Smile and the World Smiles, Too

A former P.E. teacher, Lyle Fitzgerald devotes his time to pushing people to their limits and making them happy.

Lyle Fitzgerald walks to the rhythm of the steady tap of his cane. He stands hunched over, his hands gnarled from arthritis. He's wearing a navy blue shirt underneath an apple-red Mr. Rogers sweater and sporting two hearing aids, glasses and a broad smile; he's comfortable in his own skin. 

"I always make a point to smile," he says. "When my wife had heart surgery at the Mayo Clinic, I saw people who walked around with sad faces. I smiled at everyone and by the time we left the hospital, they were smiling too."

Tough Love

Fitzgerald and his wife, Ardis, moved to Ames in 1957 after he accepted a teaching job at Welch Junior High School. He embraced the idea of teaching physical education, coaching sports and working with young adults. "I got offers in Kansas City and California," Fitzgerald says, "but I just knew that Ames was the place for me."

Fitzgerald taught in Ames for more than 25 years. After 10 years of teaching he moved to Ames High School, where he taught P.E. and started the first Ames High School swimming program in 1965. His job tested his patience and strong will.

"When students got in trouble, I didn't send them to the principal's office, I took care of them myself," Fitzgerald says. "Then I'd shake their hands so there were no hard feelings. They respect you more for helping them out later in life."

One of those students Fitzgerald helped was Mary Greeley Medical Center orthopedic surgeon, Peter Buck, M.D., who was Fitzgerald's student during his seventh grade P.E. classes and ninth grade football practices.

"I remember Mr. Fitzgerald as a big, burly, rough-around-the-edges guy who didn't ‘take any lip,'" Dr. Buck says. "He had me drop for ten pushups if I was late for class or distracted from his tutelage. And in spite of a lousy record, my football season was key for me developmentally."

Many years after his retirement, Fitzgerald regularly runs into former students. They approach him with stories about classes or to thank him for teaching them to use a checkbook. Although he's retired, he continues to impact the community as a volunteer.

A Winning Formula

The relationships Fitzgerald fostered with students came full circle when he was admitted to Mary Greeley Medical Center for a knee replacement. The admissions representative, one of his nurses and Dr. Buck, his surgeon, were all his students at one time.

"I came to the hospital and saw these kids that I taught and they were grown up and were taking care of me," he says. "All I could think was, 'I sure hope I treated these guys good.'"

Twenty five years after coaching and teaching Dr. Buck, Fitzgerald was under his care as a patient. "Mr. Fitzgerald was no longer bigger than life," Dr. Buck says. "His rough edges were smoothed and it was easy to see a soft heart inside. He was dealt major health problems, yet always remained upbeat. Following his knee replacement, he worked diligently in therapy, like the young athletes he used to coach. He savored the challenge."

Fitzgerald completed eight weeks of structured rehabilitation and therapy. He attributes his successful recovery to a positive attitude and the relationships he built with Mary Greeley Medical Center staff.

"I've never worked with a greater group of people," he says. "Recovery took awhile, but I had a lot of help, and I'm in good shape. I always encourage people to stay active, even if they don't do anything but walk."

Fitzgerald saw a winning formula in his time at the Rehabilitation and Wellness Center. "He helped fellow patients as a coach, cheerleader and motivator," Dr. Buck says. "Lyle is an inspiration to me and many others."

Beyond the Call of Duty

As he recovered, Fitzgerald searched out opportunities to stay connected with the Rehabilitation and Wellness staff. He became the first volunteer in the department, helping out with daily needs in exchange for use of the rehabilitation machines.

Initially he cleaned machines, organized equipment and refilled containers. His position evolved as his patient relationships developed. Now he serves as a support system and social outlet. "A lot of people are like me, they don't like extra help, like someone putting their coat on them," Fitzgerald says. "Most of them just want someone to talk with."

For Rehabilitation and Wellness Outpatient Services supervisor Matt Petersen, P.T., M.P.T., M.P.A., and physical therapist assistant Rhonda Harding, P.T.A., A.T.C., M.S., Fitzgerald does more than help with their daily workload.

"Even if he's done with work and exercising, he'll pick up a book and read while we attend educational programs over the lunch hour," Harding says. "He knows how to get help if someone needs it, too. He's like our guard."

Petersen says Fitzgerald encourages patients to stay active after completing formal therapy, an important factor in whether or not the rehabilitation staff will see patients for future injuries.

"He's been through a lot of medical things himself," Petersen says. "He can relate to patients and he understands the importance of physical activity. He always tells them if he can do it, so can they."

While Fitzgerald devotes his time to the Rehabilitation and Wellness department, Ardis volunteers in Mary Greeley Medical Center's Accounting department. "I have the greatest wife," he says. "I thank the Lord for her every day; she's been a major part of my life."

Plywood, Paint and Patience

Aside from volunteering, Fitzgerald devotes his free time to woodworking, a hobby he picked up from a fellow teacher. He completed his first project, a coffee table, fifteen years ago, and expanded his craft by building grandfather clocks for his three children.

His favorite project is creating colorful plywood portraits. Because his severe arthritis limits the use of his hands, he adapts his equipment and approaches. Each portrait starts with a thin piece of plywood, the background. Then he carves, paints and layers plywood pieces until the portrait is complete.

"He can barely hold a water bottle, much less hang on to plywood pieces," Harding says. "He doesn't have great fine motor skills or shoulder mobility, so it's amazing he's able to create art like that."

Petersen agrees that in his current health state Fitzgerald could find many reasons to let his mobility issues limit him from living with a positive attitude, but in every aspect of his life that just isn't the case.

"I always work hard, whether I'm making money or not," Fitzgerald says. "If you're going to do a job, you've got to do it right and you've got to enjoy it. That's why I make art and why I volunteer. I want to share my happiness."

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