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Friends for Life: Park Place of St. John Men’s Friendships Form When Needed Most

elderly men sitting around the table

Anyone who visits the Park Place of St. John dining room during mealtime will find tables filled with conversation and laughter, but if you listen closely, one table will be the loudest of all, with six men’s voices carrying over all the other sounds. They’re six widowers, all with successful careers and accolades, but they say one of the biggest treasures of their lives are the friendships they’ve found with each other.

Ed Malm moved to Park Place shortly after the community opened in 2017. The rest trickled in after—Gene Schroeder, Bud Kulish, Ed Jaskolski, Chuck Bouque, and, most recently, 84-year-old Bob Votaw. Slowly, they all found each other, and now they’re almost inseparable. They tease each other one minute, then brag about one another in the next breath. Each has a quick wit and thick skin, but the admiration they have for each other is almost tangible.

“I don’t know exactly why we’re all such good friends, but in my opinion, everyone here has had exceptional careers,” Gene says. “Some in business, some in education—but there’s an awful lot of achievement at this table. Of course, I didn’t do much,” he jokes, but the truth is, Gene has seen a great deal of success in his life. He opened his own thriving business, but that story always seems to take second place to his successful professional football career with the Chicago Bears. 

He quickly takes the spotlight off himself, motioning across the table. “Did you know this guy was in the Glenn Miller band?”

He's talking about Ed Jaskolski, who taught high school chemistry and then was a high school administrator for 50 years, in addition to earning his master’s degree, serving in the Air Force, and, indeed, playing clarinet and saxophone to help fill in occasionally for the famed Glenn Miller Band. 

“I was just one of the replacements after some of the band passed away,” Ed Jaskolski says. “Most of my life I spent in the field of education. But honestly, we love talking about a lot of things. We like hearing about other people’s careers and stories. But if it starts to get too serious, we just make fun of each other because we don’t want to spend our whole day talking about someone’s gall bladder surgery.”

They all laugh. Ed Jaskolski says, “Look at these six beautiful faces looking at you,” he says. “Our commonality is football, and we love hearing Gene’s football stories about the Halas family and everything else.” When asked what it’s like hearing about football from a Bears first-round-draft pick, he says, “Ah, we’re used to it now.”

He’s not the only music man at the table. “Bud played in a bunch of bands, too,” Ed Jaskolski says. 

“It’s true,” Bud says. “I played sax, tenor, clarinet, keyboards—whatever was needed.” Bud loved the musician’s life, having grown up in the Jitterbug & Jazz Era, but when he started his family, he had to settle down and “get a real job,” he says. “I worked in many different roles in the industrial coating world, but I’m a musician at heart. I still play music.” The men nod, quickly taking turns complimenting Bud’s keyboard skills that he shares from time to time.

It’s hard to pinpoint the biggest jokester in the group, but it might just be Bud, with mischievous eyes and a contagious smile, and a witty retort quick as a whip. But Ed Malm’s magnetic personality will also draw you in, his blue eyes twinkling as he rains compliments on the Park Place staff as well as his neighbors. For Ed Malm, the friendships he’s formed with these five men are among the deepest relationships of his life.

“Friendships, when you’re my age, are not usually easy to come by,” Ed Malm says, “but here, they are. The friendships I’ve developed here are a lot closer than I’ve ever experienced.”

Chuck agrees. He spent a lifetime working in insurance and taking care of his family. After losing his wife, he lived alone and had a fall at home. He considered moving into a different senior community, but there were few men there as active and social as he is. When he walked into Park Place to check it out, he saw many groups of people chatting and laughing together, and he could tell Park Place was what he was looking for. “You’re never done making friends,” he says.

“Most of us lived alone after our wives passed away, and there was a void,” he says. “But you come here, and you have close friends you can see every day. There’s a lot here to love, but these friendships—that’s what truly makes life enjoyable.”

Bob Votaw nods. He’s the youngest of the group, reluctantly retired from pickleball on his 84th birthday to preserve his health, but looking at him, it’s easy to picture him picking up a racket and winning a match against men half his age. It’s also easy to imagine him as a geology and oceanography professor, taking his students on two-week trips to the Southwest, where they could explore the rocks of Death Valley, or the Grand Canyon, or wherever the destination took them. He moves easily, with a broad smile and  quick answers. The other men know Bob’s brilliant; at a table of intelligent men, Ed Malm says Bob’s the one who can find the answer to pretty much anything.

Bob takes turns ribbing the guys at the table, but he turns serious as he says, “When I married my wife, all her friends were my friends. Then when she died, I didn’t have any friends.” He knew Gene Schroeder from their church, “and he was sort of my only friend.”

Weekly, Bob picked up Gene at Park Place to drive him to church, and he always enjoyed the friendly community. “Finally, Gene says to me, ‘You know you’re going to move here eventually. Why don’t you just move now?’” So, Bob did, and it’s a decision he is grateful for.

After living alone for nine years, finding these friends was a blessing beyond what he expected. “These are close friends,” Bob says. “These are guys I can depend on.”

Since forming these friendships, they all agree that life is far more full of ups than downs. But on the rare occasions that a bad day shows itself, Ed Malm says the cure is each other. “If I feel a little down or something has happened, I just sit with my friends and they pick me right up,” he says. “We start conversations right away and that gets me out of my so-called doldrums.”

Eccelesiastes 4:12 reads, “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken” (NIV). It makes sense that these men’s cord of six strands is even stronger than most, a bond and a blessing that will continue to sustain them throughout their retirement.





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