all walks of life. The site is wonderful but the facility is badly outdated. I hope the trains still run in the basement. –Chapin

    • wwtwotravelingportraitexhibit says on October 5, 2013

      As an outsider, I spent little time inside the bowels of that place. It’s way too depressing seeing in some, the mindless stares. But the staff I’ve talked with seem very committed as is the new public affairs person. Paul Barabani is the director. Was he there when your dad was? Sadly there’s no getting around the fact that it’s a place to transition out of this world. Hopefully things are being updated. I will have to ask (and see) about the trains. Someone whose father also died while there said to me “I’d rather sail out into the sea and pull the plug.” I kept thinking of her words yesterday while listening to Mr. Herring talk.
      Be well.

  2. Mark Hunsberger says on October 5, 2013

    Your work there is very meaningful and a gift to those there. Your retelling is also meaningful, a gift to those of us here. You must be in awe of how this keeps evolving. See you in CA!

    • wwtwotravelingportraitexhibit says on October 6, 2013

      Hey Mark
      Thanks for the nice comment. I am in awe. So many wonderful people I’ve met. I am sad to be leaving the Soldiers’ Home after a much too short visit. It wasn’t planned so I’m glad I was able to squeeze it in. Looking forward to hooking up.

  3. Floyd A Thompson (Tom) says on October 5, 2013

    Nice post. Very touching witness of these fine heros of our past. I see this in the senior companion vet I work with too. Linda and I wish you well in the West. We are in CA for 8 days now and needed time together. We will miss your visits and hope you will return next year for another reunion with us here in VA hunt horse country.

    • wwtwotravelingportraitexhibit says on October 6, 2013

      Hi Tom

      Thanks for your nice post. Of course you can relate to working with older people. It’s only been the last week more residents of the Soldiers’ Home have ventured down off the second floor to talk but there have been, as you read, some meaningful conversations.
      I’ll be in VA from the 15th-25th so maybe we can share a glass of wine.
      Enjoy your own travels. We will hook up again.


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