It started out being about the doctor.
An old World War II vet near Alta Vista needed to be able to get out of his house to see his doctor. And a wheelchair ramp sure would make a world of difference.
Even back in 1978, the name of rural Eudora resident Eugene Westerhouse often came to mind when thinking about fellows who could make a difference. At least it did for an old pastor friend of Westerhouse’s who was now stationed in Alta Vista, 110 miles from Eudora.
So, although he had never built a wheelchair ramp, Westerhouse said he would do it. He gathered a small crew made up of fellow members of his church, and hit the road. A mere 110 miles? No problem. After all, it was to help an old man see a doctor — kind of.
Once Westerhouse and his crew arrived, they did indeed hear how the man needed a ramp from his front door to where his vehicle was parked. But it didn’t take long for the old man to point at another vehicle a bit farther from the house. There was an old John Deere tractor down there, and it sure would be good to get back on it again.
“He wanted to get on that tractor a lot worse than he wanted to get to the doctor,” Westerhouse recalls.
So a planned 30-foot wheelchair ramp soon turned into a 60-foot wheelchair ramp.
That’s the way this venture has gone ever since: it has stretched out a little longer than planned. Now, 35 years later, Westerhouse and his crew began work on another wheelchair ramp this week. There really hasn’t been time for counting, but if there was, the number of ramps they've built since that first one would be somewhere north of 300.
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One thing Westerhouse does count is push-ups. He does 50 of them each morning to “get the squeaks out.” Once that is done, he usually feels up to a couple hours of firewood cutting.
Such things help an 85-year-old man build wheelchair ramps rather than use them.
“At his age, he can still work circles around most men,” said Bill Van De Berghe, a member of Westerhouse’s Kingdom Builders crew, which is based out of the Eudora United Methodist Church. “I just hope to live as long as he does.”
Westerhouse — since about 1940, people in the Eudora area have called him simply “Westie” — gets asked about his vigor quite a bit. He often demurs, but his wife of 64 years, Doti, does not.
“You keep going,” she says from the kitchen while making a plate of cinnamon rolls for visitors. “You don’t stop moving.”
Westie says that probably has something to do with it. It certainly has a lot to do with why he still is building wheelchair ramps.
“I’m retired and this is all that I have to do,” Westie says, as he glances into the kitchen. “Now, my wife may think I have all types of honey-do jobs I could be doing.”
“I learned long ago,” Doti says, “that he doesn’t have time for honey-do jobs.”
Every wheelchair ramp is a little bit different, Westie will tell you. For the one he and his crew are set to build, you can almost see the plans spewing from his head. He’s worried about how the entrance door is hung. He’s ciphering on how to build a gate. He’s worrying about this corner or that slope.
Those details often consume the two to three days worth of building required for most ramps. But after the job is done, different types of details often are what's remembered. Like when he and a crew went all the way down to Cherokee, a small place near the Kansas-Oklahoma border, to build a ramp for a church parsonage.
“I remember he just sat there and cried while we were putting the ramp together,” Westie says of the home’s tenant. “It meant quite a bit to him.”
Van De Berghe says that's the way it often is. Folks usually don’t realize how important a simple ramp of treated lumber and plywood can be until they need one.
“For a lot of people, it is the difference between being homebound and having some freedom,” Van De Berghe said.
Most folks also don’t realize how expensive a ramp can be until they call a contractor to build one. Van De Berghe estimated many contractors would charge $2,500 to $3,000 to build a typical wheelchair ramp. The Kingdom Builders group donates its labor, leaving about $700 or so in materials for someone to pay. Often homeowners can come up with that cost, but sometimes groups such as Lawrence-based Independence Inc. have money to help out.
And sometimes the money just appears through donations, coming from a community that Westie has been part of all of his life. He lives on a farm homesteaded by his great, great grandparents in 1876, and has gained a reputation in this Douglas County town of about 6,000 as a man worth supporting.
“I just tell folks that if they get involved, maybe they don’t think they did much, but they’re helping someone, and that is the main thing,” he says.
Maybe Westie just has a soft spot for tractors.
He tells folks how his father lived to be 91 years old, and was driving his tractor right up until six months before his death. He would take an old milk crate to use as a step to get on the machine, so he could stay in motion until his heart was content.
“My sister would tell me to keep him off of it, and I would tell her, ‘You try to keep him off of it,’” Westerhouse says.
So, maybe that’s why he didn’t balk at building that extra 30 feet of wheelchair ramp back in 1978. But I doubt it. Westerhouse says there really is only one reason he has done this all these years: Someone who needs help has asked him for it.
Westerhouse, you see, doesn’t often say no to that proposition.
Westie remembers how in the early years the ramp-building was part of a larger Neighbor Helping Neighbor program that involved seven area churches. He said it wouldn’t be unusual for enough people to show up to roof two or three houses in a single day. He hasn’t been on many jobs like that lately.
On a typical wheelchair ramp, he hopes for six to eight guys from his church to show up to help. Many times it is two or three. And here we reach a point where I’m probably compelled to make a confession: Westie and I attend the same church. And, no, I’ve never built a wheelchair ramp. I don’t often do 50 pushups either. I lie to myself on both accounts and say it is because I just don’t have time.
But here is the good news in that. I’m sure doing 50 pushups a day and chopping your own firewood is part of the secret to why an 85-year old man builds wheelchair ramps instead of using them. And I’m also pretty sure most of us aren’t going to do that.
Maybe one of the other secrets is that Eugene Westerhouse doesn’t lie to himself, and maybe that we can do. The year 1978, you see, was a bit busy for Westie. He was a full-time rural mail carrier, he was farming 400 acres, he had a swine operation of more than 100 sows, and he was a husband and a father of three children.
But back then, just as today, when he got a call to build a wheelchair ramp, he said yes because there is a simple truth somewhere in that 85-year old body.
“If you just donate a day or two, whatever you were planning on doing that day, you can always pick it up tomorrow,” Westie says.
In other words, you’re never too busy to help someone.