Spring brings along a warmth to your soul and the refreshing of your spirit. With the longer days and warmer temperatures, we feel the embrace of nature in a familiar revival. How fitting that since 1963 the fifth month of the new year has been designated Older Americans Month.
Dating back to 1963, President John F. Kennedy along with the National Council of Senior Citizens designated Senior Citizens Month in 1963. President Gerald Ford signed the proclamation on Older Americans Month in 1976.
Many of our lives have been impacted by the hug of a grandparent or a generous smile greeting us during a family visit, and in the month of May we are able to express our gratitude and shine a light on the countless contributions those retirees, grandparents, great grandparents, neighbors, colleagues, friends, and family all have had on our communities.
This year for the 57th anniversary of Older Americans month the theme is Make Your Mark. Across the nation the incredible work of our elders, most often volunteer work, is celebrated and fully recognized as a crucial part of the fabric of our communities.
According to the U.S. Census, in 2019 Chautauqua County had a population of nearly 127,000 people, of which 20.1% were 65 years of age or older. That compares to the whole of New York State which has a 16.4% elderly population. With golden agers all around us, it is simple to overlook their wonderful contributions to our society.
You may recognize them from church, fundraising events, catering deliveries, from the supermarket, your neighborhood, voting, or even from a night at the theater. From checking your show tickets, to aiding you in finding your seats, being there to answer your questions, and fully prepared with knowledge of the performances, to even cleaning up long after the audience has left the theater, these are some of the many roles that our seniors take on. These often-overlooked volunteers are crucial in your theater experience or in many other venues.
Virginia “Ginny” and Dick Bremer may look more familiar to you in their red coat uniforms, but I guarantee that you have interacted with them if you have taken in a performance at any of our local theaters. For the past 28 years ushering at countless performances and venues, the Bremers have had a warm smile as they have assisted you and thousands of others in a local theater experience.
“People get to know you around town and they say, ‘You’re the red coat guy!’ Mr. Bremer chuckled. The idea to create the red coat ushering team flourished 28 years ago when the Bremers joined a small ushering group at the Reg Lenna Civic Center, now the Reg Lenna Center for the Arts.
Dick recalled a conversation sparking the idea for their bright uniforms, saying, “Let’s see if we can get the girls and guys to all wear red coats.” Sure enough, the change worked incredibly well. Their ushering team expanded from eight ushers to around 30 dedicated individuals, most of whom were our cherished golden agers.
Ginny Bremer extremely proudly proclaimed, “We had very dedicated people,” and that these dedicated people turned into a large group of friends “with many good memories.”
It is very easy to see how cherished the memories are from the years donning their red coats as the Bremers laughed and shared these stories. There is a running list that they both have been creating over the years of famous people that they have worked with in some capacity. Plus, one of the aspects of assisting at these performances is getting to view the show. Mr. Bremer recounted how he was incredibly blown away by a performance from the Glenn Miller Orchestra; “Now that’s my kind of music!”
“We were very routine,” mentioned Ginny. “We told our ushers what to do in emergencies, look for the exits. I would brief them on what the show was and we used to clean up the theater before we left.”
Dick and Ginny Bremer have been residents of Chautauqua County their whole lives, both growing up in Dunkirk, N.Y. and moving south to Jamestown in 1972.
Not only are they very proud of their work as ushers in our community, but they have so much love for, and will assist with anything possible to help their daughter, Vicki McGraw, who is the owner at Elegant Edibles Catering in Jamestown.
With their daughter and family members working at the catering company it gives them more time to create cherished memories and of course, plenty of hilarious inside jokes. Ginny will work a few full days per week in assisting with whatever is needed as Dick takes part in deliveries of the food.
The energy is abundant and a drive to make a positive impact on others is evident as Mrs. Bremer stated, “We fill up our time. There are other things that we would like to do. You must be careful you don’t want to overextend yourself.”
It would be easy to relax and live a sedentary lifestyle, but with the Bremers, they are ready to keep “plugging away,” as Dick repeatedly claims. They are happily on-call, according to Ginny. “If Vicki calls and needs help, we’ll do it.”
It is apparent that their work with the community at the theater and their time spent with family at Elegant Edibles warms their hearts. Our community is infinitely better from their efforts in giving back to us so graciously.
In the northern portion of Chautauqua County, RosaLee Owen, a Dunkirk resident since 1955, has been a staple in the community as a volunteer for many organizations as well as an employee for the County Board of Elections. “I think it is important to participate in our communities in whatever way we can,” Mrs. Owen said. As a familiar face in the community, she has been spotted as an Election Inspector; undertaking various leadership roles at the former Disciples of Christ Church and now at St.John’s United Church of Christ; previous work with the Relay for Life in Dunkirk, knitting prayer shawls for Circles of Love, and ushering at the Fredonia Opera House or SUNY Fredonia’s various performance spaces.
Not all the work that our senior population does is noticeable to the general public or for people who know or are related to the volunteers. For example, RosaLee Owen knits prayer shawls with friend Josie Christopher who has been knitting like a whirlwind for numerous years. She states that she “has received very nice thank you notes from those who received the shawls. Some I know, some I do not.”
While excelling at knitting, recently she started crocheting again to create baby items for the St. Gianna Molla Outreach Center in Fredonia.
Another community activity where many of our golden agers assist is in the election process. Whenever you go to the polls, you will notice many senior citizens effortlessly guiding you throughout the voting process. These retirees often look forward to the election process to catch up with their friends while enduring the incredibly tedious work and long hours of Election Inspectors. As they spend the day working, they can socialize briefly with community members and work with their cherished colleagues.
Mrs. Owen has been an Election Inspector for the past four years and has assisted at different voting sites in the city of Dunkirk. She spoke about her experiences, indicating that she has “met very nice people. I get to see folks that I do not get to see very often.”
A cause dear to Mrs. Owen is the Relay for Life where she was on the steering committee for almost six years in a financial capacity. Assisting in such a vital cause for our community is a shared value among our senior population. Many of them are behind the scenes passionately working to make these worthwhile events a success.
As a follower of the Christian faith, Mrs. Owen has spent many years as a dedicated church congregation member. Starting at the Disciples of Christ Church in Dunkirk before its closure, she gladly put in countless hours as a teacher, elder, and secretary. While currently attending St. John’s United Church of Christ in Dunkirk, she has served two full terms on the church council. She also oversees the collection and delivery of food that is collected from the congregation every month for the Rural Ministry.
Similar to the Bremers, Mrs. Owen is a very active team member of the usher corps at the Fredonia Opera House and Rockefeller Arts Center at SUNY Fredonia.
When asked about her duties as an usher over the many years, beginning in the 1980s, she mentioned similar impactful functions as the Bremers mentioned, relating to their duties as red coat ushers. “We take tickets, pass out programs and make sure the theaters are cleaned up afterward, but we also have to be aware of the exits, and protocols for a fire or if someone becomes ill.”
If you read over that list of duties taken on by a volunteer you have to say “wow!” Those are tasks that are so crucial to your safety and experience at theater events. If you see these ushering crews scanning your tickets, you know that you are in capable hands, no matter the venue.
Being out and socializing is an incredibly important aspect of a healthy and well-balanced life. As we are all finding out through this pandemic, it is very detrimental to your spirit when you cannot socialize as often as you would like with friends and family.
Reaching back to an astute comment from Mrs. Bremer, “If you’re sociable, you’re out doing things and seeing people; it makes you a more interesting person. I think being active as we age is important. I know I’m healthier and I sleep really well because I’m tired.”
When listening to Mrs. Bremer speak about how she is hoping for the next opportunity to usher at an event, it is clear to hear the disappointment in her voice, knowing that events are constantly being postponed due to the pandemic. Mr. Bremer mentioned how they miss going out for their coffee after shopping at the store. These simple social interactions are currently absent from the lives of our elder population.
Maybe we can take this moment while so many of us are out of work to learn from our elders and give back to our community. If you are creative, try to knit, crochet, or create something that another one of your community members could value. Donate food to organizations that are collecting, even share a story about a local small business.
But most importantly, let’s all thank someone each day from our senior community. Give a relative a call. Write your neighbor a letter. Wave and smile at them as you walk through your neighborhood. Type up an email, because yes, they do know how to exchange emails.
As we start to wrap up another month and year of celebrating our Older Americans, a thank you is not enough, but it is a start. So, thank you to Virginia and Dick Bremer and RosaLee Owen for all that you have done throughout the decades for our communities.
And to the countless other seniors that are out there behind the scenes “plugging away,” we thank you all so very much.