Patient's Zoo Trip Reminds Rainbow What Really Matters
Patient’s Zoo Trip Reminds Rainbow What Really Matters
by Kenyon Kemnitz
Ward Johnson will be the first to admit that his memory isn’t as sharp as it used to be, but his longtime friend Ron Thompson is there to help him fill in the blanks if things ever get fuzzy. When Ward’s family moved into a house down the block from Ron in their Lake Mills neighborhood in 1945, little did they know it was the beginning of a friendship that has lasted almost 70 years.
After all, Ward is ten years older and after graduating from Lake Mills High School in 1952, enlisted in the Navy in 1956. He spent most of his time stationed in Groton, Connecticut, at the headquarters of the Naval Submarine Base New London.
“As far as Ron is concerned, I was never in the Navy,” Johnson joked. “I had excellent service and saw a lot of things that people never got to see and met a lot of people. Being around submarines, I lived a different life than Ron did.”
Ward remembers his days driving admirals from the base into New York. But one of the highlights of his time in the Navy was getting a sneak peek at pictures of the U.S. nuclear submarine Nautilus undergoing its first undersea voyage to the North Pole. On that journey, the submarine traveled under the Arctic ice cap to reach the top of the world.
“Seeing the light reflect down through the ice still sends shivers down my back,” Johnson said. “It’s hard to describe.”
Ward and Ron lost touch for a while, but since their parents were friends, they still had a connection. Ron ended up following in Ward’s footsteps by also serving in the Navy. After they got married, their wives became the best of friends and over the years their bond has only grown stronger, even when the Johnsons moved to Appleton in the early 1980s. Ward and Ron enjoyed going on bike rides and would even make the long trek to Madison and Milwaukee on their bikes.
After they moved back to the area, Ward’s beloved wife Judith passed away suddenly in 2018, so Ron and his wife Mary have become a second family for him. When Ward’s health declined in 2021, he moved into The View at Johnson Creek and eventually became a Rainbow Hospice Care patient last summer. Ron and Mary try to visit Ward a few times a week and take him out for a fish fry most Fridays.
“Maintaining that friendship over the years is very special,” said Ron Thompson. “We go back a long way.”
Brian Benisch has also gotten to know Ward through Rainbow Hospice Care’s volunteer program and has become one of his frequent visitors. Brian spent eight years in the Air Force and served in Iraq during the Gulf War. Their military experience helped them form an almost immediate bond.
“When Ward dies, his story goes with him, and I just love to hear and talk to different veterans about their life experiences.” said Benisch.
During one of their talks in February, Brian mentioned to Ward that he had seen deer and wildlife during a recent walk with his wife. Their conversation then shifted to the zoo.
“Ward just got excited and lit up,” Benisch said. “He said ‘Oh, I would just love to go to the zoo one more time.’”
Ward reminisced about spending time at the Milwaukee County Zoo when it was housed at its former Washington Park location.
“I remember the original zoo that a lot of people don’t even know existed,” Johnson said. “They kept animals back then and didn’t care for them as well as they do today. It was quite an upgrade when they built the new one.”
The zoo that many Wisconsinites are familiar with opened its doors in May 1961 on Bluemound Road. Ward had been a former member of the Zoological Society but couldn’t remember the last time he was at a zoo. Brian knew he had to do something and wanted to try everything in his power to fulfill Ward’s wish to visit the zoo one last time.
“I called Jill (Radke) (Rainbow's volunteer coordinator) and said, ‘we’ve got to make this happen, I don’t know how but we have got to do this,” Benisch said.
It just so happened that Rainbow’s other volunteer coordinator, Lisa Handrow, had a connection with the Milwaukee County Zoo. Lisa worked as a Sergeant with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office before she retired and joined Rainbow in August 2022. Her former boss, Jeff Parker, also recently retired as Chief Deputy and started working as the Director of Security at the zoo. Once Jeff heard about Ward and his love for the zoo, he didn’t hesitate in trying to make his dream a reality. He contacted the zoo’s director, Amos Morris, asking for permission and he agreed to grant Ward’s wish.
Lisa then reached out to Rainbow social workers, Melissa Meboe and Nicole Sommerfeldt, to work out the logistics of the trip. Melissa worked with Celia Villanueva of St. Coletta of Jefferson to schedule transportation for Ward. Celia agreed to drive Ward down to the Milwaukee County Zoo in a wheelchair-accessible van and take him back to The View.
“Celia is always on board for doing special things for Rainbow patients and is genuinely a true partner in helping them receive the best experiences,” said Meboe.
All that remained was finding a day that worked for Ward’s friends so they could join him on the adventure as well. They decided on Tuesday, March 7, 2023, and they couldn’t have picked a better day.
“That morning he got really excited and was happy to be going,” Benisch said. “I couldn’t believe how fast it all came together. Everyone did a wonderful job of connecting all the dots.”
Jeff ensured Ward and his party of Lisa, Ron, Mary, and Brian received red-carpet treatment when they arrived at the park.
He met them at the gate and arranged a personal tour with a golf cart by chauffeuring Ward and his friends around the zoo. They started off seeing the gorillas and the monkeys and then moved on to the reptile building with Ward having a front-row seat for all the action.
Next, Jeff shuttled Ward and his group to the tiger building for an up close and behind-the-scenes feeding of the tigers by one of the zookeepers. From a protected area, Ward got a close look at Frankie the Tiger and experienced targeting training.
“They put paint on a tray and then Frankie would put his paw on the tray and then he would transfer his painted paw onto a 4-b- 4-inch tile and then leave his paw print on the tile and Ward was able to do that with him,” Parker said.
“It made me smile when Ward laughed and said, ‘the animals are wondering why I’m on the other side of the glass.’” said Handrow.
Ward then got a chance to play zookeeper himself as he got to feed one of the giraffes.
“We set up a special feeding in the giraffe exhibit, so even from his wheelchair Ward was able to have the giraffe reach down to him and feed them the lettuce and wafers,” Parker said.
The smile on Ward’s face continued throughout the day as he took in the entire experience.
“I felt so overjoyed watching him that day at the zoo. You could see the excitement and happiness in his face and that’s what I’m going to remember, the joy he had, and I love knowing we were able to bring that to him,” Benisch said.
Jeff made sure the day was action-packed as the group made their next stop at the upper level of the elephant house. There they found snacks and refreshments waiting for them as they got a chance to kick back and experience a rare overhead view of the elephants being fed and learned more about their intricacies and behaviors.
“It's a humbling experience to be able to provide an opportunity like that for someone who has such a passion for the zoo,” Parker said. “I think what you take away from experiences like this is that each day you have on this earth is a blessing, and you want to extend those blessings to those around you.”
They wrapped up the day with a tour of the otter exhibit and bat house. If they missed any part of the zoo in their tour, it certainly wasn’t much. It was an experience Ward and other members of his party would never have had if it wasn’t for so many people working together to make a dream come true.
“It was wonderful for us too,” said Mary Thompson. “Ward really enjoyed it. Just seeing his face when he was feeding the giraffes, I couldn’t believe it. It was super special.”
“Ward has some things he always remembers from his past and one of them was the zoo,” Ron Thompson said. “The first time they took us back behind the barriers where Ward could see the tigers, the cheetahs, and giraffes, we were astounded. I don’t think the smile ever left his face.”
“For his last visit to be so interactive and special just warms my heart,” Meboe said. “When I heard about his day, I had tears in my eyes.”
Before Ward left the zoo, Jeff, a six-year veteran of the Air Force, gave him a salute to honor him for his past service in the military. Ward responded by saluting him back.
Ward admits that he doesn’t remember too much about that day anymore, but his smile that day is something that will remain in the hearts of all his friends forever.