Dick Schirmacher was playing piano at the weekly worship at the Good Samaritan Society in Robbinsdale when the service was interrupted for an announcement that he had been voted the volunteer of the year.
He smiled, nodded politely to acknowledge the news and went back to playing.
It certainly was a nice accolade, but not one that came as a complete surprise. After all, he’s at the center three times a week, and when he isn’t playing piano, he’s doling out hugs for the residents, complimenting their outfits and sharing small talk.
Then he found out that he’d have to make an acceptance speech in front of 2,000 people,
“Suddenly I’m thinking, ‘Schirmacher, this is a lot bigger deal than you realize,’ ” he said.
He wasn’t being named volunteer of the year at the center, which is what he had thought, “This was for the entire state. I had no idea.”
Schirmacher, 77, is a retired music teacher who led the choir at Carl Sandburg Junior High in Golden Valley for 33 years “and loved every day of it.” He also volunteers twice a week at the Bibles for Missions thrift store in Robbinsdale.
In his acceptance speech, he quoted the biblical admonition that it is more blessed to give than to receive, concluding, “I’ve had my socks blessed off me so many times at Good Sam” (as it’s casually called).
His award, which came from the Care Providers of Minnesota, created something of a dilemma for him: He loves bragging about the places he works, the work they do and the other people who work there, but getting him to blow his own horn is impossible.
“He tends to forget things on purpose,” said Cheri Millette, administrative assistant at Good Sam. “When we sent in the [award] nomination, there was no question about him winning. He’s just fabulous.”
While Schirmacher knows all the residents, staff members and even the therapy dogs by name, he has formed a special bond with Tony Hightower. The 37-year-old is battling Huntington’s disease, a genetic disorder that relentlessly robs victims of their muscle coordination. Four members of his family — including his father and two brothers — have succumbed to the condition. There’s no cure.
“Tony loves music,” Schirmacher said. When Tony was younger, “he was in a band, but he can’t do that anymore.”
Schirmacher refers to Hightower as “my DQ buddy.” In the summer, he pushes Hightower’s wheelchair three blocks to a Dairy Queen. The staff there knows that Hightower loves Blizzards, but needs his food puréed, so they make him what they call the Tony Special Blizzard.
“It’s actually just a chocolate milkshake,” Schirmacher said. “When we’re done, I push him up to the counter so he can tell them that they did a good job making the Tony Special.”
Now that it’s cold outside, the two watch videos in Hightower’s room. His favorite is a compilation of music videos Schirmacher put together for him. One of the clips shows the two of them sitting together at the chapel piano, Schirmacher playing “This Little Light of Mine” while Hightower shakes a tambourine. At the end of the song, Hightower gives Schirmacher a fist bump.
The two friends showed a visitor the video. When it ended, Hightower was asked how he felt about Schirmacher.
“I love him,” he said.
“I love you, too,” Schirmacher responded.