We hear about it every now and then. Elderly spouses, wife and husband for decades, dying within weeks or even days of one another. It seems sad, yet in some sweet way, comforting. That is how it was for Mary Ann and Eugene Hoffman of Stuart, Nebraska in 2017.
Gene and Mary Ann had been ailing during their last few years. Mary Ann struggled with dementia, and Gene was slowed with arthritis, but his mind was sharp. During the last couple years, he stayed strong to help take care of Mary Ann.
Mary Ann died on April 14, 2017. A few weeks later, on May 22, Gene passed away.
Their six children will always be grateful for the home care the couple received from seven special caregivers from their hometown of Stuart, who traveled 15 miles to the Hoffman family ranch each day so Gene and Mary Ann could continue living at home. It was very important that Mary Ann remained in her own home, and the children deeply appreciated the continuous care their parents received.
The family tried to help as much as they could, but each sibling lives far from their hometown. The oldest, Bill Hoffman, lives in Fort Worth. After serving in the Army as a Cobra helicopter pilot in Vietnam, he became an independent contractor and has managed a ranch in Texas for many years.
Alice Van Anne is a registered nurse in occupational healthcare and now lives in Elkhorn, Nebraska. Brothers Ron and Ray graduated from Chadron State and were both inducted into its Football Hall of Fame. After teaching for several years, Ron began ranching near Bayard, Nebraska and developed a nationally-known bred heifer program. Ray owns a construction company in Henderson, Nevada where he builds large commercial and government facilities.
Two of the siblings, Marilou Nash, a retired medical technician who now lives in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, and Ken Hoffman, who owns a software consulting firm in Chandler, Arizona, shared vivid memories of what it was like growing up in a home anchored by faith, family, work and education . . . and why the family felt compelled to provide a significant gift to the Stuart Community Foundation Fund to create a loving legacy for their parents.
Both Gene and Mary Ann were born and spent their lives giving back to the Stuart area. It would be impossible to count the number of pies and other baked goods Mary Ann made and gave to St. Boniface Catholic Church whenever there was a need.
Gene, a World War II Army veteran, was originally stationed in the Philippines. He told stories of the tense time spent in Tokyo Harbor in a Higgins boat circling the USS Missouri awaiting the surrender and end of the war. Gene dedicated years to the local American Legion Club and was part of the color guard that consistently won inter-post competitions.
Work on the family ranch involved everyone. “By the time they were five years old, the children were feeding chickens and gathering eggs. Every year, Mom would order up to 400 chicks. And it was not unusual for her to clean and freeze a dozen broilers in a single day,” Ken said.
Marilou countered: “Maybe it was only a dozen chickens a day by the time Ken came along. It was more like 30 a day during my time,” she laughed.
Marilou agreed that her parents provided a space where their children learned how to work hard. “At 10 or 11, the kids were working in the hay fields. Then there were cows to milk, hog houses to clean, and cattle to herd, feed and manage,” said Marilou.
Ken remembers his mother always had a huge vegetable garden and canned everything. Bread and nearly everything else was homemade. Sometimes during the winter, the family would butcher a cow. That is when a tasty sausage was made, using a cherished family recipe that was handed down through the generations.
Even after a long day’s work on the ranch and in the home, Mary Ann worked nights for nearly 30 years at the Parkside Manor nursing home in Stuart. “My mom was a caregiver all her life—to her husband and children, elderly relatives, neighbors, and her patients. Some of the caregivers during Mom’s last years had been paired up to work with her as they learned their duties during their first days at Parkside Manor,” said Marilou.
Somehow, Mary Ann and Gene still found time and energy to volunteer at the American Legion and the Auxiliary, coach girls softball, boys little league baseball, support the school boosters and more. They were a part of making things happen in Stuart, and their grandchildren loved to spend time on the ranch and in town, enjoying the Fourth of July parade, the rodeo and the stock car races.
“Faith was very important and family togetherness was a passion,” Ken said. Gene and Mary Ann cherished the family time when all the children would come back to visit, yet they encouraged their children to pursue whatever choices life presented. They wanted each of the children to go to college and experience other parts of the world.
Marilou said that when she came back to care for and visit her parents, friends and neighbors would join them for dinner. One of those close family friends was Don Schmaderer, a founder and longtime member of the Stuart Community Foundation Fund. Don helped to raise awareness about what the Fund was doing for her hometown. He later provided materials about the foundation that she shared with the family, which helped them gain a better understanding of the Fund’s work.
The lifestyle their parents lived and the hometown they loved were the values that influenced the brothers’ and sisters’ decision to give back to their hometown. Ken said that although the siblings did not settle in Stuart as adults, their hometown is still very important to them. Their father had stressed the importance of leaving a legacy, even if you leave your hometown.
“Giving up the family ranch was a difficult thing to do,” said Marilou. “It was the place where our parents struggled and persevered through some very hard times,” she said. The siblings considered putting the land up for rent, but none of them was in a position to manage that endeavor. They were gratified when the Nick Hamilton family, who knew their folks well and worked with them for years, purchased the home place.
Ken, Marilou, their sister and brothers, and all their spouses wanted to do something important to honor and memorialize their parents. “We had numerous conference calls to talk about different ways we could make a gift,” Ken said. “The calls provided a kind of catharsis and brought us closer together as we went through the process of deciding what would be most meaningful to our parents.”
At first, they thought the gift should go to something very specific. However, over the course of several months, they visited with Jon Schmaderer and Darby Paxton, members of the Stuart Community Foundation Fund, and learned more about the Fund’s projects, both past and future… improvements to the park, the school and investing in early childhood education. They became more comfortable with the idea of making a gift to Stuart’s unrestricted endowment.
They learned about the challenge grant campaign the Fund was involved in. The goal was to raise $500,000 for the Fund’s unrestricted endowment, which would be matched with $250,000 by The Sherwood Foundation of Omaha.
After much discussion over many months, the family made their decision. Each of the brothers, sisters and their respective spouses made major gifts to the campaign, together totaling about $70,000. Since the gift earned an additional 50 percent in matching funds, the result is a significant increase of over $100,000 to boost Stuart’s unrestricted endowment, which will provide an ongoing stream of grantmaking dollars each year, forever.
“Gene and Mary Anne Hoffman loved their faith, family and their community. Their children are a great example of that love,” said Don Schmaderer. “The family’s decision to leave a lasting legacy in memory of Gene and Mary Ann through their gift to Stuart’s permanent endowment is consistent with their family history. We are so thankful for the Hoffmans, and other families like them, that still consider Stuart ‘home,’ even though they no longer live here.”
Family members know that Gene and Mary Ann Hoffman would be proud. Mary Ann would be thrilled with the plans to develop an early childhood development center because she loved children, and she and Gene recognized the importance of education, not only to young people, but to a community trying to attract more families.
“Our parents insisted that their kids should be involved in as many school activities as they were interested in. And for graduation, every child got a suitcase—a symbol of encouragement to get more schooling and find your own way,” Marilou said. “Today, the times have changed. In Stuart, graduating high school seniors sometimes get a mailbox as an invitation to come home after getting an education and experiencing life.”
When it is time to start a career or a family, there are new opportunities to live and work from anywhere, including, and perhaps especially, in Stuart, which is already succeeding in attracting young people back. Thanks to the generosity of people like the Hoffman family, the community can do even more.