It is early morning and the day’s work is just getting underway. After passing down the hall, a familiar voice reaches out in greeting from inside apartment E1.
His door is always open.
Chad Peterson waits for all who make their way into his hallway. “Come here,” he’ll say. He has the vantage point, being just off the main entrance. Regardless of who it is walking past or where they may be headed, Chad always proffers the old-as-time question—
“Coffee?” Behind him is a display of K-Cups and a Keurig, ready to go for all who may accept. If it isn’t coffee for the morning, then it might be a rice bag made by Chad’s mother Betty. These have a variety of designs. One depicts golf balls, clubs, and tees, while another is a pattern of overlaid roses. “How’re you?” Though difficult for him to speak in full sentences, the conversation never suffers. He knows how to initiate with just a word.
Or, a simple “how’s”, with a gesture to an object to indicate what he means, like a wedding ring to see how one’s spouse is doing.
Chad understands the value of relationships. Behind Chad, lining the back walls of his apartment, are a dozen five-foot-tall shelves filled with hundreds of movies. Above these shelves are framed puzzles that when put together look like something out of the environment of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. However, instead of a sultry setting of diners occupying the space from within a deserted city, these depict conversations between three 1950s icons of Americana—Elvis Presley, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe. Icons gone too soon, here together remembering something.
Now the bed and TV are gone, and boxes labeled “A-B,” “C-E”, and all the way to “T-V” are around the floor and movie shelves. Chad’s mom Betty and Jill Guenther, QLI’s Director of Skill Building, are sorting through his movies, dividing them out and placing each one into its respective box, keeping them in alphabetical order.
“When the movies were all on these shelves,” says Betty, “they weren’t in any particular order, but Chad knew where to find each one.” Another team member stops in the doorway, quietly knocking.
“How was the drive?” she asks Betty.
“It was okay,” says Betty. “It’s still tough.” The team member embraces her.
“We’re just so glad you’re here.”
“So am I,” says Betty. The look on her face says it all—she is cherished here.
Betty is sorting through her son’s movies for the creation of Chad’s Corner, a spot within the Assisted Living wing of QLI’s East Campus that will act as a movie library for all to enjoy. It only seems fitting that the guy who warmed so many lives over twenty years should occupy a permanent space and memory within it.
“Chad worked nights for a time a while back. He was a hotel desk manager.” Chad was thirty when he came to QLI for rehabilitation following a stroke in 2002. He benefitted from a mild level of support so Chad and his family made the decision to transition to Assisted Living where he could live largely independently. QLI provides rehabilitation and a path to get back to one’s life. Just what a return to life may look like differs for each individual. For some, they may return home to families and work while others may still require a level of support. Although Chad required a level of support following his time on the Rehabilitation Campus, it did not mean his ability to impact others’ lives was impeded.
“I’m just realizing how long I knew Chad—twenty years,” says QLI Director of Assisted Living Heath Mlnarik. “Even back then, the connections he made with everyone were positive and instantaneous. People have always been drawn to both him and Betty.”
Betty’s involvement at QLI went beyond attending Chad’s therapies. She made it her point to help out wherever she could. Mlnarik and others mention her making time to help create activities for Fourth of July festivities some years, or volunteering at QLI’s Evening at the Fair and golf outing events. Beyond being a force for good among QLI team members, Betty dedicated herself to the residents’ lives. If a resident had a need, be it a desire to go off campus for a bit, or simply to have someone to talk to, Betty would be happy to help. Just like how Chad’s connection with people and willingness to involve himself in their lives was inherent, so was Betty’s. She was there for them for years and continues to be so.
While in Assisted Living, Chad was constantly about, making trips over to Target, working at the Hub Café on the Rehabilitation Campus, and volunteering at a local Staybridge Suites. “Every Friday before he’d go to work he’d walk around both campuses, offering a bucket of candies and a smile to everyone,” remembers Betty. All of this changed at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The campuses were isolated, and volunteer programs were suspended. Though he wasn’t able to engage with his community in the way he once could, it didn’t diminish Chad’s character and purpose.
In the second half of 2021, Chad grew abnormally fatigued and lost a considerable amount of weight. Doctors discovered a throat tumor, diagnosing Chad with cancer. Two months later, Chad passed away. “Even during that difficult time, Chad had an amazing foundation of love and support around him from all those he cared about during his time here,” says Mlnarik.
The power of the voices that speak after he is gone act as a testament to the life Chad lived. Memory and experience allow for Chad’s story to continue long past his death. A lasting legacy through Chad’s Corner and the memories will act as an indicator for new clients and team members that will never have the chance to know him.
That remembrance was seen during Chad’s Celebration of Life in the Assisted Living dining room, a few weeks after he passed away. Even if one did not know Chad well beforehand, all knew him better after leaving. QLI team members from all areas and departments were present—human resources, maintenance, nursing, clinical staff, all had a shared bond and experience with Chad. One at a time, team members, assisted living residents, and members of Chad’s family stood to speak on their memories of him.
The Celebration begins with a recitation from Brian Kelly—it is a prayer of sorts, a sign of thankfulness for the fulfilling life. The way the prayer is situated is as if from Chad’s own perspective—that in a certain respect, he is free now. Betty sits towards the edge of this scene. She laughs and nods in a knowing sort of way, in on all the jokes and light barbs traded. Jill Guenther steps forward to share her thoughts.
“I’ve known Chad for twenty years—ever since he first came here,” says Guenther. “He’s given all of us so much joy…” there are tears in her eyes. “And I hope that you,” pointing to Betty, “will continue to volunteer here forever.” Betty has tears in her eyes as well.
“I will,” says Betty. “I wouldn’t want to stop coming here.”
Kevin Lord, Chad’s brother-in-law, steps up to the front of those gathered. “You know,” he says, “I feel like we could trade stories about Chad for hours on end.” There’s laughter—everyone knows it’s true. “This may seem weird to say, but I think Chad became the person he wanted to be, here.” Lord gestures around. “We got out here to see him as much as we could, but…” he pauses. “Whenever he returned to Omaha after visiting family and crossed the Mormon Bridge, he would wake up and say ‘home.’ You all were with him every single day. You are his family too.”
The same sentiment is shared during Chad’s funeral service. Though held in Carroll, Iowa, more than two hours away from Omaha, over thirty QLI team members attended, with many named as pallbearers, or honorary pallbearers. Just in this thought alone, Chad’s impact remained clear and evident even after his death.
When new team members begin at QLI, in the middle of the week they are introduced to East Campus. During this time, they take a tour of Assisted Living, stopping by along the way to greet residents and other team members, better familiarizing themselves, with what this home means to others. Though the door of apartment E1 is physically closed, the spirit and legacy of Chad Peterson remains to keep it open to all who will enter and hear his story, greeted by the familiar question of