By SKEETER TOWER
Special to the OBSERVER
Some remarkable people just fly beneath the radar, quietly and steadily doing a job and being there in service to others. They are the very fabric of our society, the people we count on, the ones who we can turn to in a crisis and can count on every day with their reliability and their kindness, their commitment to ideals that few of us have so consistently or so courageously upheld. This is my assessment of Joan and Rodney Houck, 30-year residents of Fredonia, 30 years of service to this community. A roomful of people at the Beaver Club on June 1 were in full agreement.
Meals on Wheels volunteers, staff, recipients, friends, family and supporters, gathered for the retirement dinner and tribute to the 26 years of leadership Joan Houck has provided this organization. They gave moving, sometimes tearful testimony to her, sang songs of praise (original words by Lorraine Bailey), and while lamenting her departure, cheered her on to new, well-earned adventures of retirement.
Gail Lutz remarked of Joan, “If success is measured by those who work hard, laugh often and love a lot, then you’re a triple winner.”
Joan was referred to as the heart and soul of Meals on Wheels and many spoke of her “kind and caring spirit, her calm and peaceful ways.” She has been innovative as well, finding new ways to expand program on a limited budget, finding new recruits to deliver the 75,000 meals and daily check-ins to the elderly, handicapped and incapacitated this past year, allowing them to retain independence in their own homes. Joan passed the praise on to the many dedicated volunteers, including Dominic DeSanto, who has driven for 14 years; Early Waller for 12 years; “superhero” Pat Sysol who has been a volunteer for 22 years; and Richard Goodman who designed unique bicycles to establish new delivery routes within the city, among the many others.
The Rev. Rodney Houck was there proudly by her side as he has been for the past 53 years of their marriage. He gave the opening blessing and welcomed all four of their grown children and the grandchildren who had arrived to celebrate the Houcks’ lives of service. The children shared a synopsis of their family history.
Joan Marie Carlson, an only child born in the “beautiful” Bronx, is a graduate of the borough’s Evander-Childs High School and attended Hunter College, focusing on pre-kindergarten education. She was in charge of a large preschool program at Ft. Schuyler Presbyterian Church when she first met Rodney. He had chosen to complete his student fieldwork for his studies at Union Theological Seminary in New York City in the racially integrated Ft. Schuyler Presbyterian Church. They married within that year, 1959, and Rodney became the assistant minister of that church for the next two years. Their first daughter, Nancy, was born while still in the Bronx.
Rodney was raised by his paternal grandparents when his mother was diagnosed with TB when he was 7. His grandmother was a devoted Lutheran and gave him a strong foundation in Christian values. He attended Mullenberg College in Allentown, Pa., a Lutheran college graduating in 1954. Although he had a student deferment he chose to enlist in the Air Force, qualifying as an instructor in Air Force records. Later he attended Union Seminary using benefits from the GI Bill. He had become a Presbyterian by then, finding this denomination more liberal and more open to social action which is how he felt he could express his faith and values.
The couple then moved to Jeffersonville, N.Y., to serve a small rural community in Sullivan County, home to the great Woodstock happening a few months after they left. (In fact, they purchased milk from the farmer whose land hosted the now famous overflow musical event). Their two sons, Russell and Douglas, were born in Liberty. They welcomed children from the inner city during the summers as part of the Fresh Air program. In this way, the Houcks were invited to consider adoption of their African-American daughter, Joy. Joan’s father also came to live with the family after the death of Joan’s mother. They decided to move to Providence, R.I., in 1969 with a call to Rodney to pastor the Second Presbyterian Church, which gave them an opportunity to raise Joy in a racially integrated, urban community. It was there that Joan began her studies in gerontology through the women’s extension service at the University of Rhode Island.
In 1976, Rodney had a chance to join an ecumenical ministry in Rochester in a community impacted by racial riots during the civil rights movement and where community organizer, Sol Alinsky, later intervened to encourage Kodak to hire minority workers. The Houcks resided there until 1982 when they moved to Fredonia to lead the Presbyterian Church here for the next 10-and-a-half years.
Joan completed her gerontology degree through Empire State College and moved from Head Start into Meals on Wheels. Rodney also moved on to devote more of his time to issues related to Peace and Justice and a greater commitment to Rural Ministries and the Chautauqua Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Council. Kathleen Peterson, ex-director of Chautauqua County Rural Ministry, Inc., had many positive things to say about the couple.
“Rod and Joan Houck have been significant contributors to our community,” Peterson shared. “Rodney served on the Rural Ministry Board of Directors for many years and his effort and input in the early years of our agency has contributed to where we are today. CCRM has partnered with Meals on Wheels through Joan’s leadership efforts. CCRM’s gleaning project has provided those who benefit from Meals on Wheels with fresh produce during the season. They are both genuinely good people They have blessed our community and I hope that their retirement is filled with many blessings as well.”
The couple, as part of the local Center for Peace and Justice, has offered a steady voice in the effort to keep the goal of peace as part of the national dialogue in spite of the ongoing series of war initiatives entered into from Vietnam to the current deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Their efforts to commemorate the ideal of peace via the world wide Peace Pole initiative caused considerable controversy in Dunkirk when local veterans groups felt they should have been consulted about placement of the pole in Memorial Park. “May Peace Prevail On Earth” are the words written in four languages chosen by Mayor Frey to represent the predominant ethnic groups of the city (English, Polish, Italian and Spanish). It is certainly a wish that dwells in the hearts of most of us, especially as we dream of an ideal life for upcoming generations, experience the suffering of our soldiers and the devastation brought to the lands where wars are fought, including our own Ground Zero. The group will contribute to the cost of a Peace Pole if it is placed at a private residence, according to member Faith Woolson.
Dan O’Rourke credits the Houcks as “the backbone of the Center for Peace and Justice” which has focused on humanitarian and educational projects over the years. One annual project supports the Nicaraguan Missions, coordinated by former Felician nun Ann Marie Zonn, along with St. Joseph’s Church and other churches and parishes in Western New York. Peace and Justice has also sponsored an essay contest in the local high schools and contributed to a beautification fund for a new park along Main Street last summer in Dunkirk.
Now, as Joan joins Rodney in retirement, they will focus more on family and their beautiful home and gardens on Central Avenue near SUNY Fredonia. Downsizing in the future is a possibility. Rodney may continue his hobby of scaled model making, an interest since his days with Lionel train sets. Both are committed to continuing volunteer work delivering Meals on Wheels. Rodney continues to serve as an officer in the Northern Chautauqua Landlord Association and cares for two rental properties in the city. Joan has become secretary for Chadwick Bay Women, whose mission is to “build powerful women professionally, personally and politically through advocacy, education and information.” The Houcks have served as co-chairs for the Social Action Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Northern Chautauqua for several years., where they continue to make vital contributions.
Whatever direction they take, we can expect an ongoing quiet, but dedicated, commitment to peace, kindness and service to the community and we can be grateful for the blessings of the Rev. and Mrs. Rodney Houck.
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