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The Volunteers


One Small Town's 'Mr. & Mrs. Salvation Army'

by Linda D. Johnson

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Irene and Ed in the backyard of their home in Wakefield, Mass.
Irene and Ed in the backyard of their home in Wakefield, Mass.

Wakefield, Mass., is just off busy I-95 near Boston, but it has a small-town feel, with an old-fashioned main street and a population of 25,000. The town's tidy streets are lined with well-kept homes. What most people don't realize is that there is need, even here.

"People would ask us, 'You mean there are poor people in Wakefield?' " says Ed Schmidgall.

"I answer, 'It could be your next-door neighbor,' " says Ed.

"Jesus Himself said, 'The poor you will always have with you,' " says his wife, Irene.

There is no Salvation Army church (corps) in Wakefield. But as in many towns and cities, the Army has a presence through what is called a service unit. Through those units, people who need help can receive vouchers and other assistance.

Irene joined the service 50 years ago, and her husband soon followed. Quietly, over the years, they became known as the people who could be counted on to help those in need.

"They were Mr. & Mrs. Salvation Army in Wakefield," says Major Karen Cranford, who has known the couple since the 1980s. Though they have always kept a low profile, Ed and Irene are known in Wakefield for their work during the holidays. Several years ago, their profile became more public as they were named Grand Marshalls of the town's Santa Claus Parade.

Professional lives

When Ed and Irene first moved from New York City to Wakefield "just 50 years ago," as Ed puts it, he was working with General Electric's Lamp Division as a chemical engineer. He first got the job with GE because of a recommendation from Irene's sister, Helen Holtan.

Helen, with a college degree, had begun working as a chemist for GE in the late 30s, something that was quite rare for a woman at that time. When she needed help in the chemistry end of lamp-making, she thought of her brother-in-law.

Ed didn't particularly like living in New York and once was offered a transfer to Florida, but he and Irene didn't particularly want to move to the South.

"If something opens up in New England, let me know," he said, though he didn't believe that would happen. But in 1959, an opening did come. Ed jumped at the chance.

Before the couple married, Irene was a graduate nurse at Columbia Presbyterian School of Nursing. At the time of their 1943 wedding, she was a visiting nurse in Brooklyn's Bay Ridge. Her skills were easily transferable to their new hometown. In 1960, she took a job as school nurse, covering the junior high and three elementary schools in Wakefield.

Soon she was invited to be part of the local Salvation Army service unit.

"They assumed that I would know a lot of the needs," says Irene.

Starting small

In the early days, she says, the service unit couldn't really do very much.

"What little income we had came from the United Way."

In small ways, the unit, headed by the junior high principal, helped out during the holidays. Years later, Ed was invited to become the chair of the unit after he retired as a Boy Scout leader.

During the early 80s, greater holiday involvement began with a request from one family, who came to see Doris Skinner at the local Red Cross because they couldn't provide Christmas gifts for their children. Skinner organized some local families who contributed toys. As the years passed, requests grew, and Skinner started a Christmas Shop.

But such a project wasn't something the Red Cross could do on a long-term basis, so she called The Salvation Army to ask if it might take over the project.

Ed remembers the response from the Boston Army representative.

"Anything that's helping people, The Salvation Army wants to be part of it," he recalls the officer saying.

So the Christmas Shop became the Holiday Shoppe (Irene's suggestion, so that local Jewish families would feel welcome).

"It was Ann Loughlin's baby," says Irene. Loughlin was-and still is-the service unit's welfare secretary.

The Holiday Shoppe soon became a Wakefield institution. Many organizations, clubs, banks, and other businesses started to get involved. Then people started giving checks.

"The main difference was that the town got involved," says Ed.

"I think it was because they knew us," says Irene, "Ed as the Boy Scout leader and me as the school nurse. They trusted us. They knew the money went where they wanted it to go."

Expanding 'like topsy'

Ed and Irene are also deacons at the First Parish Congregational Church, and at the time, Irene was on the Outreach Committee, which made The Salvation Army its local project.

"Suddenly we became very busy as the church realized that we were part of the service unit," says Ed. "It started to go like topsy."

With funding now more readily available, the service unit began to help people year-round, with vouchers for clothing at the Army's thrift store, for example, and food and fuel. When a family's needs were greater than the unit could meet, other organizations, such as St. Vincent de Paul, became involved.

The Schmidgalls ran the voucher program themselves.

"We had no overhead," Ed says. "We provided the postage. We've never had a computer; we have a calculator."

Major Karen Cranford says the couple have always paid for their own supplies for the Wakefield Service Unit.

"They wanted to use every penny [donated] for the work of The Salvation Army," says Cranford.

She was instrumental in the couple's adding another layer of involvement with the Army. She and her husband, Major John Cranford, served in nearby Saugus, Mass., at a Men's Social Service Center, a Bible-based rehabilitation facility, which later became an Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC). Major Karen felt led to form an auxiliary, a group of local people who could help out with the work.

A Salvation Army service unit coordinator in Boston gave Cranford the Schmidgalls' names. Ed and Irene had just retired from their "day jobs," and they told Cranford that they were already prepared to become more involved with the service unit.

"All of us felt it was God who prompted my call," Cranford says.

In those days and even today, the group is typically a Women's Auxiliary, but from the beginning in Saugus, husbands came to meetings too. In the auxiliary's early days, the membership rolls showed one "E. Schmidgall."

"They wondered if it might be Edna, I think," Ed jokes.

Cranford asked for official approval for men's involvement.

"We wondered why we couldn't have the men be members as well, especially since at the time, we only worked with men," she says. Today, the ARC has 102 men and 22 women as "beneficiaries" in the Bible-based recovery program.

The idea raised some eyebrows, but Lt. Colonel Faye Howell at Boston headquarters pushed for approval, and it happened.

"As far as I know, we were the first auxiliary to do this, and it may be the only one with men as members to this day," Cranford says.

The women in the auxiliary would sort and repair jewelry donated through thrift store boxes, and men would repair various small electrical items.

But Cranford says, "Ed went beyond the norm and began helping men prepare for their GED tests. He did this faithfully every Tuesday night for many years. Many men have been grateful for the one-on-one tutoring-and, when needed, some additional fatherly advice."

Irene also went the extra mile at the ARC. She brought a group of nurses once a month to check the men's blood pressure. And he engaged the Ladies' Guild at her church to make and deliver cakes for monthly birthday celebrations.

Over the years, Irene was president of the auxiliary many times.

"She always did an outstanding job," Cranford says.

Why help so much?

After their July 31 retirement from the service unit, the Schmidgalls had plans to spend more time with their daughter Abby, who was suffering from ALS ("Lou Gehrig's Disease"). But then, unexpectedly, she died Aug. 17 at age 64.

Providentially, just a week before that, many members of the family had come to the home of Abby and her husband on Cape Cod for a week of "wonderful memories," as Irene says. Abby, a hospice nurse, had not been as disabled as many ALS patients become. She had lost her voice and couldn't swallow, but she was never confined to a wheelchair.

So, at 90, Ed and Irene once again have time on their hands. They spend some of that time at the ARC.

"They do anything we ask-put together toiletry baskets or the Christmas holiday schedule, sell jewelry to raise funds to buy gifts for the beneficiaries and their kids," says Major Patty Taylor, director of programs and services at the Saugus facility. She says Ed also continues to tutor ARC beneficiaries seeking a GED.

For the Wakefield Service Unit, Ann Loughlin will continue to run the Holiday Shoppe. Ed and Irene are hoping someone in their church will take over the service unit's year-round work.

"The Salvation Army is a great organization," Ed says. For his reason for such passion, he points to the Army's Founder, William Booth, whose son Bramwell told his father how horrified he was to see men living under bridges in London's East End.

"William Booth told his son, 'Do something!' " recalls Ed.

That's what Ed and Irene have tried to do all these years.

"We feel we have to give back something," Ed says. "We receive the ability to help, and we are grateful to be able to do what we can in this little town. That's our motto, our creed."