Jim Sheeler has no use for celebrity. He is drawn to “regular people, whose names have never been in the paper.”
So when the quiet journalist left Colorado in 2010 and took a job in Cleveland, he went looking for a font of stories he might connect to students of his new employer, Case Western Reserve University. Toggling around the web, Sheeler happened upon the Eliza Bryant Village, the nation’s oldest continually operating African-American nursing home. It had grown since 1897 to be the largest employer in nearby Hough.
“In nursing homes you have people with great stories, time to tell them and stories that would otherwise be lost,” Sheeler told a packed room in Clark Hall Thursday afternoon, assembled to get a taste of wine and cheese and what the students had discovered.
Sheeler, 43, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for his newspaper coverage of Colorado families of soldiers killed in Iraq. He gives off a restless, earnest energy — some of the cemetery workers in Colorado nicknamed him Harry Potter, a nod to his dark, oval glasses and boyish manner. He subscribes to the Joan Didion school of fading-into-the-background reporting.
He began his presentation with Eliza Bryant resident Andrew Bailey, who quickly deflated the interloper’s nifty idea. “The old man told me he didn’t want us to know his story and my heart sank,” Sheeler said. “He was very skeptical about these kids from Case Western and this professor who had come from Colorado and hadn’t known where Hough was until six weeks ago. I realized he was right. We hadn’t earned it.”
So Sheeler and his students slowed down and got acquainted with Bailey. Eventually, he granted them permission to tell the story of Mrs. Bailey, who lived in the dementia unit some 220 steps from her husband’s Eliza Bryant apartment. Wearing an Ohio State sweatshirt and a handsome mustache, Bailey, 77, eventually invited the students to his apartment, and to film his much-trod route to see his wife. Bailey told his visitors that “she changed my life completely,” and taught him compassion. He showed the students his old fishing license, on which he had written the date he took his last drink.
“This was not just a love story,” Sheeler said of the deepening narrative, “this was a story about compassion — the compassion Mrs. Bailey taught him, and the compassion he showed her in the end.”
When the professor delivered an unexpected twist to the couple’s final days, many in the audience were fighting tears. The mood lightened with the next segment, a piece on “The Misfits,” the bowling team at Eliza Bryant that assembles for rousing games of Wii competition. “I tries to keep these bowlers in line,” team captain Delores Bowden said. “We talk a whole lot of trash in there . . . tease and play.”
Eliza Bryant Village opened as the Cleveland Home for Aged Colored People, the first nonreligious institution sponsored by African Americans in the city, according to the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Eliza Bryant herself was born into slavery in North Carolina, but became a free resident of Cleveland. She was alarmed by the suffering of the elderly, many of whom were freed slaves turned away from the segregated institutions of the day. Bryant campaigned for years to raise money for the first home, which began with no gas, furnace or bath at 284 Giddings St. John D. Rockefeller gave some of the initial start-up cash.
“It’s really been remarkable how they’ve grown and changed,” said Robert E. Eckardt, executive vice president of the Cleveland Foundation. “We’ve been involved for a long time. Our $750,000 grant in 1981 was critical to Eliza Bryant to move from a relatively small, old-fashioned facility into a new era.”
Eckardt said the foundation and other partners understood that enhancing a high-quality facility in the inner city was vital to Cleveland, its residents and families, and all those who use the multi-purpose senior center. Sheeler said that importance is made concrete through the residents’ stories, as he explained in the Baker-Nord sponsored session January 31.
Students, who are encouraged to record their own reactions as part of a sophisticated narrative format, can learn about Medicaid and end-of-life questions. But they also have a window on wisdom. “How do we learn to take care the way Mr. Bailey did, and the way Mrs. Bailey taught him?,” Sheeler asked.
“As one gets older, it’s easy to feel invisible,” one woman in the audience responded. “You are giving visibility to people who don’t have it.”
Watch one of the videos at the link.