Home Sweet Home

By Renee Beasley Jones Messenger-Inquirer

Guests who visit Wendell Foster in the morning may hear the voice of Mary Varley — who would love a job in broadcasting — on the intercom as she greets campus residents and staff with a weather report.

Wendell Foster’s residential cottages, administration building and therapy facility are tucked in a 15-acre area between Triplett and Center streets. The campus that serves developmentally disabled clients blends in so well with the surrounding community it often goes unnoticed.

But it’s a bustling campus with about 80 residents and 350 employees, not counting outpatient therapy services.

“I’m enjoying it,” Varley said of living at Wendell Foster. “And I’ll tell you a secret. I (would) never (have) believed I’ve been here this long.”

This year marks her 50th year at Wendell Foster. She and her twin, the late Katie Varley, arrived the year they turned 18.

She is one of several residents who have lived at Wendell Foster for decades.

Gary Blair moved to Wendell Foster when he was just 6. Now, he’s 72.

Blair remembers Wendell Foster, the organization’s founder.

“He was like a dad to me. He called me his boy,” Blair said.

In 1937, Wendell and Edith Foster learned their infant daughter had severe cerebral palsy. Social stigma at the time kept families from taking disabled children out in public.

Therefore, the Fosters set out on a mission to find other developmentally disabled children in Owensboro. In a door-to-door search, they found seven and offered their home as a meeting place. Their backyard became a physical and occupational therapy area.

That outreach was the genesis for today’s Wendell Foster.

Edward “Butch” Freels, 73, has lived there since he was a toddler. He lives in a cottage with Blair, his constant companion for many years.

Freels is a greeter at Sts. Joseph and Paul Catholic Church.

“Everybody knows him,” said Jeff Hagan, Wendell Foster director of marketing and public relations.

Blair and Freels remember when celebrities — Bob Hope, Roy and Dale Rogers, Paul Harvey, Liberace and Gene Autry — came to visit. They weren’t hired to come, Blair said. They made the trip because the facility became well-known across the nation, and they wanted to meet its residents.

“(Liberace) played the piano,” Freels said.

The Wendell Foster campus has become a live-work-play atmosphere through the years. It’s a place where residents and staff break down traditional roles and interact like family, Blair said.

As one small example, Hagan threw open the door for a resident making her way into Cottage A.

“Hello, Diane,” he said, with a broad grin. “Welcome home.”

Staff take the time to know little tidbits about residents, such as Varley loves broadcasting and weather, and Freels is a “Gunsmoke” fan.

Another long-time resident, John Susong, loves to fold laundry. That’s his favorite chore on Friday afternoons.

They know Freels likes to work the concessions booth.

Blair drives his wheelchair all over town — even out as far as Kentucky 54. Hagan said Blair has driven his current wheelchair 6,440 miles, which is enough to make three round trips to Miami.

Staff members take pride in Blair’s sense of independence.

“It’s not sad,” Hagan said of life at Wendell Foster. “(Blair) is happy. He’s glad to be here.”