U.S. Army veteran John “Jack” Hood, 77, peered out the front door of his Collinsville home on Veterans Day to see about 20 people in bright green Tshirts constructing a large wheelchair ramp.
“I’m just dazed by all this attention we’re getting,” Hood said.
The people were volunteers from Ameren Illinois who hoped to complete a ramp within the day Wednesday, working through drizzling rain at one point, so that Jack and his wife, Millie, 79, could get in and out of their home easier.
Hood has walked using a cane since his stroke in 1998. He has also fallen twice, resulting in two cracked vertebrae in his back.
But he doesn’t have trouble with his knees, he says, since having two surgeries on the right knee and one on the left. Millie isn’t so lucky. Her knees bother her when she walks, and she uses a cane to get around, too.
“Bout time we put you in the nursing home,” Jack joked with Millie Wednesday afternoon.
“No, that’s where you’re going,” Millie responded. “Not me.”
At first, Hood said it was difficult for him to accept the gift. He doesn’t know why, except to say he’s “stubborn, Irish,” with a laugh.
“They dragged me kicking and screaming to the realization that it’s for the better good,” he said. “And it also helps Millie. When I saw all those guys out there this morning, I kind of changed my mind a little bit.”
Jack and Millie have lived in their Collinsville home for three decades. Inside, there are two American flags just in the living room, some St. Louis Cardinals memorabilia, and their cat, Franco. Millie was born in Belleville, and most of Jack’s family is from Sparta, where he was born.
Hood studied for two years at Southern Illinois University Carbondale before deciding to join the military.
“School wasn’t goin’ that great, and I just decided to volunteer for the draft when I came home from school,” he said.
Hood was in the U.S. Army for two years. He entered the military at a time between the Korean War and the Vietnam War and was stationed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
“I worked in the command general staff college. I had a very ‘plum’ job as they call it,” Jack said. “I worked for an infantry bird colonel; I was a clerk — Pfc-E3.”
At SIUC, Hood studied geology and marketing, he said, laughing at the “kind of strange” combination. He said he hoped to either be a geologist or a salesman. And after the military, he got the chance to work in sales.
Jack recalled meeting Millie in 1968. She remembers it differently.
“’69, but that’s all right,” she corrected.
They met listening to live music at Diamond Lil’s in Belleville, where Papa Vito’s in now located, and were married in 1977 — that much they agree on.
The two men responsible for organizing the ramp-building project were Andrew Niebrugge, of Decatur, drafting lead for Ameren Illinois, and Neil Hayden, of Millstadt, computer-aided drafting operator for Ameren Illinois.
“They’re the bosses today,” said Richard Mark, president of Ameren Illinois.
Andrew said it isn’t easy to organize, but each of the ramp projects are meaningful experiences for him.
“They (veterans) made the ultimate sacrifice. This is just what we can do to pay them back,” Niebrugge said.
The ramp was completed within a day, but a lot of planning had to take place prior to Veterans Day.
“We’ve had to overcome so many hurdles,” Niebrugge said, to complete the project, including battling against the weather, working with an architect to design the ramp, ordering the building materials, obtaining a building permit and getting the word out.
Hayden contacted Collinsville’s VFW, asking whether anyone could use a ramp. Hood’s brother-in-law, the manager, suggested Jack for the project.
Hayden said the hardest part was getting Jack to understand.
“With a disability, you don’t want a ramp, you don’t want a wheelchair, you don’t want a cane. It’s tough excepting it,” he said.
The easiest part, according to Niebrugge, is getting volunteers.
One of the volunteers Wednesday, Kelsey Weissman, of Collinsville, associate engineer with Ameren Illinois, said she was excited to help.
“Any way that I can help people who can’t help themselves, I mean, that’s just always what I go for,” she said.
Weissman’s dad and both of her grandfathers are veterans, and her sister is currently in the Air Force, which makes her passionate about projects that help military vets in particular.
Her role in building the ramp was “trying to stay out of the way, first of all, and if they need cuts, I’ll move the board back and forth. I was helping them get the bolts set in for those brackets that are holding the post and everything. And also moving tools from station to station.”
Weissman said this is the first ramp she’s volunteered to build through Ameren Illinois.
“And it’s the first one I’ve ever done — ever,” she said.
Volunteer builders were from two Ameren Illinois employee resource groups: Powering Connections for All Abilities; and the Ameren Military Veteran Employees (AMVE) group.
Hood’s wheelchair ramp was the fifth built by Ameren Illinois volunteers in three years.
“It’s neat that we’re able to meet other veterans and help them out, set up a ramp and they’ll realize how much easier it is to come in and out of their home instead of fighting those steps,” Hayden said.
Lexi Cortes: 618-239-2528, @lexicortes
The following companies joined the effort to make Jack’s ramp build happen.
- Macon Resources, a 501C3 organization, helped pay for the build
- Nathan Elliot from eA Architecture & Design, designed the ramp
- Jeff Morlock from Grk fasteners, provided screws, lag bolts/hardware
- Simpson Strong-Tie, provided hangers/hardware
- Powering Connection of All Abilities, Ameren employee resource group, helped build the ramp
- Ameren Military Veteran Employees, Ameren employee resource group, helped build the ramp