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Doug Robinson: Many elderly in Utah have inspiring tales to tell

Published: Monday, Aug. 8 2011 11:42 p.m. MDT

J.D. King was living out his last days in a Bountiful nursing home when I found him last winter.

A small, frail man, he spent his days quietly, napping, listening to music and sifting through memories so rich they seem to be borrowed from a novel.

In a profile that was published in January, I noted that King appeared to be an ordinary man, no different than the other residents of the North Canyon Care Center. It was only when you saw a few news clippings and photos on the wall that you realized there was much more; it was only when you probed that you learned that he had spent the best years of his youth in high adventure, that he had embarked on a midnight ride through Nazi-occupied forests on a white stallion and daily walked side by side with the legendary Gen. George Patton and stared into the face of Stalin and sailed the Atlantic on the Queen Mary and ridden a tank onto Utah Beach in the D-Day invasion and into the Battle of the Bulge, that he had been in two of the most storied battles in the history of the world.

He was like Forrest Gump during the war, bumping into history at every turn.

King, who passed away a couple of weeks ago, never would have come to my attention if not for an email from Dennis Wolfley, the plant manager of the care center and a Vietnam vet who developed a close relationship with King. He would have been largely forgotten, and that's the point this story.

After reading King's profile in the Deseret News, Lance Hassell went to meet King personally. Hassell is regional vice president of Avalon Health Care, which owns nursing homes throughout the Intermountain West, including the North Canyon Care Center. After visiting with King, Hassell realized there must be other care-center residents who had lived extraordinary and accomplished lives but now were forgotten and cast aside.

Hassell decided to do something about it. Avalon hired Fuel Marketing to interview residents of their various care centers throughout the state to learn more about their lives. They will honor 14 of those residents at the first Avalon Life Journeys Honors Night at the Little America Hotel on Aug. 19, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. King also will be honored posthumously.

"These people were once young and vibrant and led interesting and accomplished lives," says Hassell. "People forget that. Just because they're in a care facility doesn't mean their lives are over. They need to be valued, respected and honored."

The interviews were conducted by Melinda Meier and Donna Foster, and one of their most memorable experiences was with Wolfley, who spoke in King's stead when the elderly man was recovering from an illness just a few days before he passed away.

"There wasn't a dry eye in the room when Dennis was talking," recalls Meier. "We could tell this could be our last opportunity to talk to J.D. before he passed away. We hoped he would be with us for the event. It was a big blow to us when we got a call that he passed."

Says Donna, "It wasn't just that interview, either; we talked to so many who have had amazing lives."

Along the way they met 79-year-old James Dean, who was a river guide in southern Utah, a professional photographer, an artillery officer in the Army and an archaeologist, and did all of this in just one lifetime. He was commissioned to explore potential Book of Mormon lands in Latin and South America and became a Mormon Indiana Jones. On one expedition, his expedition got stuck in the jungle because of low-water conditions and had to hike out while carrying their canoes. On the trip out, Dean encountered cannibals who wound up helping him.

Donna and Melinda also met Neil Kalm, a former professional boxer who raised pigeons, played football and raced his 1952 Ford Coupe on State Street, and Doris King, who spent three years with the Peace Corps in Africa. Then there was 90-year-old Allen Robbins, who became an Army Air Forces pilot and led the training of some 80 other fliers in the California desert at the age of 22. Later, he became a sculptor who produced, among other works, a bust of John F. Kennedy. The original was given to the Kennedy Memorial (a duplicate resides in the Salt Lake County building). He also rubbed shoulders with singer John Denver and aviation pioneer Bill Lear.

Then there was Ula Cobb, who was born in 1908 in Denmark and traveled with her parents to Ellis Island and then on to Brigham City. As a child on the frontier, she drove teams of horses, survived a face-to-face encounter with a bear, swam in the Great Salt Lake, rode horses and hunted coyotes — experiences she can draw upon to entertain her 50 great-grandchildren.

"This was a very loving way of seeing these peoples as elders who deserve to be loved and respected," concludes Donna.

Email: drob@desnews.com

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