Longtime mountain-area resident Hank Thresher has never shrunk from a challenge.
Born in Providence, R.I., at the tender age of five it became Hank’s practice to test his young legs against those of the local high school boys. “I was their mascot,” Hank says. “I’d run with them every day after kindergarten got out.”
His need for speed followed him to Garden City, on New York’s Long Island, where his family moved when he was 10. With a big head-start in track and field, Hank went on to become Garden City’s first high school All-American athlete, setting records in both the 100- and 220-yard dashes. To this day, Garden City High School bestows the Henry Thresher Award upon its most outstanding runners. Graduating in 1949, Hank took his fleet feet to Yale University, again setting records in the 100 and 220 – school records that have yet to be broken.
“At the time I was considered the second-fastest amateur sprinter in the country,” says Hank, without a shred of conceit.
By 1951, Hank was in training for the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki when an ancient scourge shattered his momentum. He contracted polio.
“It paralyzed my right leg. I spent five months in a Catholic institution, and spent my freshman year being tutored because I couldn’t walk to class.”
The challenge was immense, but so was Hank’s resolve. He was back on the track by his sophomore year, and was soon training for the 1956 games in Melbourne. When a pulled Achilles tendon slammed the brakes on his Olympic hopes for a second time, he took the set-back stoically.
“I thought, ‘I gave it my best shot. I guess it’s time to try something different.’”
Something different turned out to be managing all of the telephone exchanges in Brooklyn and Queens. In the era of switchboard operators and “number, please,” that post held challenges not found elsewhere.
“I had 1,400 people working for me,” Hank grins. “1,397 women, and three men.”
One of those women was a subordinate manager named Gail Moloney, with whom he developed a strong friendship, although not a romance. His heart was already given to his wife, Geraldine, who gave him unstinting support and three fine sons.
In 1980, Hank was challenged to head up AT&T’s national training organization in Lakewood. He accepted, of course, and the family eventually settled in Turkey Creek Canyon.
Hank lost Geraldine to cancer in 1993. As it happened, he found an important source of comfort and consolation in his old friend, Gail Moloney, who’d made the move West in 1978. Hank and Gail married five years later, and together they took on the sad and difficult challenge of caring for Gail’s aged and ailing parents. Thankfully, it was a challenge they didn’t have to face alone. “We were both still working, and her parents needed physical therapy, occupational therapy, respite care, and just plain companionship. Mount Evans [Home Health & Hospice] was a godsend. Without them we would’ve been up Saw Creek.”
In retirement, Hank sought fresh challenges. “I did some consulting, and even tried my hand as a private investigator. But I didn’t like carrying a gun, and I’m not as fast as I used to be,” he laughs. Still determined to be of constructive use, he remembered the debt he felt toward Mount Evans. “I thought ‘you know, I guess it’s pay-back time.’”
Curiously enough, the challenge of becoming a Mount Evans volunteer was among the most daunting of Hank’s life.
“I had a lot of anxiety,” he recalls. “I didn’t have any medical training, and I didn’t really know that much about caring for sick and dying people.” Fortunately, Mount Evans knows just how to prepare its volunteers for the challenges that come with the job. “I took the training, which eliminated a lot of my anxiety. They took me under their wing and showed me the ropes. I had total support from Mount Evans all the way from A to Z.”
Fifteen years later, Hank’s still paying back. When he’s not driving someone where they need to go, he’s at Life Care Center spending time with somebody who could use a friend, or, as a Eucharistic minister, bringing the Catholic Communion to a person who can’t get it any other way. And when he’s not doing something to help a client, he’s doing something to help a new volunteer.
“I give group talks to new recruits,” Hank says. “I try to take them under my wing and show them the ropes.”
And, at 81, he looks forward to plenty of new challenges ahead.
“How much longer will I volunteer? I walk about a mile a day, and I do my own shoveling. As long as I’m in good health, I’ll keep volunteering.”
Photo by Stephen Knapp