Bill Stewart sits alert in his wheelchair, his gaze riveted on Midway Drive.
Bill Stewart, 75, prepares for his newspaper-delivery rounds at St Elizabeth Care Center. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins)
“Oh, oh, oh!” he says, his voice rising in excitement as he points out the window.
Then, with a push of his left leg, he swivels the chair toward the doors of St. Elizabeth Care Center to await the daily delivery of mail.This is where you’ll find Bill every mail day — it is his routine, the regular start of his day.
As the postal worker swaps the incoming mail for the outgoing, Bill is right there to take charge of his mission.
He balances the plastic bin on his lap, then trundles down the hall to his first stop at the care center’s administration offices.
Then he pauses at the office door of Erica Jaensch, who cheers for the mail delivery.
And he’s off again — down the long hallway until he hangs a left and heads to the main administration wing.
He sets the mail down, to be sorted later by a member of the staff, and then he makes his daily rounds.
At each door he slows to a stop and hails his greeting of “no, no, no” — delivered in a lilting, happy tone.
“Hey Bill!” comes floating from every office.
This man, whose words are few due to a massive stroke 12 years ago, is pretty famous out here from his daily tours through the care center and adjoining hospital.
“They all know Mr. Bill,” Jaensch says.
He has another job too — every weekday afternoon he awaits the arrival of the newspaper so he can make another set of delivery rounds.
The staff out here help residents get involved any way they can, whether that means delivering the mail, like Bill, or simply changing the date on a bulletin board.
“The role of care centers in society has changed a lot over the past 20 years,” says Stephen Miles, center administrator. “Since the advent of alternate types of care, such as assisted living and adult foster care, the niche for nursing facilities has become smaller and more specialized.”
These days a nursing home isn’t necessarily a final stop — Miles said the average stay these days is about six months, as compared to 18 months 15 years ago.
“We get people rehabilitated and back to where they came from in a few weeks or a couple of months,” he said. “Sometimes we feel like a revolving door.”
“He was a farmer in Eagle Valley, just like the rest of us,” says Veda Knoblauch, who has known Bill for 50 years.
Bill, though, likes a lot of jobs.
“He got a job driving school bus,” says his wife, Thelma.
The bus he drove carried kids from Richland to Halfway — and he did this for more than 30 years, as well as drive bus for the athletic teams and other school activities.
“He was always really happy,” says Krischele Hampton, who rode Bill’s bus from elementary school to her high school years. “He’s a neat guy.”
Marvin Schaber of Richland was a bus driver and head of maintenance during the same years as Bill.
“He was just good to everybody — just a well-liked person,” he said.
Nothing’s changed, in that regard.
“When he sees someone he knows, his face just lights up,” Schaber said.
Even a stranger can quickly become a friend, and win a tour of Bill’s most traveled pathways at St. Elizabeth.
First stop: his room and an introduction to his two parakeets — one bright blue, one bright green.
His room looks out on the center’s courtyard, and Bill’s face lights up every time a bird swoops past his window.
He next rolls down to the physical therapy room to demonstrate exercises that keep his arms strong — he’ll even flex, just to make you smile.
His personality shines through his near silence.
“A happy-go-lucky guy,” says his friend Jerry Dennis. “I never saw Bill agitated or mad.”
Dennis also drove school bus, and even helped Bill out on the farm by milking cows when the Stewarts left town.
In addition to the bus driving, dairy, and service station work, Bill picked up milk from the local dairies.
“In 10-gallon cans. That was a long time ago,” Dennis says. “He did everything he could do to raise his family. Anything he could make a buck at, he’d do.”
He and Dennis took turns driving over Halfway grade.
“It was his turn,” Dennis says of a day about 12 years ago. “I ran my route and went home.”
Bill’s stroke hit when he was driving down into Halfway, and he somehow managed to keep the bus in control.
“He could think, but couldn’t hardly move,” Dennis says.
The children didn’t suspect anything was amiss as they jumped off and headed for school.
But his fellow bus drivers wondered as they watched the bus sit, with no sign of Bill.
“Those guys were waiting for Bill to come have coffee,” Dennis says.
They finally called him on the CB.
“He said, ‘I’m going fishing.’ That’s all he could say — and they knew something was wrong,” he says. “He got that old bus over there on instinct. It was really amazing.”
“He drove bus for so many years and loved those kids,” Thelma Stewart said. “He knew that’s what he had to do.”