Health Sciences Report Summer 2006

Small Talk from a Big Heart

By Susan Sample
Photos By Steve Leitch

Herb Russell

Herb Russell knows how to dispense small talk. He banters and winks, giving away smiles with the mail and newspapers he delivers to patients at University of Utah Hospital. And that's no small feat, considering that he's volunteered for 50 years.

"Anything I do, I do the best I can," said the 82-year-old Kearns, Utah, resident, who was honored by the hospital on "Herb Russell Day" last March 23. "That's why I deliver the papers to the patients, not the nurses' station. I go on all the floors and into every room, and I try to talk to every patient.

As for loyalty and commitment, "they're just in me. That's the way I am."

For 33 years, Russell booked entertainment for the psychiatric unit. He began in 1956 planning twice-weekly performances at Salt Lake County General Hospital, then once a week at University Hospital when it opened in 1965. The shows were always in the evenings, after he'd finished his shift as a project planner and estimator for U of U Physical Plant and Operations. That way, he could help set up chairs and make sure everything went smoothly.

"I'd been a corpsman in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and took care of patients who came back from the war. I enjoyed that," recalled Russell. A graduate of Santa Cruz High School in Calif., he joined the army in 1943 and was assigned to a general hospital in Topeka, Kan.

That's where he met Leah Whitehead, "the prettiest WAC you'd ever seen." He married the native of Richfield, Utah, the next year. She died last April after a long illness. She, too, put in her hours as a volunteer at University Hospital: 700-800, estimates Russell. "I got to admire her," he said of the early years when he volunteered. "She never complained."

Although he has fond memories of hospital work, Russell never considered pursuing it after the Korean Conflict. "You know, I didn't then. But I wish I'd of taken it up. I think I would have made a good nurse."

Not a doctor? "I don't think I could have made it," he replied. "Our three boys were just little things: two, four, and six."

Instead, they moved to Lebanon, Ore., where Russell took over his uncle's grocery store, supplementing his paycheck by working in a plywood mill. "Then a big store like an Albertson's swept in down the street." His family, which now included a daughter, moved to Utah, to be closer to his wife's relatives.

After a stint at a smelter--"I got tired of their strikes"--Russell was hired at the U of U. Steady work, good benefits, and an opportunity to return to a hospital. When he was assigned to the psych unit, in those days, unfavorably viewed, as in the movie One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, Russell didn't mind.

"The patients were nice. They just had a sickness, you know, just a different problem," he reasoned. When a patient would comment on a previous night's program: "Hey, that was great!" Russell felt rewarded. "I think it was good therapy."

Finding entertainment for two nights a week might seem daunting, but Russell, who served as president of University Hospital Auxiliary from 1990-91, had no trouble. "If I saw some act in the paper, I'd call. There was word-of-mouth, too. I think only once someone refused me. They wanted to be paid."

Variety shows, guitarists, barbershop quartets, combos: his wife saved autographed photos and letters of thanks from many performers in two bulging scrapbooks. Five Christmas cards are inscribed "To Herbert" from Liberace, courtesy of the president of the Liberace Candlelight Club of Kearns who performed with tuxedo and candlelight at the hospital. Richard Dawson, host of television's "Family Feud," inscribed his photo: "To Herbie, Have a good day, everyday! Peace, Richard."

Another page has the red ribbon he won from the Utah Gladiolus Society for his gardening efforts and a 1969 photo of his daughter, Carrie, crowned Queen of the Golden Spike Centennial Gladiolus Show. Numerous articles from both Oregon and Utah newspapers celebrate a milestone Russell reached in 1972: a total of 100 pints of blood donated to the American Red Cross.

Tucked in the middle of the thickest scrapbook are photos of an elusive "Whitey." "Identities are well masked and kept secret," reads the 1953 article headlined "Meet the Clowns." They'd performed at the Scio, Oregon, fat lamb show parade and the Florence Rhododendron Festival. Russell's recognizable in the back row, if you know whose smile to look for.

"We formed a troupe when we worked in the plywood mill," he said. It took 40 minutes to create his clown face, beginning with a base of white makeup over which he'd paint. "I was taught to take painstaking care," he noted. "When I was a clown, though, I'd forget my old body. Same way when I was Santa Claus," a role he volunteered in at the Training School in American Fork and Primary Children's Medical Center.

A great-grandfather of 16, Russell never started the troupe of clowns he'd once planned in Kearns. But he's also never forgotten the gift his clown smile brought to people. Whether in hospital hallways or patient rooms, Russell continues to share the same message.

"I didn't talk as a clown. But you know what I'd do? I had a pad, and I'd write. And you know what I'd write? I love you. That's all."

And he smiled.

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