Goodbye Marshalltown, and thank you

For various reasons, I have never lived anywhere longer than four years, and that has only happened once when I was a child. As a result of my transience, I have always been in search of understanding the concept of home.

To this day, there is not a place on the planet that feels like it is where I am from, or where I feel I belong more than any other. I have been to nearly every continent, traveled to more than 30 countries, and received my mail in dozens of locations in the United States.

In my travels, I have developed relationships and learned lessons that I consider my most treasured possessions. I consider myself fortunate to have experienced life the way I have thus far. Still, someday I would like to experience the feeling of having a hometown and knowing what people mean when they talk about home. Marshalltown very nearly provided that experience. As I prepare to leave, I cannot help but reflect on the experience, people, and lessons that have defined my time here.

Over a year ago, I accepted the position of Commandant of the Iowa Veterans Home. To suddenly oversee the largest long-term care facility in the state, in the middle of a pandemic, during a nationwide nursing shortage was a bit intimidating. There was a steep learning curve, coupled with intense stress aggravated by my separation from my family who remained in Texas.

I worked as hard as I could to learn about the industry. I became a Certified Nursing Assistant. I enrolled at Des Moines Area Community College to earn my license in Nursing Home Administration. I spoke at length with residents and staff members. I solicited their anonymous communication directly to me through secure comment boxes and responded to the comments with recorded videos distributed to every employee.

I quickly learned that knowledge about the industry was important but being Commandant had more to do with leadership than healthcare administration, and since I was no stranger to leadership, I moved forward with a renewed sense of confidence. I worked to create innovative and lasting ties with the community. I placed a premium on relationships.

Most of all, I prioritized respect for the individual dignity of our residents. I implemented a smoking policy that enabled our residents to choose for themselves whether to smoke. I invited the Marshalltown Community Theater to occupy and perform at one of our buildings in exchange for admitting residents to their shows free of charge. I made a similar arrangement with the Central Iowa Arts Association who agreed to provide instruction to residents in exchange for displaying their art collection in one of the buildings at the Veterans Home. I finalized an arrangement with Quaker Oats from Cedar Rapids to adopt and renovate the newly named “Valor Field” where residents will be able to enjoy baseball games for the first time in years. I arranged for the newest American Legion Post in the state to be in the Veterans Home so our residents can play an active role in their community. I coordinated with the Marshalltown Community Foundation to lay the framework for a multi-million-dollar childcare facility at the Iowa Veterans Home. These things, and many others, were accomplished in a thirteen-month period during which the Iowa Veterans Home maintained a five-star rating from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. I did not do any of these things on my own. They would not have been possible without the tremendous effort of our employees, to whom I am deeply grateful.

Immense gratitude for the employees of the Veterans Home is why I made it a habit to send handwritten letters of gratitude to members of our team every day, and it is why I arranged for nearly fifty of our employees to meet with the Governor for a personal tour of the State Capitol and Terrace Hill in recognition for them not missing a single day of work due to COVID. My deep appreciation for the employees is why I implemented incentive programs for individuals and teams with the best monthly attendance, signed approval for several sign-on and retention bonuses, increased starting pay rates, and raised the pay for evening, night, and weekend shift workers.

To attract and keep more employees, we created an employee referral program, and began remodeling the cottages on campus so we could offer lodging to employees. To address the shortage of food service workers, I implemented a program with the Department of Corrections that provided jobs to certain female inmates, who are now among some of our best workers. As I leave Marshalltown, I feel genuine pride at what has been accomplished at the Veterans Home during my time here, but I also feel an element of sadness as I think of what and whom I will miss.

It is impossible to mention the name of every person I’ve met in the last thirteen months whose mark on my memory is indelible. Their faces will replay in my mind for many years to come, and it will always bring me joy to think of them. The list of employees and residents I will miss is simply too long, so I can only trust they know who they are, and what they mean to me. I also trust they understand and forgive a departure that must seem abrupt. They deserve better.

Among many others in the community, I will miss my landlord, Julie Miller. I will miss Tracy and the gang at West End Perk in the mornings. I will miss burgers from Garrett at The Flying Elbow, ice cream from Aimee and Tom at Lillie Mae’s and breakfast at The Tremont with J.P. and Monica. I will miss Kendra Sorensen and her childlike faith in people. I will miss Amber Danielson and her passionate pursuit of culture and art.

I will miss the steady leadership of Joel Greer, the unwavering support of Kevin Huseboe, Jeff Edler, and Sue Cahill, the citizenship of Vic and Gayle Hellberg, the friendship of Mike Tupper, the humor of Todd Steinkamp, and the buoyant atmosphere he and Kyle Martin have created at KFJB. I will miss Abigail and Robert’s generous coverage of the Veterans Home in the Times-Republican, haircuts at Starla’s every two weeks, Tuesdays with Rotary, Thursdays with Kiwanis, and once-a-month meetings with the 13th Street Board of Directors.

I will miss my workouts at the YMCA, grocery runs to Hy-Vee, and evening socials with John Hall and the Chamber of Commerce. There is a palpable feel that something truly special for Marshalltown is just around the corner, and I will miss feeling like I could be part of that. Among the immense pride and limited sadness I will take with me as I leave, there are also priceless lessons.

First, I have learned that what we are at any given time, whether good or bad, is never all we are. It is merely who we are at that moment. People who are willing to define someone exclusively by a high or low, are not friends; they are only casual observers. Authentically good people view others considering their total experience.

People who make permanent judgments based on temporary circumstances are impostors, they are weak, and they are not significant. Unfortunately, they are also numerous, and can be influential. Second, I have learned that trust and loyalty are the most valuable components of relationships, and neither should be given nor taken too lightly. Finally, I have learned that regardless of how much I love an institution, it is incapable of loving me in return. Only family and friends can return love, and that is why only family and friends deserve it.

As I complete this writing, the smell of cardboard boxes wafts through my apartment along with a familiar sting of nostalgic sadness that has accompanied countless farewells going back to my early youth. This is not a new experience for me. Nor is it new for me to take some time to reflect on the experiences, people, and lessons I have acquired in this chapter of my adventure. I am pleased to report that most of this chapter was golden. I am thankful for it, and I will miss it. The time I spent in Marshalltown is my most recent failed attempt to discover what people mean when they talk about their hometown, but the search continues and hope springs eternal. Goodbye Marshalltown, you would make a fine home; sadly, you will not be mine.


Matthew Peterson is the former commandant of the Iowa Veterans Home.


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