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DOWNEY – Longtime Downey resident Kenneth Drake can point with pride to his distinguished 32-year naval career that spanned WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, and to his current yeoman service as a hospice volunteer at Gerinet Healthcare in Downey, but it is the mention of his departed wife, the former Norma Bloomquist, that causes a catch in his throat.
“We were married for 72 years,” Ken said. Trying hard not to sound too sentimental, Ken, who retired at the highest pay grade a retiring noncom officer could attain in the U.S. Navy – as chief aviation electrician mate (with eight bars on his sleeve) – was finally coaxed into admitting that the main reason he volunteered his services at Gerinet after his beloved wife died was to fight the loneliness he felt at the thought of her.
“There was another reason,” he quickly added. “I saw there was a need for the kind of service I could provide.”
Ken will turn 94 in three months, yet he is still surprisingly spry and his mental sharpness has not diminished. His knack for providing quick and accurate information is intact, honed during his tours of duty that once took him on a three-month WWII patrol duty in the North Atlantic after negotiating the Panama Canal aboard his battleship, the USS Idaho. He said he learned to be a mechanic when he started working for his mechanic-father at age 12, when his father operated his own business in Huntington Park beginning in 1929. The family had relocated from Idaho in 1924.
It was the Daepression, Ken said, and he recalls his father would come home and say, “I made pretty good today. I made a dollar.”
“I enlisted in the U.S. Navy when I was 17,” he said, “and got inducted the following year, in Long Beach. Then we went to San Diego for recruitment training. This took three months.”
Immediately after, he got assigned to the USS Idaho, which was to last for four years. He would visit various naval air stations in various bases, but mostly he worked in the Long Beach Naval Air Base. Serving at one point in the Aircraft Commissioning Unit (a “special unit”), he experienced working on flying boats, he said.
“One thing you should know about our airplanes then,” Ken said, “is that they were hurriedly manufactured, and often parts would be missing, they had broken lights, the radio did not function properly, the wheels were falling off, and so on. We in the maintenance unit would fix these.”
“At the Los Alamitos Air Base, we trained airmen in maintenance procedures. I did the same thing during the Korean and Vietnam wars. During the Vietnam War, we trained crews going overseas to repair both fighter and bomber aircraft, to upgrade them, to troubleshoot, etc.
“Once I even inducted my own son into the Navy. He served for 10 years as an electronics technician. He lives here in Downey. He’s now 70. I also have three grandsons. My daughter was private secretary to the dean at Claremont College. She’s retired also. I retired in 1968 after 32 years of service.”
When wife Norma passed away two years ago, it was Gerinet Healthcare which provided hospice care. Ken initially agreed to volunteer two or three hours a week at the hospice facility.
“But for two years now, I’ve been working 10 hours every day,” he said.
Not that Ken minds. His chief responsibility is to fill orders for hospice supplies, although he says he can easily sub for bereavement support duties whenever called for. The service he provides is thus old hat to him; he performed much more sophisticated tasks during the wars. For this reason alone, Ken has become a go-to guy, even loved by staff and co-volunteers alike.
He works closely with full-time staffer David Demarrcs, who spent four years in the Marines performing supply and equipment duties.
Ken’s services haven’t gone unnoticed. On Veterans’ Day, Ken was cited by past mayor Luis Marquez for his meritorious 3-war military service. Among other recognitions, he also received the President’s Volunteer Service Award: It read, in part, “Your volunteer service demonstrates the kind of commitment to your community that moves America a step closer to its great promise…While government can open more opportunities for us to serve our communities, it is up to each of us to seize those opportunities. Thank you for your devotion to service and for doing all you can to shape a better tomorrow for our great Nation.” It is signed by President Barack Obama.
He has also been affiliated with the American Legion Post 270, and been active for decades with the Masons.
Born in Northern Idaho, he was the oldest of five boys. Two died early of pneumonia. The third brother also saw service in the Navy but was killed two weeks before the end of the war, along with 21 other crewmembers aboard their bomber. The youngest was a corporal in the Army and saw action in the Battle of the Bulge. He is 86 now and resides in Pomona.
From its former location at Paramount Boulevard and 6th Street, Gerinet moved a few months ago to a larger facility (“four times larger”) at 12620 Erickson Ave., a stone’s throw across the street from the Downey Superior Courthouse on Imperial Highway. One of the ranking officers said, “We’re expanding, thus the need for a bigger facility.” Gerinet has another facility in Las Vegas, and a more recent addition in Burbank.
According to Downey Gerinet, “hospice” is a “philosophy of palliative and compassionate care for those who have a limited life expectancy. Among its services: nursing/hospice aide services, medication for pain and symptom management, medical supplies (Ken’s area), bereavement support, etc.
“Right now,” said Anita Gaytan, bereavement counselor, “we have some 100 nurses. Our service area includes Long Beach, Santa Ana, Fulletton, Santa Fe Springs, part of Whittier, Huntington Park, and Downey.”
Kathie Sullivan, volunteer coordinator, said, “We average some 380 hospice patients in our service area, and the number continues to increase. So we are always in need of volunteers.”
Christine Rodriguez, in charge of communications, said Downey Gerinet is developing a new branding program that should reflect the firm’s unique approach to hospice care.
Ken had the last word: “I enjoy my work here with Gerinet. It’s most rewarding,” and with a big smile, he said: “Besides, I get a hundred hugs a day.”
Published: December 15, 2011 – Volume 10 – Issue 35