Posted on Wed, Jul. 09, 2008
Everyday hero: Vietnam veteran quietly serves at Lincoln Home

'I don't do things for awards; I do it because it needs to be done'


It's 5 a.m. and Harold Stockley is outside raising the American flag in front of The Lincoln Home in Belleville.

The early hour is his choice, said the 59-year-old Marine Corps veteran.

"I have dialysis three mornings a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday, so I do it before that," he said. Since he's already in the habit of getting up with the birds on those days, he figures, he might as well keep the schedule the rest of the week, too.

Nightly at 6, Stockley lowers the flag from the tall metal pole, carefully folds the fabric and puts it away until the next day.

The staff and residents at the long-term care center have come to rely on Harold for a multitude of tasks he voluntarily performs there, from handyman to gardener to wheelchair tender.

"I'm always saying, 'Harold, can you please help us?'" said assistant activity director Penny Flint with a laugh.

It's a way to stay busy, said Stockley, who has lived there a decade. Surrounded by residents much older than he, Stockley started looking for ways to pass the time.

"I can't stand being cooped up twenty-four/seven," he said as watered the vegetable garden on the property and checked the plants.

He is so appreciated at the center that Activity Director Linda McPherson nominated Stockley as one of 100 "everyday heroes" in the state by the Illinois Council on Long Term Care and the Illinois Health Care Association. Harold was a shoo-in.

Not one to toot his own horn, Stockley quietly said he got a certificate from the state groups acknowledging the award.

McPherson rolled her eyes. "We threw him a big party with a cake," she said.

On a recent afternoon, "Happy Hour," a social hour of snacks (and a beer for some residents) was about to occur in the main dining room -- an open, airy space with vaulted ceiling.

Stockley helped staff members wheel less mobile residents to the room.

He is also president of the resident council and volunteers for the Buddy Program, where he visits bed-bound residents, delivers newspapers to them and even runs errands for them by walking to the corner convenience store.

"I'll buy cigarettes, lottery tickets, soda," he said.

Stockley came to The Lincoln Home after a series of events changed his life forever: He lost his job at a candy company in St. Louis, then got sick.

"I went to the doctor because I was having trouble breathing and they told me I had kidney failure," he said of hearing the news more than 10 years ago. "I'm not eligible for a kidney transplant."

Single with no children, and a with brother in California, he came to the Lincoln Home.

Kneeling behind a tall cart in the TV room, he was the object of the attention of three women lined up on a nearby sofa. One held a laser disc copy of "Casablanca" in her hands. Harold fiddled with wires, attaching and checking, before he loaded the disc in the machine and turned on the TV.

He's also good at helping residents get on and off the center's van, and tackling wheelchair shopping trips to Wal-Mart.

Born in St. Louis but raised in Belleville, Stockley joined the Marines as a teenager in 1967 -- doing a tour in Vietnam with an artillery battery -- so his older brother wouldn't have to serve.

When asked why he made that decision, he quietly replied: "He was married; he had more to live for -- his wife was pregnant."

Nine hours weekly hooked up to a dialysis machine have left long white scars on Stockley's forearms. He still smokes, despite a recent diagnosis of the beginnings of emphysema. On weekends, he sometimes stays with a cousin and his family. He has movies, TV and a Nintendo 64 he can hook up in his room. He likes the St. Louis Rams, not the Cardinals (he only wears a red Cards cap because it was a gift) and still hopes life outside the Lincoln Home is a possibility.

But he doesn't dwell on it, at least among strangers.

Among staff members, though, he reveals a subdued sense of humor. When Flint poked around a raised herb bed outside as Harold watered the basil, she fingered a plant and wondered aloud what it was.

"It's growing well," she pointed out.

"Weeds always do," replied Stockley.

Back inside, he said he looked forward to spending the Fourth of July weekend with family.

Not everyone is so lucky, which is why his staying busy typically revolves around other people.

"I don't do things for awards," he said. "I do it because it needs to be done. There are people here who have no one or their families are not always coming around. So, I just do it. Help out."

Contact reporter Suzanne Boyle at or 239-2664