Praise for 'Uncle Frank': Norridge World War II veteran honored for service at Hines Fisher House

September 7, 2017
Chicago Tribune

Frank Gondela, a longtime Norridge resident and a World War II veteran, has been an important part of the Hines Veterans Hospital's Fisher House, "a home away from home" for family members, caregivers or loved ones of patients receiving medical care at the hospital.

"Frank is affectionately called Uncle Frank," said Holly Wright, the Fisher House manager. "He greets people, he greets our families, our visitors, answers the phone for phone for us. He runs errands to the hospital. A couple of holidays ago, he wrapped presents for two hours. So he does a whole lot of things, even just chatting with families. The families enjoy the conversation and that companionship, and he can do that."

Gondela, 90, was awarded the Fisher House Volunteer of the Year on April 25. He and wife Beverly were flown to Houston to be presented the award by David Coker, president of the Fisher House Foundation.

Separately, Gondela had received a certificate from the Department of Veteran Affairs, expressing appreciation of the 2,947 hours and 13 years of volunteer service to veterans Gondela had given through his volunteer work at Hines, which dates back to 2003.

Wright nominated him for the top Fisher House volunteer award, the application competing against those from Fisher House managers and the Department of Defense managers throughout the county.

"We are just fortunate to have Frank as part of our team," she said. "We have our employees that work here, but we all work as a team and we can't do it without the assistance of our volunteers. So to have folks like 'Uncle Frank' come to our doors and touch other people's lives is a blessing to us."

Gondela said it came as a surprise when Wright called his home in February to inform him that he had won the award.

"I said, 'Who are the other people I'll be with — the volunteers?' " he related. "She said, 'Frank, there is nobody, you're number one.' "

"There are at least 71 of these (Fisher House) units in the United States, there are several in Germany and a couple in the United Kingdom, and this award covered all them, making it more gratifying," he said. "The people are just treated so exceptionally well — not just because they're veterans, but the point is they do need help."

Gondela helped run a family rubber stamp business in downtown Chicago for 50 years. The "Uncle Frank," title really came from those days.

"When I started, I was Frank Junior; my father was Frank Senior," he recalled. "When they (customers) called, they would ask for Junior or Senior."

After his father was deceased, "I was no longer a Junior, so I came up with the title of 'Uncle Frank,' and I found that people never remember last names, but when they called they'd say I'd like to talk 'Uncle Frank.' "

He enlisted in the Air Force in 1944, letting his family pick up his diploma from Carl Schurz High School. He began volunteering at Hines on Dec. 11, 2003.

"I originally started as a goodwill ambassador," he said. "I didn't join Hines Hospital because I was sick or anything. It was just the thing to do."

At Fisher House, he's been a volunteer since March 17, 2010, starting only 17 days after the house opened.

"He reached out," recalled Wright. "He heard we were opening our doors.."

A private foundation, the Fisher House Foundation, donates the "comfort homes" built on the grounds of major military and VA medical centers.

Gondela goes in once or twice a week, calling the day before to let staff know, he said. He performs different jobs, answering the phone, ordering supplies, responding to general questions. Demand is strong.

"We've only got 20 rooms. We get them (calls) from all over the United States," he said.

The program "is so special," said Gondela, who compares the rooms and their furnishings to that of a top flight hotel. Some of the veterans at the hospital for special medical attention "have to have a caretaker to stay with us because they are immobile," he said.

Wright has been working at Hines VA for almost 19 years, including a stint in the spinal cord unit.

Before Fisher House, "the best we could do was give families a list of local hotels that would give a discounted rate," she said, "and then, even at a discounted rate, not too many families could afford it for more than a couple of days. So to be able to have a home-like environment that is completely free of charge for them to come to just means the world to them."

Gondela fits right in, putting families at ease, she said.

"With him also being a veteran who gets his care at Hines, he actually can provide some direction for our families who have questions who to go to or where to go," she added.