Published: January 23, 2024
On March 2, 1992 Barbara Thomas headed to the third floor of a bank building in Oberlin to begin her new job with Kendal at Oberlin, “an organization that wasn’t even in the ground,” she says. That would come to completion 20 months later, on Oct. 6, 1993, with the arrival of Kendal’s first residents.As Barbara prepares for her retirement next month, she’s been doing a lot of reflecting. After 32 years as Kendal’s CEO, the longest of any Kendal Corporation executive, she has a lot to reflect back on, beginning with her decision to join a non-profit based in Pennsylvania with no footprint in Ohio.
“Yes, there were naysayers questioning why I was giving up a secure job with Judson Senior Living in Cleveland, only 10 minutes from my home, for a job that wasn’t even in the ground yet, 50 minutes from home,” she says.
But Barbara was familiar with Kendal Corp. and its retirement communities grounded in Quaker values such as resident engagement and consensus governance.
“I had total confidence in the organization and the draw to Quaker values,” she says.
During her tenure the Kendal campus has nearly doubled in size and maintains occupancy rates over 90%. The organization established Kendal at Home, now a leader in the field of lifecare at home, and acquired lower income housing options in Oberlin.
“Our board always supported expanding on our mission. It has been my privilege and utmost pleasure to serve at a community so engaged at all levels,” the 72-year-old says, adding “This is a very special Kendal, often setting the highest standard.”
A few of Barbara’s favorite things…
Over the past couple of months Barbara has been sharing with staff and residents “things I love and will dearly miss.” Her collection at the time of this article exceeds 40 things.
Here are just 6 of them, in no particular order.
1. Kendal’s Art Galleries and Literary Treasures
Kendal’s world is ever-so-expanded by the many varied art exhibits hanging throughout the year in one of Kendal’s three galleries. When the walls are bare as they change, it is a “dark” day. Kendal’s Eureka literary publication is a treasure and one of the best in the Kendal-wide system. Every publication provides a window into getting to know residents at a deeper level.
- Kendal Resale Shop
The popular shop provides both an outlet for residents and staff to donate usable furniture, clothes and the likes and a spot to purchase inexpensive items. All proceeds from the shop support the Resident Assistance Fund, assuring that services will continue for residents who may outlive their financial resources.
Barbara’s purchases over the years include home décor, such as a library lamp and cross stitch of the Kendal tower that are fond reminders of former residents And yes, the Resale Shop could be counted on to provide a change in clothing for an unexpected overnight in Oberlin. Barbara even modeled for the RAF fashion shows as seen in the image below.
- Kendal Early Learning Center
The Early Learning Center is not just a convenient service for staff and local residents who need a preschool, but it’s also a plus for Kendal residents bringing generations together. Grandfriends are the best story readers and listeners.
Seeing children swimming in the pool or walking down the hallway is a reminder that Kendal is not just a “senior” campus, Barbara says. And like many staff, Barbara's three girls had the benefit of summer camp at Kendal.
- Floral arrangements
Barbara’s digital photo album is full of colorful flower arrangements made by residents and displayed in Heiser Lounge. The flowers are always “real” and primarily offered by generous gardeners using unique containers and display methods.
“They are everchanging and bring so much pleasure to all of us. I had hoped to someday do a slide show of all the arrangements but that may not happen until I’m officially in retirement,” she says.
- Kendal Holiday traditions
Kendal has lots of them, but probably Barbara’s favorite is Winter Solstice, which began Dec. 21, 1995. The annual event includes music, stories and performances with a multicultural focus. Performers include residents from all levels of care, staff and occasionally even staff children. Barbara’s two youngest daughters had that honor in the first Solstice event.
One of Kendal’s most important Values is its emphasis on equality. Kendal doesn’t use titles and instead uses first and last names. “It feels totally foreign when someone calls on me as “Mrs. Thomas.” It is not meant as a lack of respect, but instead creating a culture where we are equally valued,” Barbara says.
Barbara pictured above with a group of Kendal staff at Leading Age Ohio in 2023.
Barbara’s next chapter
Unlike most people preparing to retire, Barbara is surrounded by people who have modeled successful aging and are thriving in their older years.
“I’m going to do what all of you do so well,” she tells residents, when asked about her plans.
Barbara and her husband Bill will become grandparents this summer – twice – and all three daughters live out west – Denver and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. So spending time with her expanding family and other delayed travel are certainly at the top of the list.
She also has family commitments closer to home, helping three siblings who have health issues.
She’s going to continue a couple of professional activities, most notably as a CARF accreditation peer surveyor and some board commitments locally and nationally.
But, most importantly, after working long days (and nights) Barbara is looking forward to “self- care.” From reading books (and actually finishing them), to gardening and exercising to simply enjoying the pleasure of being home on a weekday, Barbara is ready to take that step on Feb. 9.
Are you making plans for your future? Kendal at Oberlin offers an active lifestyle with opportunities for lifelong learning, art and culture.
In the past, Molly Kavanaugh frequently wrote about Kendal at Oberlin for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where she was a reporter for 16 years. Now we are happy to have her writing for the Kendal at Oberlin Community.
About Kendal at Oberlin: Kendal is a nonprofit life plan community serving older adults in northeast Ohio. Located about one mile from Oberlin College and Conservatory, and about a 40 minute drive from downtown Cleveland, Kendal offers a vibrant resident-led lifestyle with access to music, art and lifelong learning.