A bright light in trying times

Dean Shepersky
Life enrichment, for himself and others, keeps Woodbury resident Dean Shepersky focused on how he can be of service. Photo courtesy of Renee Vaughan

If I ever needed an example of how an old man should handle a pandemic with youthful vigor, I need only look to my former next-door neighbor Dean Shepersky. The 92-year-old Korean War veteran lived in Evergreen Countryhomes in Woodbury, and now he’s a half mile away in the Stonecrest senior living community.

He’s not only survived the 8-month virus ordeal, he’s thrived. Sure, he’s been hunkered down, but he’s also linked in, wired up and speaking out. He’s gregarious by nature and abiding in faith. From this spring to fall, he’s been meeting his family on Zoom, baking rhubarb pie and banana bread, emailing his friends and passing out homemade cookies to his neighbors.

Remarkably, he’s managed to do this in the wake of his wife’s death in December 2018. He and Dorie, a registered nurse, were married for 67 years. They raised four children and followed the exploits of eight grandchildren scattered across the country.

He’s now head of the household and not even tempted to feel sorry for himself.

“I’ve got a frying pan and a microwave,” he said, “and a daughter who can help me with the grocery shopping. The truth is I’ve been blessed. I had decades with Dorie, and we travelled to more than 40 countries. We flew to the East and West Coasts to visit our extended family and watched the grandkids get off to good starts. And Dorie died quickly and peacefully.”

Over the course of his life, Shepersky has developed an alphabet of survival skills: courage, devotion, enthusiasm, faith and gratitude. As a kid growing up in South Dakota, he carried newspapers, swept floors and pulled the hooves from pig carcasses at an Armour packing plant.

As an adult, Shepersky joined the Marine Corps near the end of World War II, got out and went to South Dakota State College. He earned a degree in pharmacy, joined ROTC and volunteered to go to Korea. He was a combat medic there, and earned a Bronze Star for valor in ground combat. After the war, he became a partner in a pharmacy and joined the Army Reserves. He served 31 years and retired as a lieutenant colonel. Dean and Dorie first set up housekeeping in Huron, South Dakota. They moved to Minnesota with their family in 1968, and he worked for several downtown Minneapolis pharmacies. He learned to manage unruly customers as well as fill prescriptions. He had the street savvy and professional skills to do both.

By the time I met Shepersky, Korea was a distant memory, and he had long ago retired from his job as pharmacist and store manager at the downtown Walgreens where I had stopped for coffee when I was a police reporter.

In the townhome association, however, he was very active and put the touch on me to join him as a volunteer painter.

“You don’t have to do that much,” he told me, “because we just touch up trim. We call ourselves the Rembrandt Committee. You’ll have fun.” A week later I had a brush in one hand and sandpaper in the other. I did not have that much fun painting, but I did enjoy working next to him.

Shepersky has dropped the paintbrush and picked up a DVD course from the University of Notre Dame on the development of Western civilization. He’s listening to college professors while I’m watching reruns of Blue Bloods.

It’s clear to me that Dean Shepersky has accumulated what I see as wisdom over the decades. He knows enough to know he’s not in charge. So he says a prayer, asks for strength and courage, and lights his “little candle. And I’ll share it,” he says, “wherever I am.”

I think I see the light.

Dave Nimmer had a long career as a reporter, editor and professor. Now retired, he has no business card, but plenty to do.