From 4:30 to 9 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the last 10 years, 79-year-old Konrad Bald has walked the line at Buehler YMCA in Palatine.
He makes his way through the sweating masses, greeting everyone by name. The retired labor-relations executive and the "Y's" longest-standing part-time employee offers just the right words, spoken at the right moment to challenge, comfort and dare regulars into action.
Whenever he hears about someone who needs "care" he sprints over to a little black book he keeps in his gym bag and adds the person to his prayer list. When Brody, an elderly blind man and a regular, marches in the door with his cane, Konrad is immediately at his side, escorting him for the next half-hour from machine to machine and jesting, "I've got ya next to a really pretty lady today." For others, it is advice: "He who rests, rusts."
Few 40-somethings can keep up his pace on the chin-up bar. Fewer could keep up with his off-"Y"-duty volunteering regimen. He's a weekly food bank volunteer and the top fundraiser in the country for the CROP organization, raising more than $150,000 in recent years. As a teenager growing up as one of four children living with their single mother in postwar Germany, Bald had to beg for food. That's why he has made it his mission to cultivate compassion, whether it is helping others reach their exercise goals at the Y, or volunteering at hospitals, shelters for the homeless, food pantries and prisons.
This past Sunday, friends and fans gathered in the YMCA lobby for a BBQ in his honor. For health reasons, he is retiring.
An unofficial minister of "care," I realized Sunday that it was this gentle elderly man with a big heart who taught me the meaning of caring, and I thought about the irony - the elderly man who taught me to care for my elderly parents.
I can't imagine my morning workouts at the Y, the 5 a.m. vigils that became my lifeline and "me" time during the last five years. I can't imagine them without Konrad. But, I will incorporate his Rx-for-Empathy into my life workout routine that I know for certain.
Lessons I've learned from Konrad's caring endeavors:
- On what it takes to care: You have to have empathy to really be able to put yourself in someone else's shoes and feel how they feel.
- On small acts: Caring is all about just being there to let someone talk. You reach out; let them know you care, and then listen.
- On mattering to others. When a room brightens when you enter, you matter.
- On reaching out and caring: Be gracious and generous and aware of others.
- On challenging yourself. Continue to raise the bar and what you do for others.
- Actions speak louder than words.
Five years ago, I stepped into a gym to try to get physically fit. But, my reward was the friendship with an elderly man who taught me how to pump it up for others. I will miss him dearly.
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