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Walz retires from ECHO PLUS

By Staff | Oct 13, 2009

John Walz

When a person has faced adversity, it’s a lot easier to see how he can help others who have faced it as well.

That’s a good way to sum up John Walz.

Walz, residential director at ECHO PLUS, officially retired from his position Oct. 2 after being employed there for over 20 years, starting March 16, 1988.

To fully sum up John’s career, though, a person has to step back – way back – to understand the depth of his connection and contributions to Estherville.

John was born in the heart of Estherville in the clinic now occupied by the Courtview Apartments on North Seventh Street. While attending high school he worked at Mouritsen’s, earning 85 cents an hour, working 40 hours a week during high school.

He graduated from Estherville High School in 1961 and married Carolyn in 1962.

In the fall of 1964 he took a big wage hike – all the way up to $2.64 an hour – when he started at Morrell’s. “And we wondered what we were going to do with all the money.”

That problem was soon resolved, though, when their son John Jr. was born that year. John Jr. is following solidly in his father’s footsteps, teaching special education and coaching at Spirit Lake.

John started in the hide cellar at Morrell’s. The saying went that if someone survived the hide cellar he would have the chance to go on to work in the pork or beef plant.

In the hide cellar, green hides would come in from the kill floor and be laid out and packed in salt. After they cured, the salt was scraped off and graders would come in and buy the hides. Each hide weighed 150 pounds or more.

Everyone in the hide cellar knew that when the personnel director came in someone was going up to work pork or beef. One day the personnel director came in to talk to John. Gladly, he went to work the pork division.

John worked on the cut floor as a roustabout until he bid for a job on the kill and cut floor. His last job at Morrell’s was grading picnic hams and pork bellies.

John learned that the pork division was closing so he started taking classes in the health-care program at Iowa Lakes Community College. He graduated from the program in November 1983 and in 1984 took a job as administrator at Countryside Estates in Cherokee, three months short of receiving his severance pay from Morrell’s when the plant closed. “A good job meant more to me than the severance pay did,” Walz said.

After serving in the Cherokee position for 17 months, John took a job as county administrator in Cerro Gordo County. He moved to Mason City and supervised 75 staff in the 100-bed facility.

After two years at Mason City he want to Correctionville where he worked for Beverly Enterprises for two years.

And then one night Dan Youngblut called him.

John was in line to be the next superintendent for the Central Division for Beverly Enterprises. They had even sent him to college for his master’s degree. But Dan had called and said he was looking for an administrator to run a group home.

John hesitated at first. He had a lot of pots on the burners at Beverly Enterprises. He asked if Dan could hold the open open.

Dan did. For three months.

It was then that John was able to return to Estherville – and his family.

“I was dealing with life,” John said of working with the clients at ECHO. “At the nursing home I was dealing with death. I had an awful time dealing with that.”

Since John received not only his associate’s degree at Iowa Lakes but also bachelor’s in health-care administration from International University in Kansas City and another 10 hours on his master’s, he also taught courses in health-care administration at the Iowa Lakes Community College Spencer campus. He prides himself on graduating suma cum laude from both colleges – with a 3.8 from Iowa Lakes and a 3.9 in his bachelor’s program.

“When I first began my duties we only had a 10-bed group home in which we rented the convent building from our Catholic friends,” said Walz. “Today we serve about 80 people with six waiver homes and two supported community living programs in both Estherville and Spirit Lake.” Staff also increased from five to about 35.

“Case management now plays a vital role in programming and funding for our consumers,” John said.

John thoroughly enjoyed watching the clients grow in their life skills. He was also glad to see how attitudes have changed toward the intellectually challenged over the years.

“Our people have the same wants, the same desires, the same needs that we do,” John said.

John is grateful that it is now the client – not a caseworker – who decides how to structure the client’s life goals. The emphasis is now on skill building and teaching the consumers to have more choices and to become more independent within their own setting,which is the most important part of the program. “The consumer decides what skills they want to improve upon. Our Supported Community Living program enables persons to live semi-independently in their own homes,” he said.

Support is provided in whatever area is needed ranging from menu planning, grocery shopping, home management skills, cooking, budgeting and bill paying and whatever else is needed.

John said the staff works together toward a common goal of seeing the consumer grow more independent.

John said it is very hard for him to leave the program but he will visit the consumers at ECHO PLUS every now and then. He says the staff and consumers have become like family.

“They have become a very important part of my life and will continue to be,” he said.

Like other human service agencies, ECHO PLUS is weathering the storm of government cutbacks.

“You just have to work around those things,” John said. “You have to utilize your time better. We have to try to cut corners but not affect how we serve the people.”

If he were to have stayed on with ECHO PLUS, John would have liked to have seen more consumers in supported community living and waiver homes. “There’s a definite need for more waiver homes,” John said.

John will pursue his hobby of fishing and rescuing homeless animals.

“I will also enjoy a few more duties around the house to help Carolyn out as she continues to enjoy her position at the library,” John said. “I want to make things easier for her at home.”