Each year, American Profile asks readers to send in heartwarming stories about ordinary people doing thoughtful deeds without expecting recognition or acknowledgement in return. It’s our privilege to share a few of our favorites.
Lessons in life
Six months after being diagnosed with cancer, Shelia Madsen got a phone call from Julia Sperring saying she’d heard that Madsen had received a dulcimer for Christmas. Being acquaintances, Sperring, 81, invited Madsen, 67, to join her dulcimer class.
“Julia has a way of making you feel you are doing a favor for her when she is actually doing something for you,” says Madsen of her dulcimer teacher, who charges nothing for her classes and even loans students an instrument if they need one.
Now, every Tuesday afternoon, Madsen is one of about a dozen students, ranging in age from 10 to 80, who take lessons in a renovated hog barn on the Sperring family farm in Live Oak, Fla. (pop. 6,480).
“The youngest to the oldest have found joy and healing in the music,” says Madsen, who now is cancer-free. Even more special, though, are the experiences shared across generations under the watchful tutelage of Sperring, a retired telephone company worker who began playing the dulcimer at age 72.
“All of this has happened because Julia lives every day as a celebration of life,” Madsen says. “Although she has just gone through her second bout of cancer, she still looks on every moment as an opportunity to do something for someone. She is a gracious, caring lady who thinks she is giving us lessons in music, but we know we are getting lessons in life.”
Take my keys
While working her way through a community garage sale in Channahon, Ill. (pop. 7,344), Sharon Kuzel and her husband, Paul, came upon a blue flowered Ethan Allen couch that caught their fancy. It was only $10, and the Kuzels quickly snapped up the bargain and thanked the owner. But that was just the beginning of their serendipitous transaction.
“With a sleeping toddler in our SUV, we tried several ways of maneuvering the couch (into the vehicle) but just couldn’t make it fit,” Kuzel recalls. “That’s when the owner reached into his pocket and handed us the keys, saying, ‘Here, you can use my truck.’”
The Kuzels, who recently had moved to nearby Minooka, Ill. (pop. 3,971), from Nashville, Tenn., were dumbfounded. “He had never laid eyes on us before. He didn’t ask where we lived. His only request was to put a couple dollars of gas into it. He even helped us load and secure the couch in his truck and watched us drive away. He never asked for a cell phone number or to leave a driver’s license or anything.”
The couple carefully drove home, unloaded the couch and gassed up the truck before returning it safely to the man’s driveway.
“It’s hard to comprehend that people like this still exist in this day and age,” says Sharon Kuzel, who never learned the man’s name. “It felt like an act out of a longtime gone. It was so simple and trusting.”
Mary Shanahan was scanning her community newspaper in North Bend, Neb. (pop. 1,213), when she read that the old stage curtain was being replaced in the auditorium at North Bend Central High School and would be sold to the highest bidder.
Shanahan knew the 18-by-50-foot orange velour curtain “could be recycled into something wonderful,” so she contacted Carol Wiebold, leader of a ladies sewing circle at St. Peters Lutheran Church, where about a half-dozen women quilt religiously every Thursday morning.
“I told them this curtain’s big and heavy, but it could be cut into some nice warm quilts,” Shanahan recalls. “She called me back and said, ‘Yep, we’ll tackle it!”
After placing a winning bid of a few dollars, it took five adults to roll up and lift the curtain into the back of a pickup truck. The ladies went to work and produced almost three dozen soft, warm quilts, which were donated to the Orphan Grain Train, a Christian volunteer network based in Norfolk, Neb. (pop. 23,516), that helps poor people around the world.
“It’s a good feeling,” Wiebold says of the group’s bright orange sewing project. “It’s something that could have been thrown out, but it ended up doing good for someone.”
On Valentine’s Day weekend, residents of Hotel Beaumont, a retirement home in Beaumont, Texas, received a special delivery of hundreds of roses from the nearby First United Methodist Church and the flowers were distributed to each of the home’s 110 elderly residents.
Not to be outdone, some of the seniors decided to take the extra roses outside and share them with passersby at a busy street corner. “We handed out roses for hours, loving every minute,” says Nancy K. Resendez, resident services director of Hotel Beaumont.
The story did not end there. One woman driving by had not received a Valentine’s card in years and was so moved to get a rose that, the next day, she brought cards for all the residents. Other recipients brought teddy bears and candy.
“They were so touched by our act of kindness. Now some of these people still come and visit our retirement home because they’ve made this neat connection,” Resendez says. “The trickle effect is amazing!”
When new neighbors moved next door in 2003, June Spielman was apprehensive. Would they be friendly? Noisy? Easy to get along with like the previous owners?
Four years later, Spielman, 90, of West Bend, Wis. (pop. 4,834), says she needn’t have worried. “They were the best thing that had happened to me since I became a widow seven years earlier,” she says of her neighbors Brad and Cherie Lenk.
A week before their first Christmas in the neighborhood, the Lenks rang Spielman’s doorbell holding a small evergreen tree just right for her home. They’ve brought her one every Christmas since, insisting on trimming it with different decorations each year.
That’s not all. Even though both Brad and Cherie work long hours at their jobs and are busy with daughter Marissa, 13, and son Jonathon, 4, the Lenks often share their meals and include Spielman in their holiday celebrations. Cherie has taken her to the hospital when needed and, if a light bulb in the ceiling needs replacing, Brad is there to help.
“In general, I am an independent individual, but Brad and Cherie know I am elderly and live alone. They have it in their hearts to watch out for me,” Spielman says.
For their part, the Lenks insist that they are the ones with the good neighbor. “Neither of us have grandparents living, so just having June around is special,” Cherie says. “She’s such a sweet, intelligent lady and, at 90, is so vibrant and involved, with so many wonderful stories to share. She inspires us.”
Declaration of Independence Award
When Gordon Christensen was a boy, his plumber father handed out quarters to children just for fun. “I thought that was pretty nice, and it made an impression,” recalls Christensen, now 74 and retired from the U.S. Air Force in Kaysville, Utah (pop. 20,351).
Christensen decided to build on his dad’s formula when the $2 bill was reintroduced in 1976. He rewards people for good deeds with one of the bills bearing the image of Thomas Jefferson, his fav orite president, and calls the prize his Declaration of Independence Award.
Christensen puts each bill in a plastic sleeve with a label: “You just won the Declaration of Independence Award,” and always keeps a few handy. “If I see someone who I think did something outstanding, I’ll give them one and say to them, ‘This isn’t a lot, but I just want you to know that I appreciate what you did.’”
The reaction is surprising. “People really seem to appreciate it,” he says. “A lot of them don’t want to spend it. They keep it as a souvenir, and some kids even put it in their scrapbook.”
Christensen figures he’s given away thousands of dollars over the years. “I don’t go out looking for people to give them to. I just try to notice small things, especially with children.”
Like when a little girl gave her coat to her shivering younger sister; a teenager who brought the house down singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at a ballgame; a businessman who helped change a flat tire; or people going on church mission trips. In addition, he gives the $2 bills to kids celebrating birthdays and also leaves them for tips at restaurants.
“It’s kind of become a hobby for me,” says the gregarious father of four grown children, who would never consider letting anyone underwrite his award. “It wouldn’t be any fun if somebody else was funding it.”