It’s never easy walking away from a labor of love, and it’s harder still when the work has gone on 25 years. But for Sharon Coalwell, friend and helpmate for the community’s elderly, the time has come to retire.
family legacy: Sharon Coalwell shows off the sign gracing the retirement center her husband built in the early 1980s. Victor Coalwell died shortly after the building was opened; Sharon carried on as manager. Observer photo/BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH
Coalwell, 64, steps down this month as the manager of the La Grande Retirement Center, the 46-unit apartment complex for senior citizens at the corner of Seventh Street and Washington Avenue.
She’s going to miss her job, but she has some catching up to do in her personal life.“I have 12 grandchildren, all of whom live out of town,” she said. “I want to have some time to go be with them, and do something besides work.”
Coalwell, formerly Sharon Wagoner, was born and raised in La Grande and graduated from the local high school in 1961. She went to beauty school, completing studies in 1963. She worked four years as a full-time beautician, and maintains her license today.
In 1963, she married Victor Coalwell, who had studied business at Eastern Oregon State College and later owned an insurance company and several other businesses.
The Coalwells’ personal holdings included the property at Washington and Seventh. In 1979, Victor announced plans to build subsidized housing for the elderly there.
“He worked a lot with elderly people in our church, and he was concerned about their problems,” Sharon said. “He’d heard about programs where elderly people paid for their rent according to their income, and he thought that was something the community needed.”
Coalwell found partners for the venture and set to building the facility. It was completed in 1981, the first of its kind in
Then, tragedy struck the Coalwells. In 1983, at the age of 40, Victor was diagnosed with cancer. He died a year later.
“That was a daunting time,” Sharon said. “I had five kids to finish raising, and we had a lot of financial difficulties. Basically, the kids and I had to start over.”
The retirement center her husband helped build became her lifeline. She began training for the manager’s position in 1983, and moved into the position in 1984. She has worked at it continually ever since.
“I feel grateful I’ve been able to have this job so long,” she said.
The job calls for collecting rents, processing maintenance requests, seeing that building improvements are done properly.
Coalwell always kept regular office hours, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Monday through Friday.
But there was always a lot more to the work than that. If something went wrong after hours, Coalwell was responsible for getting it fixed. She was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In addition, she operated a small beauty shop for the residents.
And always, she served in the unofficial role of friend. Though she is not a trained and certified counselor, she helped in any way she could. She learned how to be a good listener.
“I just feel for these people. So many don’t have families,” she said.
Financial troubles are common among the residents, she said. Many are barely scraping by.
“It’s hard to watch them live on so little. Some of them are living on $300 a month,” she said.
Health issues also crop up. Coalwell said it makes her sad when a senior citizen comes to a point in life when he or she can no longer be independent.
“Sometimes it happens that they can’t clean their apartments anymore and we have to help them find more care,” she said. “It’s hard to make them understand it will be better for them to live someplace else.”
As Coalwell retires, she is happy in the knowledge she is leaving the facility in better shape than when she took it over.
Under her guidance, a spacious, modern kitchen, a place where residents gather for celebrations, was built in the basement. She decorated it herself, using Hollywood-style artwork that once hung in a restaurant she and Victor used to own. Other improvements she helped bring about include heated outdoor walkways, a state-of-the-art fire alarm system and air conditioning.
Seven partners were involved in the center when it opened. The number has since grown to 10.
Enterprise-based Chrisman Development and Management, which owns several such facilities in Eastern Oregon, is taking over management. Coalwell said the company may purchase the center later.
Coalwell’s family plans a retirement party at the center at noon Oct. 30. Friends are invited.
She’ll say so long, but not good-bye. She plans to continue doing residents’ hair, and, for a while at least, she’ll be a consultant for Chrisman.
She’ll also be traveling a lot, to be with those grandchildren. But she isn’t likely to ever forget the years she spent at the center.
“I feel I have given it my all. I really tried to give it all I could,” she said.